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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Will 'Lego-like' smartphones catch on?

by Mark Ollig

As children, many of us enjoyed playing with Lego building blocks.

Yours truly remembers using Legos for creating (what I thought was) an impressive-looking telephone I proudly showed off to my siblings.

It turns out the idea of building a phone using small, interchangeable modular blocks wasn’t such a far-off idea after all.

A new ground-breaking concept on how the next generation of smartphones may be constructed is currently being worked on.

And it definitely has a nostalgic Lego-like twist to it.

Phonebloks, a small company in the Netherlands, came up with the idea to create “a phone worth keeping.” They want to show the world there can be a smartphone created which the public will not need to dispose of when wanting a better model.

Their idea would also help reduce the growing problem of discarded electronic material referred to as E-waste.

An important benefit of having people keep their smartphones longer is the reduction in the amount of E-waste being accumulated in landfills each year.

One of the largest contributors to E-waste is discarded mobile devices.

A statement on Phoneblok’s website says, “The market of electronic devices is growing rapidly, but it feels like we are building disposable stuff. Every time we make something new, we completely throw away the old one. Imagine all the good displays, Bluetooth’s, and speakers we have thrown away.”

Phoneblok’s vision is to provide the public with a mobile device which is easily customizable and upgradable by simply using modularized, rectangular, plug-in parts called “bloks.”

Their Facebook page talks about a new type of smartphone which “would consist of a main [circuit] board onto which bloks could be snapped on by the user, like Legos. Each blok is responsible for a unique function of the phone.”

The bloks have attached metal connector pins, which when snapped onto the main board, complete the electrical, signaling, and logic connections.

People would no longer need to be buying a whole new smartdevice, thus reducing the E-waste caused by discarding smartphones which still have many working parts on them.

I noticed the idea of this totally new type of smartphone has gained a lot of attention; talk of it has spread quickly throughout the Internet’s popular social media streams.

The folks from Phonebloks met with various industry leaders, organizations, and companies to describe, in detail, their concept and hopes for creating a phone worth keeping.

The company which created the first mobile cellphone, Motorola became seriously interested, and is now acting upon Phoneblok’s idea.

“Recently, we met Dave Hakkens, the creator of Phonebloks. Turns out, we share a common vision: to develop a phone platform that is modular, open, customizable, and made for the entire world,” said Paul Eremenko, who is with Motorola’s Project Ara team.

Motorola’s Advanced Technology and Projects group has been working with the Project Ara team for over a year in hopes of turning this common vision into a reality.

This group is designing the new hardware modules and built-in software for the project.

While reading through Motorola’s online blog, I learned by creating customer upgradable smartphones, they hope to “... create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development timelines.”

One photograph presented the layout of the many types of smartphone modularization concept designs which could be used by end-users. They appeared somewhat futuristic, while physically displaying a logical-functional perspective.

You can see the concept photo designs at

The designs use what Motorola calls “endoskeleton and modules.”

The endoskeleton is the actual structural frame which holds all the modules (bloks) in place.

An individual module blok can be designed for use as a processor, antenna, data storage, camera, display screen, Wi-Fi, gyroscope, audio input, keyboard, an extra battery, or any future enhancement.

A medical “pulse oximeter” is one example of a module blok which could be plugged onto the smartphone’s main board.

One would be able to easily upgrade their existing smartphone to a faster processor by simply unplugging the old processor modular blok, and plugging in the new one.

To show Motorola is serious about the future of modularized smartphones, it has partnered with 3D Systems (a 3D printing company) to build new components using 3D printing technology.

I noted the modular blok components will be made using eco-friendly, biodegradable materials.

The Motorola Project Ara modularized smartphone will be using the Android OS (operating system).

As most of us know, Google owns the Android OS and Motorola.

Motorola said it is “developing a free, open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones.”

A module developer’s kit for start-up companies and software developers will soon be made available so they can begin creating prototype module bloks to be used with the new modularized smartphones.

So, how would you feel about being able to easily snap to a modular component blok onto your smartphone in order to upgrade or customize it?

We would be able to add a new feature, or replace any faulty module blok – instead of discarding and replacing the entire smartdevice.

I like this idea. It would reduce E-waste, and save us money from not having to purchase a brand-new smartphone so often.

We could also personalize our smartphones on an ongoing basis with the latest features we want on them.

No mention of pricing yet, but stay tuned – it appears we will be entering the Lego-like smartphone era soon.

Dave Hakkens of Phoneblocks posted an informative video less than a month ago on YouTube.

I hope you will watch it at:

For more information, visit:

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Thankful for technology, too

by Mark Ollig

During this week of Thanksgiving, many of us will be among family and friends.

We take time to pause and think of the people and things in our lives we are thankful for.

Being this is a technology column (with a sprinkling of self-deprecating humor yours truly likes to throw in), I thought it would be fitting to reflect upon some of the technology we can be thankful for.

When one pauses to think, it is surprising how immersed we have become with using technology in our daily lives during the last 20 years.

These days, the number of high-tech devices might seem overwhelming; however, here is an interesting perspective I would like to share with you.

Not long ago, I saw two photographs; one displaying high-tech devices used in 1993, and another showing what we regularly use today in 2013.

The first photograph showed eight devices sitting on a table we commonly used in 1993.

It displayed an OmniBook 300 laptop computer, a portable (although somewhat clunky) VCR recorder, a Motorola cellphone (otherwise known as “the brick”), an LCD watch, Walkman cassette AM-FM radio, Apple’s Newton Message Pad (or Notepad), a belt-worn pocket pager, and what appeared to be a Polaroid Vision Instamatic camera.

Those of us who used these devices usually had one concern in the back of our minds: did we have an ample supply of batteries on hand?

The second photograph displayed only one device: an Apple iPhone.

Of course, the two photographs deliver a message which makes perfect sense.

It causes one to realize just how far technology has come in the last 20 years; with the point being the small hand-held iPhone (and similar smartphones) has made things much easier in our lives by performing all the functions those eight separate devices provided for us in 1993.

Here’s a list of various technologies and popular devices we’ve seen during the last 20 years that some of us may be thankful for:

Talkboy cassette recorder, 1993

Sony Walkman WM-EX606 (cassette model), 1993

Internet search engine: ALIWEB, 1993

DirecTV Satellite TV, 1994

Google Blogger, 1994

Facebook, 1994

Bluetooth wireless, 1994

Sony PlayStation 1, 1995

GPS devices (public use), 1996

Motorola Flip-Phone, 1996

Pioneer DVD-R disc, 1997

MPMan F10 Portable MP3 player, 1998

Panasonic portable DVD player, 1998

HP optical computer mouse, 1998

TiVo Digital Video Recorder, 1999

IBM USB flash or “thumb” drive, 2000

IBM multi-core processors, 2001

Apple iPod, 2001

Mozilla Firefox Web browser, 2002

Blackberry smartphone, 2002

Microsoft Pocket PC , 2003

Samsung OLED TV, 2004

Microsoft Xbox 360, 2005

Twitter , 2006

Apple iPhone, 2007

Kindle e-book reader, 2007

Roku Internet video-streaming receiver box , 2008

Apple iPad, 2010

Trakdot Luggage Tracker , 2013

Sony Smartwatch 2, 2013

Google Glass , 2013

Let’s also not forget the technology which allows us to navigate over the network-of-networks: The Internet.

Many think of the Internet more as a place, rather than a complex arrangement of physical technological devices; however, the operation of the Internet is made possible in part because of the technology contained inside these devices.

Gateway devices such as routers send data messages through the network connections inside the Internet.

Fiber optic cables provide the physical transport layers and signaling pathways needed for us to access the Internet’s many interconnected networks.

We need to be thankful to Sir Tim Berners-Lee for his creation of the HyperText Markup Language (HTML) software code, which brought the World Wide Web onto the Internet.

Vinton Cerf and Robert Khan can be thanked for designing the TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) communication software code. TCP/IP ensures data is not lost while being transmitted between networking devices and computers over the Internet.

In March 1976, the telecommunications industry was thankful as it celebrated the centennial of Alexander Graham Bell’s contribution of a technology called the telephone – which, of course, changed how the world communicated.

Bell’s invention was also responsible for the founding of many locally-owned rural telephone companies all across the country.

Thirty-seven years ago, in March 1976, when my hometown’s telephone company was owned and operated by our family, my father was asked by the local paper to make a comment about Bells’ invention.

“I am thankful he [Bell] invented the telephone. If he hadn’t, I would have probably ended up in the Pony Express business; and that would have presented a problem for me because I can’t ride a horse,” I recall my father jokingly saying as the reporter smiled.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Newer cars vulnerable to hackers' 'mystery gadget'

by Mark Ollig

Today’s cars are equipped with sophisticated computer technologies, providing us with increased safety, improved mechanical efficiency, and some impressive high-tech devices.

It is said tens of millions of lines of computer programming instruction code are used for the digital components inside newer cars.

However, a major concern has arisen.

All of us know computers can be “hacked” into and taken over by computing enthusiasts with the right technical knowledge and access.

Today’s major concern is: cyber-car hacking.

Car thieves have figured out how to construct a wireless-operating gadget with the electronics and computer programming code required for gaining access into our cars and their internal computer controlling units.

Yes indeed, folks, yours truly watched a video of a person approaching a newer car and unlocking its doors with a “mystery gadget” resembling a garage door opener.

The first thought which came into my mind was “uh oh, they figured it out.”

The bad guys are now using wireless computing hacking methods to break into our cars.

Another video shows how a newer car in California was recently hacked. The car owner’s dash camera recorded the culprit while standing in front of the car.

The video shows this person using the handheld mystery gadget to wirelessly unlock the car doors – emulating the action of the car owner’s keyless entry or remote smart-key fob (frequency operated button).

The intruder hurriedly got inside the car.

After apparently searching for valuables, he got out of the car and quickly walked down the street – most likely to attempt another cyber-car hacking.

So, someone has figured out the code needed to manipulate our cars’ short-range keyless remote fob and command the doors to unlock . . . wonderful.

Oh, by the way, many smart-key fobs also open the trunk; and allow the starting of the engine using the car’s pushbutton ignition – making it easy pickings for a car thief using the mystery gadget.

In 2011, two University of Washington and University of California-San Diego researchers were able to wirelessly hack into and take control of cars.

They thoughtfully withheld details of the specific car models they were able to hack into in order to prevent potential cyber-car hackers from using the knowledge.

These same researchers published two studies explaining the weaknesses of today’s computer-controlled automobiles.

One study is called “Comprehensive Experimental Analyses of Automotive Attack Surface.” You can read it at:

In this study, I noted on page 3 a diagram showing the digital input/output (I/O) channels of a modern car’s Electronic Control Units (ECUs).

Access to these I/O channels can be obtained via the following methods:

• Indirect physical access.

• Short-range wireless access (Bluetooth).

• Long-range wireless access.

These I/O channels include the On-Board Diagnostic system information (OBD), which normally uses a 16-pin connector to physically interface with a display box to read the car’s stored codes for various operations, and to diagnose engine and electrical problems. The OBD information is usually retrieved via direct physical access; however, a Bluetooth interface is obtainable for wirelessly gathering OBD information from the car.

The study suggests a car’s telematics (telecommunications and informatics) control unit is possibly the most vulnerable to a long-range wireless attack.

Telematics integrates with the Earth-orbiting satellite Global Positioning System (GPS), and accesses the Internet via cellular voice and data networks.

Wireless roadside assistance services (such as Safety Connect) can link with the car’s telematics device and activate the code needed to remotely unlock a car door.

Telematics connections with cellular channels (which are accessible from a long range); provide another point of entry for potential cyber-car attackers.

“Our own group documented experiments on a complete automobile, demonstrating that if an adversary were able to communicate on one or more of a car’s internal network buses, then this capability could be sufficient to maliciously control critical components across the entire car,” the study stated.

We may soon be hearing stories about “wireless drive-by cyber-auto attacks.”

This phrase can be defined as when a cyber-car hacker inside the automobile driving next to you, wirelessly takes control and manipulates your car’s computerized electronic systems by accessing an I/O channel into one of your vehicle’s control systems.

Easy folks, let’s not panic just yet.

Combating cyber-car hacking includes using application-level authentication, code encryption, and security hardening of the car’s underlying computer-coding platform.

A cyber-car hacker, using an illegally rigged, wireless car door unlocking access device, sometimes just wants to remove the sellable items found inside the automobile.

One bit (no pun intended) of common sense from your car-caring columnist: do not keep valuables inside your car or trunk when it’s unattended.

I expect to see a “vehicle cyber-defense” organization established soon to combat these cyber-car hackers – if one hasn’t been established already.

Automobile makers need to be focused on delivering new cars with built-in cyber-security safeguards.

They also need better encryption defenses for the wireless smart-key fobs, and telematics in order to protect them from being hacked into.

The following are two video news reports uploaded to YouTube showing these cyber-car thieves in action.

Both and show surveillance video of cyber-car thieves using the mystery gadget to enter locked cars.

I think back to simpler car driving days, when I cruised around in a 1977 Plymouth Volaré.

Its car door unlocked using a physical key.

Also, the Volarés’ “advanced” electronics and wireless features were contained inside the AM-FM radio, and its 40-channel CB radio, which I regularly used.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Internet: a venue for animal-human communication?

by Mark Ollig

An idea was presented to the public recently during a TED talks forum.

TED stands for: Technology, Entertainment, and Design. It is a nonprofit organization which holds frequent conferences with speakers discussing new ideas and concepts before an audience.

We know dolphins, chimpanzees, orangutans, elephants, and other living creatures have incredible communication and learning abilities.

The question being discussed during the evening’s TED talk: is it possible for the Internet to become a venue for interaction with these sentient beings?

One guest speaker acknowledged coming up with smart interfaces is crucial.

It was disclosed how an interactive touch screen for dolphins is already under development.

For me, the evening’s highlight was a presentation given by Vinton Cerf, who co-designed the TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) communication language which made possible today’s Internet.

I was very attentive to his comments and observations as he spoke to the audience.

“When Bob [Robert Khan] and I did this design [TCP/IP], we thought we were building a system to connect computers together. What we very quickly discovered is this was a system for connecting people together,” Cerf explained.

He then showed the audience a picture of the Internet, as designed by a computer program.

The picture resembled one of those detailed deep-space photographs the Hubble telescope might have taken of some far- away galaxy full of densely packed stars and planets.

The photograph depicts the connectivity of the Internet, and how the approximately 400,000 networks are linked together.

Cerf said the only reason all of these networks are able to work, is because they share the same standard TCP/IP protocols.

He mentioned “The Internet of Things” whereby electronic devices are becoming a common part of the Internet; or, another Internet informational resource, if you will.

For some time, we have had the technological capability to remotely retrieve information, program, interact, and monitor home electronic devices connected to the Internet.

Remote access to our home devices can come in handy.

An example would be when we are at work and are alerted to motion detection at our home by means of a security app on our smart device. In my case, it might be on my iPhone. Someone is at the front door. We would be able to see on our mobile device’s screen that it is the repair technician via the front door security camera. Using our mobile device, we could talk to them over the front door speaker, and remotely unlock the door.

Practically any electronic device or appliance can be interfaced to the Internet using an IP address and be remotely accessed from an Apple iPhone, Samsung Galaxy, Motorola Droid, iPad, Kindle, MacBook ... the list goes on.

One home automation company called Belkin makes remotely-accessible electronic home devices.

You can reach its website at:

During the evening’s TED discussion, Cerf brought up who else should be having access to the Internet.

He talked about having an interface to the Internet for the animals and marine mammals with cognitive abilities – so they could interact with us.

“What you’ve seen tonight tells you that we should not restrict this network to one species,” Cerf paused, and then added; “these other intelligent sentient species should be part of this system, too.”

He stated we share a common sensory environment, and that we are beginning to explore with something which isn’t another person.

“Well, you see what is coming next,” Cerf added with a bit of dramatic flair.

He feels, someday, all kinds of sentient beings may interact with us through the Internet. “I can’t wait to see these experiments unfold,” Cerf said.

He went on to say there are machines that need to talk to machines, and machines we need to talk to.

As time goes on, we will have to learn how to better communicate with computers, and how we can adapt computers to communicate with us in ways we are familiar with.

Cerf implied this communication will not be by using a keyboard or a mouse. We will someday easily communicate with a computer using common speech and hand gestures – just as we would talk with any individual.

He then took it one step further by bringing up the Interplanetary Internet.

The Interplanetary Internet needs to use special networking protocols because of the distances encountered between connected electronic devices in space.

Cerf noted the Interplanetary Internet is currently operating between Earth and Mars, and on the International Space Station.

Yours truly wrote a column about the Interplanetary Internet 15 years ago. Here is a link for it:

Cerf then surprised me by disclosing a project being funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).

This always-observant columnist learned from Cerf that DARPA is funding a project designed for getting a spacecraft to the nearest star in 100 years’ time.

Cerf no doubt realizes the work being done using the Internet as a two-way communication venue between computers, humans, devices, and animal species, will prepare us for how we may someday be interacting with an alien intelligence from another world.

Vinton Cerf concluded his presentation by saying, “I can hardly wait.”

You can view TED talks covering numerous topics at: