Originally created 03/27/06

Techbits: Plastic semiconductors, Online news

Plastic could lower device prices

SAN FRANCISCO - Researchers have developed an ultra-thin plastic that allows an electrical charge to pass through it at speeds never before seen, a discovery that could dramatically drive down the cost of flat-panel monitors and other devices.

The plastic, which resembles cellophane when applied to electronic components, could one day replace the chemicals used to manufacture monitors and so-called radio frequency identification chips, which are used to keep track of store inventories, fleets of trucks and herds of cattle.

Researchers have long searched for alternatives to the silicon-based material used in today's devices. The plastic material, known as liquid-crystalline polymers, have been viewed as a key contender, but until now electrical charges haven't been able to travel through it at speeds required by electronic devices.

But a team of scientists led by Ian McCulloch of Merck Chemicals in the United Kingdom, has found a way to boost electrical performance in polymers six-fold, putting the substance on par with so-called amorphous silicon.

The discovery, published online this week by the journal Nature Materials, could lead to new methods for making monitors and other types of electronic devices.

Instead of using a costly vacuum process to coat silicon on large panes of glass, manufacturers could spray a liquid polymer on tiny plastic parts, in much the way the nozzle of an inkjet printer sprays ink on paper.

"It's a radically different manufacturing process," said Michael McGehee, one of the study's authors and a professor in Stanford University's Materials Science and Engineering Department.

-Dan Goodin, AP Technology Writer.

Online news more popular on broadband

NEW YORK - Americans with high-speed Internet connections at home are far more likely than dial-up users to go online for news, a new study finds.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project says 43 percent of broadband users turn to the Internet to get news, compared with 26 percent for dial-up users. Broadband users are also more likely to read a national newspaper, but less likely to turn to local television.

"Local TV, in particular, takes a hit... when people start spending more time with online news," said John Horrigan, Pew's associate director for research.

Still, local television is the leading source of news, used by 65 percent of dial-up users and 57 percent of broadband users. National television and radio are also popular sources across the board.

Among dial-up users, the local paper is the next leading source, but among broadband users, the Internet has a slight edge - 43 percent vs. 38 percent. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for questions asked only of broadband users.

The study also finds Americans largely unwilling to pay for news - only 6 percent of Internet users have bought video clips, articles or other news items online - but more than half have registered at free news sites by providing information about themselves.

The study of 3,011 U.S. adults was conducted Nov. 29 to Dec. 31 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

-Anick Jesdanun, AP Internet Writer

EU seeks expansion of broadband Internet

BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Union's executive office wants member nations to more aggressively get people online, saying only 13 percent of the bloc's 450 million people have broadband Internet access.

If governments act now to boost investment in high-speed networks in remote and rural areas, all EU citizens could have such access by 2010, said Viviane Reding, the EU's information technology commissioner.

The EU has been pushing for expanded Internet access as a way to increase productivity and growth. Leaders at a two-day EU summit opening Thursday in Brussels are expected to discuss ways to improve those efforts.

High-speed broadband networks have made significant gains in recent years, but mostly in urban areas or flat, densely populated nations like the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark.

The European Commission hopes that subsidies for public-private undertakings from its $85 billion rural development fund will be used by governments to close the digital divide.

Only 13 percent of the EU population - or about 25 percent of households - have broadband access, according to EU data.

-Kayla Tausche, AP Writer

Game provider adopts arcade-like payment

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Remember how easy it was to spend a roll of quarters on arcade games? Soon, some online gamers will be able to similarly play "Bejeweled" or "Zuma" at 25 cents a pop.

WildTangent Inc. introduced on Wednesday its "WildCoins" currency system for online game play. The Redmond, Wash.-based company will use the new micropayment method for its own WildGames.com gaming site; PopCap, HipSoft and other sites that also specialize in casual online games have signed up, too.

Instead of paying, say, $20 to WildGames, to download and own one of its games, users could just drop in and play the game online, using a 25-cent WildCoin.

Unlike the arcade games, though, a token will keep the game going as long as the player keeps playing - even if the game ends and the player starts over.

"It's an all-you-can-eat buffet, per game," said Alex St. John, CEO and co-founder of WildTangent.

St. John predicts the system, to be available late spring, will open new revenue streams for online game sites and game developers. Although many users play free demos of games offered online, usually only 2 percent of the visitors are willing to pay a lump of money to own the game, he said.

Advertisers also will be to capitalize on the growing online gaming market by giving away WildCoins as part of promotions, St. John said. Coca-Cola Co. will be among the first companies to do so.

-May Wong, AP Technology Writer

Plaxo to scale back auto e-mail invites

NEW YORK - Veteran e-mail users probably recall getting a message - or several - from someone they hardly know asking for updated contact information. These messages, derided by some as spam, helped Plaxo Inc. expand its contact management service.

Now that Plaxo has 10 million users, its executives are scaling back the automatic e-mail feature as they strive be become "good citizens."

Plaxo offers a service that synchronizes people's address books. If you change your e-mail address, for instance, you can update it on Plaxo and have the new address automatically sent to your friends' address books.

The concept falters if your friends don't belong to Plaxo, so the company developed boilerplate messages that users can send to invite friends to join.

That worked fine for some people, but frequent e-mail users can easily get bombarded with such requests.

"Connections aren't bidirectional. If I know someone, that doesn't always mean that person knows me," said Cameron Ring, the company's founder. "That's something we didn't think about or consider when we" started the service.

With new versions of the service, users will no longer be prompted to send the boilerplate invitations when they first set up their accounts. Plaxo is also removing an "invite" button from its toolbar for Microsoft Corp.'s Outlook e-mail program; instead, users will have to select that option from the menu.

-Anick Jesdanun, AP Internet Writer.

Brown to develop handwriting software

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Microsoft Corp. is working with Brown University to develop software that will recognize complex handwriting and gestures - beyond the basic handwriting such as signatures that credit card users write on an electronic pad.

Brown is developing programs that recognize and interpret more complex symbols and text used in fields such as mathematics, chemistry, music and art. That can be useful because it sometimes feels more natural to write or draw than to use a mouse and keyboard to enter data.

"In some cases, the pen is mightier than the keyboard," said Andries van Dam, vice president for research at Brown, which is getting $1.2 million from Microsoft Research over three years to develop the software.

Chemistry students at Brown currently use one program that allows scientists to sketch a molecule and have it show up as a three-dimensional model on their computer. Researchers say they want to improve such technology and make it available for everyday use.

-Chelsea Phua, AP Writer.

Discovery launches homework help site

SILVER SPRING, Md. - The broadcaster Discovery Communications Inc. wants to help kids with their homework by selling them access to an enhanced home version of the video encyclopedia network already used by thousands of schools.

It has launched a site, called Cosmeo, giving students access to more than 30,000 video clips, interactive educational games and other tools. Discovery says the resources were selected to comply with the curricula and education standards of all 50 states.

The company, whose television networks include Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel, says it already provides a similar product to about 70,000 public schools that have broadband Internet service.

"This product is a natural extension of what they (students) are already doing," said Discovery President and CEO Judith McHale.

Cosmeo will cost parents $12.95 per month after an introductory period.


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