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Amazon EC2 Underlies Kindle Tablet ‘Silk’ Browser

by Clint Boulton

A new browser called ‘Silk’ in Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet will use cloud power to speed content delivery

Amazon.com is using its cloud-based business computing platform to bolster its consumer electronics devices, equipping its new Kindle Fire tablet with a new mobile web browser called Silk.

Web browsing is a challenging task for today’s mobile browsers, as there is a lot of network latency for various page assets that require multiple requests.

Prioritisation

Amazon said a typical web page requires 80 files from 13 different domains. Couple that with the time the data traverses the network pipes and that confluence of processing activity bogs down web page rendering and adds seconds to page load times.

Silk uses a split browser paradigm that leverages Amazon’s Elastic Computer Cloud (EC2) web services cloud computing software. Silk lives on both the Kindle Fire and EC2 to boost the web page processing, using a complex prioritisation model to help resolve web content faster for users.

Anytime users browse the web on the Kindle Fire, they are tapping into Amazon’s cloud of thousands of servers and fat, network data pipes. Every time users click on a web page from the Fire, EC2 handles the rendering and provides it to the Fire on demand. Silk is a sort of limitless cache that doesn’t require data to reside on the Fire.

“Amazon Web Services has peering relationships with major Internet service providers, and many top sites are hosted on EC2,” Amazon explained. “This means that many web requests will never leave the extended infrastructure of AWS, reducing transit times to only a few milliseconds.”

While this seems easy enough in theory, there is a lot going on in the background, as the process takes into account network conditions, page complexity and cached content location. Amazon’s Silk team explained the process in more detail in this video.

Content services

The idea is to accelerate consumer access to Amazon’s array of content services, including Amazon Instant Video streaming movies and TV shows, Amazon Cloud Player streaming music service, Amazon’s Kindle bookstore and applications served from Amazon’s Android Appstore. The faster Amazon can speed users to their content of choice, the more content they can consume.

Moreover, Silk can improve with usage on the Kindle Fire. The browser tracks page characteristics by aggregating the results of millions of web pages that has loaded, and stores that information in the cloud on EC2 to accelerate content delivery. The browser also uses collaborate filtering to enable product recommendations.

Noting that split browser architecture is not new – Opera uses the same approach for its Mini mobile browser – IDC analyst Al Hilwa called Amazon’s strategy an “interesting spin on the me-too Android software we have seen so far, and possibly a game-changer.

“In one fell swoop Amazon harnesses its commanding lead in cloud services, the content richness of a leading online retailer and its successful Kindle business strategy to deliver what might become one of most effective antidotes to the mobile bandwidth crunch,” Hilwa told eWEEK.

Silk is currently exclusive to the Kindle Fire, which Amazon will begin selling on 15 November for $199.99 (£127). However, it is rumoured that Amazon has a 10-inch model in the pipeline to pump out to users if the 7-inch model sells well. Silk will clearly be part of that launch.

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Researchers Invent Everlasting Battery Material

 by Tom Jowitt

Could the days of the humble lithium-ion battery be numbered thanks to the everlasting battery?

Researchers at Stanford University have revealed a new nanoparticle material which could be used to create everlasting batteries suitable for electrical grids.

According to the researchers, the material could be used for batteries that would be good for 30 years of useful life. The short lifetime of large batteries has been a major drawback limiting their use, but the new material could produce batteries that could undergo 100 times as many charging cycles as today’s batteries.

Breakthrough Performance

The researchers said they used nanoparticles of a copper compound to develop a high-power battery electrode that is inexpensive to make, rechargeable, very efficient and extremely durable.

The potential for this technology is exciting because it could solve one of the major problems associated with wind turbines and solar panels  – that power is only delivered with the sun shines or the wind blows. The super-battery would store power until it is needed.

The researchers have not yet built the revolutionary battery itself, but the crystalline copper-based nanoparticles would be a key component for its electrodes.

Apparently, in laboratory tests, the electrode survived a staggering 40,000 cycles of charging and discharging, after which it could still be charged to more than 80 percent of its original charge capacity. The average lithium ion battery in comparison can only handle about 400 charge/discharge cycles before it deteriorates too much to be of practical use.

“At a rate of several cycles per day, this electrode would have a good 30 years of useful life on the electrical grid,” said Colin Wessells, a graduate student in materials science and engineering who is the lead author of a paper describing the research, published in Nature Communications.

“That is a breakthrough performance – a battery that will keep running for tens of thousands of cycles and never fail,” said Yi Cui, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, who is Wessell’s adviser and a co-author of the paper.

How It Works

It seems that the electrode’s durability is down to the atomic structure of the crystalline copper hexacyanoferrate used to make it. These crystals apparently have an open framework that allows ions – those electrically charged particles whose movements en masse either charge or discharge a battery – to easily go in and out without damaging the electrode. Most batteries apparently fail or deteriorate because of accumulated damage to the crystal structure.

“Because the ions can move so freely, the electrode’s cycle of charging and discharging is extremely fast, which is important because the power you get out of a battery is proportional to how fast you can discharge the electrode,” the researchers said.

The researchers said that they had to use the right size ions to make use of the open framework, because too small they would stick to one side of an atom, and too big they could damage the crystal structure when they moved in and out of the electrode.

Apparently the right-sized ion turned out to be hydrated potassium, a much better fit compared with other hydrated ions such as sodium and lithium.

“It fits perfectly – really, really nicely,” said Cui. “Potassium will just zoom in and zoom out, so you can have an extremely high-power battery.”

Battery Developments

Meanwhile the race by researchers to improve the performance of batteries continues.

Back in March, a team of electrical engineers at Illinois University revealed they were developing a new type of battery that could extend the running time of mobile phones a hundredfold.

That battery uses carbon nanotubes, which are 10,000 times thinner than a human hair, rather than traditional metal wires. According to the engineers, the energy consumption of a battery is proportional to the size of the components used to store and retrieve information, so smaller wires result in lower energy usage.

Other researchers from the University of Maryland have also been working to improve the capacity of lithium-ion batteries. Last year it was reported that a biological virus known as the Tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) could increase the surface area of electrodes in a battery, resulting in a ten-fold increase in energy capacity.

Meanwhile in September scientists at the University of Leeds invented a jelly lithium battery. The flexible polymer gel batteries can be shaped and bent to fit virtually any device and can be made just nanometres thick at a rate of ten metres per minute.

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The CRC: Not Yet A Premier League

 by Peter Judge

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This year’s Energy Efficiency league table is just a friendly match, says Peter Judge. Next year it could be a fixture worth watching.

So Manchester United are top of the energy efficiency league. At the time of writing, the well-known football team also appears to be second in the Premier League.

The football tables may or may not be of interest to you, but the efficiency result is to me. The Environment Agency has published a list which ranks 2000 UK businesses according to their environmental performance in the first league table produced for the CRC energy Efficiency Scheme.

Tech firms did poorly in the league, with some hitting the bottom score of 402.  Meanwhile at the top (on 2092.5 points) came a couple of Government departments and British American Tobacco… and Manchester United.

That’s not the greatest endorsement of the quality of the list, I am afraid.

Selling and advertising products which burden the Health Service and kill people, lying about their effects for as long as you can, and then lobbying governments to continue doing so don’t strike me as very efficient activities.

On a lesser scale, Man Utd’s activity is essentially entertainment. To someone who is not interested it looks wasteful on every level, from players’ pay and the energy wasted in broadcasting matches, down to the price of replica kit.

It’s all about metering

More seriously though, what is the CRC league measuring?

The league is the last vestige of an originally very complicated scheme proposed by the Labour government, which would have given companies back money if they did well on efficiency. The payback is gone, leaving CRC as a “green tax” but the league remains as a “name-and-shame” device.

At this point, it is all about how well you are measuring your electricity use and whether you have been good and signed up to a scheme like the Carbon Trust standard.

The top 22 companies are metering all their electricity with half-hourly meters and have signed up to a Carbon measurement programme. Anyone who doesn’t do these things goes further down the list.

This is dressed up in quite a complex way. The amount of your power that is metered and whether you have signed up to a scheme get combined into an “early action metric”, which is then used as the basis for a “weighted score”.

In future this score will take into account how much your energy use has changed year on year, so companies have an incentive to be efficient. It will also include a “growth metric” which talks about carbon emissions per unit of turnover – so companies are not penalised for growing.

These future complications don’t apply in the first year. This year it is all about metering, and signing up to a scheme.

It’s disappointing to find tech firms aren’t very clued up on these issues, although we can hope they will do better in years to come – but we should be well aware that, this year, the results really don’t mean very much.

Anyone can meter their electricity and sign on with the Carbon Trust and go on killing the planet. And the companies that haven’t bothered yet, may turn out to be running very efficiently, thank you.

Give CRC a sporting chance

We can expect a storm of protest about the CRC of course. It will force companies to do the two things they hate most. Pay money, and secondly publish information about their workings.

Companies will have to pay more for their energy in effect, when they must buy credits. And they will have to keep publishing information in the CRC table in future years.

Already sworn enemies are lining up to criticise it. Network giant Cisco took the top spot last year in Greenpeace’s “Cool IT” leaderboard for green IT companies, but came in at number 537 on the CRC list. It says the league table doesn’t give people credit for reducing their carbon emissions by buying new (presumably Cisco) kit.

Friends of ours at second-hand network company Comtek got in touch to criticse the scheme for exactly the opposite reason. By not taking into account the embodied energy of new kit, it actually encourages wasteful purchases, says chief executive Askar Sheibani.

I’ll look into that argument in a future column.

For now though I’ll toast the future success of the CRC scheme, if it can survive the brutal kicking it will get from industry lobbyists, and the shaky support it will have from Conservative politicians.

Yes, companies will pay more for electricity. That is how we will be persuaded to use less.

And yes, companies will have to be more open about what they are doing. Even the environmental scientists found out the hard way that openness is good. Industrial players are used to playing their cards close to their chest and that will have to change.

So, this premier edition of the CRC league is really just a friendly match. In years to come, it will be a sporting fixture worth watching.

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Logitech Axes Google TV Efforts

 by Clint Boulton

Logitech has given up on its Google TV-based Revue device, after losing $100 million

Logitech chief executive Guerrino De Luca didn’t mince words in announcing that the peripherals maker was giving up on its Logitech Revue companion box, noting that the Google TV device cost the company more than $100 million (£62m) in operating profits.

Google TV is the search engine provider’s stab at combining elements of TV programming with web surfing, including the delivery of entertainment and gaming applications through set-top boxes such as the Revue. Logitech launched the Revue, powered by Google’s Android software and an Intel Atom chip, for $300 last October with high hopes of selling hundreds of thousands of the boxes for the Christmas season.

No traction

The Revue failed to gain traction as reviewers and early adopters found the system difficult to set up and the Google TV service itself too buggy. Logitech discounted the Revue to $99 this past July after the company confessed that returns of the box were greater than sales.

Partly due to this failure, Logitech lost $30 million in the first quarter and took a $34 million charge. Logitech’s board promptly fired then-chief executive Gerald Quindlen.

Logitech had been pretty hush-hush about the Revue since then until De Luca dropped the hammer on the ill-fated device during the company’s analyst day on 10 November. The company will no longer make the Revue boxes. While he conceded Google TV has great potential to “disrupt the living room”, Logitech made “a mistake of implementation of a gigantic nature” with the Revue.

Specifically, he suggested the software wasn’t polished and that there wasn’t enough content to draw consumer interest. Google TV launched with Netflix and Amazon Instant Video applications, but most TV broadcast networks failed to provide content for the service. Google, for example, failed to get TV network-backed Hulu to support its TV project.

Google was also late rolling out its long-anticipated Google TV 2.0 Honeycomb upgrade, which features Android Market application support but didn’t arrive until late October.

“To make the long story short, we thought we had invented sliced bread, and we just made them,” De Luca said during the analyst day, according to transcription notes provided by Seeking Alpha. “We just built a lot because we expected everybody to line up for Christmas and buy these boxes for $300, and that was a big mistake.”

Prudent approach

He added that he was amenable to supporting Google TV in the future, but only once the service is established and with a smaller, more prudent approach.

What does this mean for Logitech Revue users? Google told eWEEK the Revue would still receive the Google TV 2.0 Honeycomb 3.1 upgrade that is currently rolling out to users of Sony Google TV systems.

“Logitech has been a good partner in the early days of Google TV, and the feedback from Revue users has been very important for the design of the new version of Google TV announced two weeks ago,” a Google spokesperson told eWEEK.

“We’re excited about new partnerships with new chipset vendors and new hardware manufacturers, which we will announce at a later date. These partnerships will help power the next generation of Google TV devices in 2012.”

One of those providers looks to be LG Electronics, which Bloomberg said would be launching a Google TV set at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in January.