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Apple’s new OS geared for multicore future

September 2, 2009 Leave a comment

Apple began shipping Snow Leopard on Friday, but the true importance of the Mac OS X update likely will emerge well afterward.

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That’s because Mac OS X 10.6 begins a longer-term Apple attempt to get ahead by cracking a problem facing the entire computer industry: squeezing useful work out of modern processors. Instead of stuffing Snow Leopard with immediately obvious new features, Apple is trying to adjust to the new reality in which processors can do many jobs simultaneously rather than one job fast.

“We’re trying to set a foundation for the future,” said Wiley Hodges, director of Mac OS X marketing.

Apple shed some light on its project, called Grand Central Dispatch, at its Worldwide Developer Conference in June, but most real detail was shared only in with programmers sworn to secrecy. Now the company has begun talking more publicly about it and other deeper projects to take advantage of graphics chips and Intel’s 64-bit processors.

The moves align Apple better with changes in computing. For years, chipmakers such as Intel and Advanced Micro Devices had steadily increased the clock rate of their processors, and programmers got accustomed to a performance boost with each new generation. But earlier this decade, problems derailed the gigahertz train.

First, chips often ended up merely twiddling their thumbs more because slower memory couldn’t keep the chip fed with data. Worse, the chips required extraordinary amounts of power and produced corresponding amounts of hard-to-handle waste heat.

And so began the mainstream multicore era, in which processors got multiple computing engines called cores that work in parallel. That’s great for some tasks that can be easily broken down into independent pieces, but programmers were accustomed to a more linear way of thinking where tasks execute in a series of sequential steps.

Enter Grand Central Dispatch, or GCD. This Snow Leopard component is designed to minimize many of the difficulties of parallel programming. It’s easy to modify existing software to use GCD, Apple said, and the operating system handles complicated administrative chores so programmers don’t have to.

Overall, Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff believes, the computing industry really is only beginning now to tackle parallel programming in earnest. If building mature parallel programming tools is a 10-chapter book, the industry is only at chapter two right now, he said. But with no other alternative, the book will be written.

“It has to happen,” Haff said. “If you look at history of information technology, things that have to happen really do happen.”

Burdensome threads
One way programmers have dealt with the arrival of multicore processors–and with the multiprocessor machines that preceded them–is through a concept called threads. There are various types, but generally speaking, a thread is an independent computing operation. For programmers to take advantage of multicore processor, they assign one thread to each core, and away they go, right?

Not so fast. Threads come with baggage. Each requires memory and time to start. Programs should be broken up into different numbers of threads depending on how many cores a processor offers. Programmers have to worry about “locking” issues, providing a mechanism to ensure one thread doesn’t change data another thread is already using. And one threaded program might step on the toes of another running at the same time.

Some tools to ease the difficulties, such as Intel Threading Building Blocks, are available, but threads remain complicated.

“We looked at this and said it needs a fundamental rethink. We want to making developing applications for multicore easier,” Hodges said. “We’re moving responsibility for the management code into the operating system so application developers don’t have to write and maintain it.”

Blocking and tackling
The core mechanisms within GCD are blocks and queues. Programmers mark code chunks to convert them into blocks, then tells the application how to create the queue that governs how those blocks are actually run. Block execution can be tied to specific events–the arrival of network information, a change to a file, a mouse click.

Apple hopes programmers will like blocks’ advantages: Older code can easily be retrofitted with blocks so programmers can try it without major re-engineering; they’re lightweight and don’t take up resources when they’re not running; and they’re flexible enough to encapsulate large or small parts of code.

“There’s a lot of overhead around threading that means you want to break your program into as few pieces as possible. With Grand Central Dispatch, we say break your program into as many tiny pieces as you can conceive of,” Hodges said.

Another difference with the Grand Central Dispatch approach is its centralization. The operating system worries about managing all applications’ blocks rather than each application providing its own oversight. That central view means the operating system decides which tasks get which resources, Apple said, and that the system overall can become more responsive even when it’s busy.

Other foundations
There’s a second mechanism in Snow Leopard that gives a new way for programmers tap into hardware power: OpenCL, or Open Computing Language. It lets computers use graphics chips not just to accelerate graphics but also some ordinary computations.

To use OpenCL, programmers write modules of code in a variation of the C programming language called OpenCL C. Snow Leopard translates that code on the fly into instructions the graphics chip can understand and transfers necessary data into the graphics system memory. Many tasks won’t benefit, but OpenCL is good for videogame physics simulation or artificial intelligence algorithms, technical computing chores, and multimedia operations.

The three major makers of graphics chips–Intel, Nvidia, and AMD’s ATI–have endorsed OpenCL, and the Khronos Group has made it a standard. That means programmers are likely to be able to reuse their OpenCL code with Windows applications, too.

Graphics processors employ parallel engines that suit them for running the same processing chore on many data elements. For computers without a graphics chip, though, OpenCL also can employ that parallel execution strategy on ordinary multicore processors.

The 64-bit transition
Apple began its 64-bit transition years ago with the PowerPC processors it used before switching to Intel chips. With Snow Leopard, nearly the full suite of its software–Mail, Safari, Finder, iChat, QuickTime–become 64-bit programs.

ntel chips these days are 64-bit, but what does that get you over 32-bit chips? Briefly, it can let heavy-duty programs use more than 4GB of memory, improve performance by offering more chip memory slots called registers, and speed up some mathematical operations.

Moving to a 64-bit design doesn’t guarantee instant speedup, though. In one developer document, Apple states: “Myth: My application will run much faster if it is a ‘native’ 64-bit application. Fact: Some 64-bit executables may run more slowly on 64-bit Intel and PowerPC architectures.” One issue: the doubled length of references to memory addresses.

Apple encourages programmers to test their software to see if the 64-bit incarnation is faster. All Apple’s own applications that moved to 64-bit versions are faster, the company said.

The 32-bit kernel
However, the core component of Mac OS X, the kernel, is still 32-bit software by default on consumer machines such as MacBooks and iMacs. Apple has written it so that applications can handle more than 4GB of memory, though, and the kernel can manage it all.

In its developer document on 64-bit performance, Apple states: “Myth: The kernel needs to be 64-bit in order to be fully optimized for 64-bit processors. Fact: The kernel does not generally need to directly address more than 4 GB of RAM at once.”

Apple’s 32-bit kernel hits limits with very large amounts of memory, though. “Thus, beginning in Snow Leopard, the kernel is moving to a 64-bit executable on hardware that supports such large memory configurations,” its Xserve server line and Mac Pro workstations, the company said.

The tricky aspect of moving from a 32-bit kernel to 64-bit kernel is that drivers–software that let the operating system communicate with devices such as printers, video cards, and hard drives–must also be 64-bit. That’s not so bad when it’s a hardware device under Apple’s control, but it’s harder to move the full collection of third-party devices with their own drivers.

Apple argues it’s not hard to make the jump, though. “As a driver developer, you must update your drivers with 64-bit binaries. Fortunately…many drivers ‘just work’ after changing the compile settings,” the company said in a reference document.

This all may sound very low-level, but for programmers, Apple actually is working at a higher level than most. That could be an asset since many attempts to embrace parallel programming imposed more demands than most programmers were willing or able to handle.

And attracting programmers is key. Ultimately, Apple’s deeper technology moves such as Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL will be a success only if the company can get other developers to use them.

Researchers seek funds to study cell phone safety

September 2, 2009 1 comment

Are cell phones safe? For years, studies have provided conflicting conclusions. Today, there is still no clear answer. But experts agree on one thing: more research is needed to find out the answer.

In an effort to raise awareness among consumers and to urge government leaders to allocate more funding for research, an international group of researchers is gathering in Washington, D.C. later this month to present study findings and to lobby government officials.

The issue has already gained the attention of at least one important congressional leader. On September 14, Sen. Arlen Specter, a Democrat from Pennsylvania and the former ranking minority leader for the Senate’s Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, will chair a hearing questioning scientists involved in the latest research. Researchers are hopeful that Specter, who was instrumental in increasing funding for the National Institutes of Health from $12 billion to nearly $30 billion and has long championed funding for cancer research, will introduce legislation that specifically asks for more funding for research in this area. But so far Specter hasn’t indicated one way or another if he will try to get money allocated specifically for cell phone health-related research.

“There is cause for concern,” said Dr. Henry Lai, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, who has been studying the effects of cell phone radiation on humans since 1980. “But to prove that cell phones cause cancer or other health problems will take more work. At this point the biological research suggests that long term use can have some adverse health effects, with brain cancer being one of those effects.”

The conference, which runs September 13 to 15, is being sponsored by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, University of Pittsburgh, National Research Center for Women & Families, The International Commission for Electromagnetic Safety, The Flow Fund Circle, and the Environmental Health Trust.

Researchers from around the globe are expected to attend the event, including leading scientists from Western and Northern Europe, where cell phones have been used for much longer than they have in the U.S. Some of these researchers, including Devra Davis, professor of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh and the primary organizer of the conference, are likely to testify at the Senate hearing.

Longtime debate
For years, researchers and scientists have debated whether radiation from radio frequencies used to wirelessly transmit phone calls could adversely affect the health of cell phone users. And as more people throughout the world use cell phones and make these devices an integral part of their lives, concerns have grown as to long-term public health issues.

In the U.S. alone, more than 270 million Americans or more than 87 percent of the U.S. population, now owns a cell phone, according to 2008 data compiled by the CTIA, the wireless industry’s trade association.

Experts say the concern over cell phone use stems from a form of radiation that’s produced when these wireless devices communicate with cell towers using radio frequency. High-frequency radiation, such as the kind that’s used in X-rays, is known to cause cancer in high doses.

Cell phones emit much lower frequency radiation, but it’s unknown whether these milder forms of RF can cause adverse biological changes to humans. But the fact that cell phones are often held close to the body either right alongside the head or in a pocket, has caused some concern among researchers who believe that radio frequency energy is being absorbed into the body and can cause damage to cells or even alter cell phone users’ DNA. Even holding a phone 10 millimeters away from your head could decrease the exposure of RF radiation to the body by about 100 times, Davis said.

So far the research seems to be split in terms of the risk of this radiation exposure. An ongoing multinational initiative known as Interphone, has yielded mixed results so far. Meanwhile, some studies have found no correlation at all between cellphone use and brain tumors.

But a handful of studies that have looked at the long-term effects of using cell phones suggest that people who use a cell phone for at least an hour each day over a 10-year period are at an increased risk of developing brain tumors. This research also suggests that these tumors are more likely to be on the side of the head where the phone is most often used.

More recently, researchers have grown particularly concerned about the adverse effects that cell phone usage could have on children. Some Swedish research indicates that children are five times more likely to get brain cancer if they use mobile phones, but other research efforts have found results inconclusive.

The kid factor
One reason for concern is the fact that children who start using cell phones at a young age will inevitably be exposed for a longer period of time over their entire lifetime to cell phone radiation. But researchers are also concerned about the risk of cell phones with children, because children’s nervous systems are not fully developed. Also their brains contain more fluid than brains of adults, which allows for deeper penetration of radiation. And finally, children’s skulls are not as thick as those of adults.

“The reality is that the head of a child is different in terms of density of the bone and the amount of fluid in the brain than that of an adult,” Davis said. “And we know that the more fluid there is an object, the more deeply the radio signal can penetrate.”

Because cell phones have only really been used widely since about the 1990s, research on long-term health effects is limited. But research on the effects on children is even more scarce.

Still, there has been enough concern among public health officials in various parts of the world to warrant warnings.

For example, the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK), a government regulatory body located in the home country of Nokia, the largest cell phone maker in the world, is urging parents to restrict cell phone use for children, suggesting parents encourage kids to text rather than talk.

“Although research to date, has not demonstrated health effects from mobile phone’s radiation, precaution is recommended for children as all of the effects are not known,” the agency’s Web site reads.

France has even proposed banning advertisements encouraging children younger than 12 to use cell phones. And it has also warned parents that children under six are particularly at risk. Legislation in France would also make it illegal to sell a mobile phone without earphones, and the government is looking into limiting the amount of radiation that a phone is allowed to emit.

FDA’s stance
The Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. does not go as far as issuing a warning. But the agency recommends minimizing any potential risk by using hands-free devices and keeping cell-phone talk to a minimum.

The Federal Communications Commission in the U.S. also requires manufacturers to report the relative amount of RF absorbed into the head by any given cell phone. This number is known as the SAR, or specific absorption rate, and the agency publishes those figures for consumers to review. CNET has used this information to publish its cell phone radiation level chart.

But researchers such as Davis say more needs to be done.

“The big question to me is why has Finland, the land of Nokia, issued a warning?” she said. “Why has France issued the same warning? And why has Israel, which doesn’t even have a Clean Air Act, issued a warning on a government Website about children using cell phones? And in the U.S. we have no such warnings.”

The wireless industry itself has resisted warnings or restrictions for its products. And it often points to research indicating that there is no link between cancer or other harmful health effects and cell phone use.

“The peer-reviewed scientific evidence has overwhelmingly indicated that wireless devices do not pose a public health risk,” the CTIA said in a statement. “In addition, there is no known mechanism for microwave energy within the limits established by the FCC to cause any adverse health effects. That is why the leading global heath organizations such as the American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute, World Health Organization, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration all have concurred that wireless devices are not a public health risk.”

No government funding
While they have stopped short of issuing warnings, U.S. government agencies along with other governmental agencies such as the European Union, have said that more studies are needed to determine whether there are any health risks associated with cell phone usage.

But the big problem in the U.S. is that there is no government funding available for such research.

“There has been zero money available for research on the effects of cell phone radiation for about the last 10 years,” Lai said. “So there has really been no independent research done in the U.S. for at least a decade. Research is being done in Europe or the Far East, such as in China or Japan or in Israel. Even Canada has made some money available for research.”

Because there has been no money available in the U.S., Lai, who was a pioneer in studying the biological effects of cell phone radiation on humans, has turned his research attention toward studying medical applications for electro magnetic fields.

“Fifteen years ago, we were at the cutting edge of this research,” he said. “But now in the U.S., we are not involved in the study of the epidemiology of cell phone use at all. We are like a Third World country.”

This is likely what Sen. Specter, who is a cancer survivor himself and a champion for medical research funding, will try to rectify through the Senate hearings that will take place on Capitol Hill later this month.

Researchers, such as Davis and Lai, say their goal is not to demonize the cell phone industry or even suggest that the government ban the use of cell phones. But they believe that the public needs to be aware of the risks associated with using these devices and that more research is needed to identify these risks and to come up with ways to make them safer.

And while these researchers can’t say definitively that cell phones pose a public health issue today, they fear that without careful study and modification, these devices could cause an epidemic of cancer and other health problems in the future, since it can take decades for cancer and other maladies to manifest.

“Cell phones are very useful,” Lai said. “So I’m not saying we should throw them away. But we need to face the reality that there could be some adverse effects that come up in the next 10, 20 or 30 years. And we need to find ways to prevent or modify phones to make these devices less harmful. But to do that, we first need to understand how radiation affects us. And we need the money to conduct this research.”

Nokia unveils N97 Mini, plus Netbook pricing

September 2, 2009 Leave a comment

Nokia, the world’s largest maker of cell phones, on Wednesday announced new phones loaded with more music features and better integration with Facebook, as well as pricing for its upcoming Netbook.

The company announced the new phones and services at its Nokia World Conference in Stuttgart, Germany.

Tops on the list of new phones is the N97 Mini, a slightly smaller version of Nokia’s existing flagship N97 smartphone. This new, smaller N97 has a shorter battery life than the earlier device and also less memory (8GB compared to 32GB), and a smaller touch-screen display. The device is expected to ship in October. Its list price at 450 euros, or about $639, is not much less than that of the full-fledged N97, which initially went on sale in the U.S. for $700.

The new N97 Mini also will have Nokia’s Comes With Music service integrated. This service increases the cost of the device, but provides users with a free download music service. And the device will be the first Nokia phone to have tighter integration with the popular social networking site Facebook. Nokia has struck a deal with Facebook to let users update their location and status directly to the Web site through a Nokia Ovi account.

Nokia plans to offer the Facebook integration on other phones as well.

The handset maker also announced two new music phones: the X6 and the X3. The X6, which has a touch screen and 32GB of built-in memory, will be Nokia’s new flagship music phone. The company expects to ship the new phone in the fourth quarter for a list price of 450 euros, or $639. As with the N97, users will also get the Comes With Music service bundled into the phone.

Nokia is the world’s leading cell phone maker with close to 40 percent worldwide market share. Recently it has been trying to diversify its business by offering its cell phone users online services, such as music downloads, games, and maps. The company created its Ovi service platform as a repository for all of these functions and hopes that one day all Nokia phone customers will use their Ovi accounts to access and manage their music, video, and photos.

But even though Nokia estimates that the global online market will reach 100 billion euros by 2010, the company must continue to feed its core device business with new phones. There’s no question that Nokia is still the leader in the overall cell phone market. It has done especially well providing low-cost devices to the developing world, but it has been challenged to keep up with innovations in the smartphone category.

Even though Nokia is the No. 1 smartphone maker worldwide, it’s losing market share to players such as Apple with the iPhone and Research In Motion with its BlackBerry. Nokia is particularly challenged in the U.S., where it is virtually non-existent and lacks key carrier relationships for its hottest devices.

Unfortunately, the new phones announced at the Nokia World are unlikely to slow its slide in the high end of the market. While the devices mark improvements for Nokia’s overall product line, they are not revolutionary with respect to other products that they will compete with on the worldwide market.

Still, Nokia is not giving up. The phone maker announced last month a relationship with Microsoft to develop a version of Microsoft’s Office software for Nokia handsets. And last week, it also announced its N900 smartphone, its first Linux-based phone, which is expected to compete more directly with the iPhone and a flood of Google Android phones due to hit the market later this year and early next year.

In yet another attempt to diversify, Nokia also plans to offer more sophisticated hardware, in the form of a mini-laptop or Netbook–last week it announced the new device, dubbed the Nokia Booklet 3G (watch a video here). At the event in Germany on Wednesday it announced that it will ship the mini laptop in the fourth quarter with a list price tag of 575 euros, or about $817.

What makes Nokia’s Netbook different from others in the category is that the device will have GPS embedded to provide access to Nokia’s Ovi Maps software and service.

iPhone 3G S Revealed by Apple

August 19, 2009 Leave a comment

The fastest, most powerful iPhone to be reavealed, the new iPhone™ 3G S has been announced by Apple. It has some new features which include longer battery life with up to twice as fast improved speed and performance as iPhone 3G, a high-quality 3 megapixel autofocus camera, easy to use video recording capability and hands free voice control. The world’s most advanced mobile operating system with over 100 new features such as Cut, Copy and Paste, MMS, Spotlight Search, landscape keyboard and more, the new iPhone OS 3.0 is available with iPhone 3G S. The biggest application store in the world where customers have already downloaded over one billion apps, App Store, offers iPhone 3G S customers access to more than 50,000 applications. With an iPhone 3G S 16GB model for just $199 and a new 32GB model for just $299, it offers twice the capacity for the same price, Apple is now offering the iPhone 3G at the breakthrough price of just $99 for the 8GB model.

Apple’s senior vice president of WorldWide Product Marketing, Philip Schiller, declared: “iPhone 3G S is the fastest, most powerful iPhone yet and we think people will love the incredible new features including autofocus camera, video recording and the freedom of voice control.” He continued: “And with a breakthrough price of $99, we are thrilled to get iPhone 3G into the hands of even more users who want them.”

Averaging up to twice as fast as iPhone 3G, iPhone 3G S offers more speed and performance, allowing you to render web pages quicker and launch applications faster. Mobile gaming and other graphic intense applications are better than ever with iPhone 3G S as it takes advantage of the OpenGL ES 2.0 standard for stunning high-quality 3D graphics. Along with being faster, iPhone 3G S also offers longer battery life so you can watch more videos, listen music much longer, browse the Internet or keep using your favorite apps more than ever until now. 7.2 Mbps HSDPA for faster networking speeds is a new feature of the new iPhone 3G S.

Now, its easier than ever to capture, edit and share pictures and videos instantly with family and friends with the new 3 megapixel autofocus camera from iPhone 3G S. Coming with an automatic macro focus for extra close up shots, the new autofocus camera adjusts focus, exposure, color and contrast to render the best possible image. The “tap to focus” feature allows you to select an object or area of interest and the camera automatically re-adjusts focus and exposure only by touching the display.

You have hand free operation for iPhone and iPod® functions with the new voice control feature in iPhone 3G S. You just have to say the appropriate commands into the built-in microphone or headset microphone and you are able to dial by name or number. You can listen to your favorite music sorting it by artist, album or playlist with voice control. You can use the command to pause the music, play the next track, turn on shuffle or to find out what song are you listening to right now by just saying it to your iPhone.

A very cool feature of the iPhone 3G S is the built-in digital compass for instant navigation, showing you which way you are headed and rotating as you change direction. The digital compass it automatically orients any map to the direction you are facing because is also integrated within Maps.

People with disbilities have new tools in their hands with a screen reader that speaks what appears on the iPhone 3G S display, called VoiceOver, a new universal Zoom function which can magnify the entire screen, a new feature called White on Black which reverses the colors on screen to provide higher contrast for people with low vision, and the Mono Audio function which combines left and right audio channels so that they can be heard in both earbuds for those with hearing loss in one ear.

More than 100 new features including: Cut, Copy and Paste; Spotlight Search to search across iPhone or within Mail, Contacts, Calendar and iPod; MMS; landscape keyboard for Messages, Mail, Notes and Safari®; expanded parental controls for TV shows, movies and apps from the App Store; and the ability to capture and send audio recordings on the go with the new Voice Memo app are available on the iPhone 3G S with iPhone OS 3.0 software. The software is offering a new feature called Find My iPhone which works together with MobileMe to help you locate your lost iPhone on a map, send a message that will appear on the screen, and even play a sound to help you find it even if your phone is set to silent. The new Remote Wipe feature allows you to erase all data and content on your iPhone in the case you cannot find your iPhone.