Infotech Briefs

MILESTONE

Insects such as water striders can walk on water – and now robots can too. Metin Sitti, an engineering professor who heads Carnegie Mellon University’s Nano-Robotics Lab, has built an eight-legged mechanical creature that’s so light – about one gram – that it can stand on water and propel itself forward without breaking the water’s surface. Equipped with tiny sensors, Sitti says, future water-striding robots could be used to monitor water quality or snoop on enemies.

ADVANCE

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Traditional cell phones have so few keys that typing text messages is a hassle, but PDAs with full Qwerty keyboards have so many keys that each one is tiny. The latest smart phone from Waterloo, Ontario, handheld manufacturer Research in Motion, the Blackberry 7100t, splits the difference with a 20-key keyboard. Most of the keys have two letters, and the phone’s software guesses which one the user intends by reading previous letters and searching a 30,000-word internal dictionary. The software uses corrections, word frequency, and the user’s address book to improve its predictions over time.

SETBACK

Longhorn, Microsoft’s successor to its three-year-old Windows XP operating system, won’t be ready for launch until 2006, the company said in August. That’s more than a year later than originally projected, and it means rival operating systems such as Linux will have more time to get footholds before Microsoft upgrades its flagship product. At the same time, Microsoft said one much vaunted feature of Longhorn – a storage system called WinFS that will let programs such as Outlook, Word, and Excel share data more easily – won’t be included in the operating system’s first release after all.

RECORD

Most Wi-Fi hot spots are no larger than your neighborhood Starbucks. But in the state of Washington, Columbia Energy, a subsidiary of one of the state’s oldest rural electric cooperatives, is using the wireless technology to bring high-speed Internet service to underserved rural areas. It’s creating what could be the world’s largest area with continuous Wi-Fi coverage: a 9,600-square-kilometer area spreading across parts of Walla Walla, Columbia, and Umatilla Counties.

ACQUISITION

Qualcomm, the San Diego–based maker of communications chips for cell phones, has agreed to pay $170 million to acquire Iridigm, a San Francisco company developing microelectromechanical displays for mobile devices that work on the same principle as the iridescence of a butterfly’s wing. Qualcomm says it hopes to speed up commercialization of Iridigm’s displays, which should cost less to manufacture than the conventional liquid-crystal displays found in most cell phones and PDAs.

METRIC

With a digital camera, you don’t have to get film developed to see how your pictures came out. Nonetheless, a growing number of U.S. amateur photographers are ordering prints of their digital photos – meaning steady business for photofinishers despite a big drop-off in sales of traditional film.

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