Software and Hardware

December 31, 2013

Tech wrecks: Lessons from some of the biggest hardware screw-ups

Fire in the hold — Sony laptop batteries

Typical of many design failures, overheating and fires caused by manufacturing defects in Sony-made laptop batteries in 2006 were met with corporate foot-dragging and denial. After Dell recalled over four million of the batteries, Sony insisted Dell was the only computer maker affected.

A week later, after Apple had to recall millions of batteries, Sony changed its tune to claim the damage stopped with Apple. Other laptop vendors including Lenovo and HP were quick to echo the sentiment, giving technical explanations “proving” that they wouldn’t be affected. Yet, over the next few weeks nearly every major laptop maker — including Lenovo and HP — had to recall some of the Sony batteries they had been selling. Sony, and apparently Dell, had known about the manufacturing issue that caused the problem — issues in fabrication that left bits of metal in the cells — many months earlier, but decided the problem wasn’t worth fixing until the fires began being reported by customers.

PC Pitstop recreated the conditions for an exploding laptop battery in their labs, which makes for this compelling demonstration:

It’s easy to forget how widespread the effects of the battery problems were. This news report enumerates the wide variety of issues it caused, like fires in planes and burned vehicles:

The far-ranging impact of the faulty batteries is a great illustration of the law of unanticipated consequences. During the height of the controversy, the number of actual fires reported was well under 100 — a minuscule fraction of the tens of millions of laptops sold. However, when those fires were in cargo holds or in vehicles, the otherwise small failure of a battery and perhaps loss of a computer was magnified into a potentially major disaster.

Another unanticipated consequence was the firestorm of publicity that necessitated the recall. Sony learned that even a few product safety incidents were worth taking seriously, and changed its defect reporting policies after the battery debacle — a lesson Toyota would need to relearn in spades when reports of their vehicles accelerating on their own started to come in.

December 12, 2013

With Tablet, Microsoft Takes Aim at Hardware Missteps

Around the time the iPad came out more than two years ago, Microsoft executives got an eye-opening jolt about how far Apple would go to gain an edge for its products.

Microsoft learned through industry sources that Apple had bought large quantities of high-quality aluminum from a mine in Australia to create the distinctive cases for the iPad, according to a former Microsoft employee involved in the discussions, who did not wish to be named talking about internal matters.

The executives were stunned by how deeply Apple was willing to reach into the global supply chain to secure innovative materials for the iPad and, once it did, to corner the market on those supplies. Microsoft’s executives worried that Windows PC makers were not making the same kinds of bets, the former employee said.

The incident was one of many over the last several years that gradually pushed Microsoft to create its own tablet computer, unveiled last week. The move was the most striking evidence yet of the friction between Microsoft and its partners on the hardware side of the PC business. It is the first time in Microsoft’s almost four-decade history that the company will sell its own computer hardware, competing directly with the PC makers that are the biggest customers for the Windows operating system.

For hardware makers, the PC market has long been a struggle because Microsoft and Intel, maker of the microprocessors that power most computers, have long extracted most of the spoils from the industry, leaving slim profits for the companies that make them. Manufacturers pay hefty fees to license Windows from Microsoft, putting pressure on them to make computers as cheaply as possible using commodity parts.

That, in turn, has limited their ability to take the kinds of risks on hardware innovation that have helped define the iPad. Furthermore, with the iPad, Apple has proved that there are significant advantages to designing hardware and software together. When separate companies, each with its own priorities, handle those chores, integrating hardware and software can be more challenging.

“You’ve got this sclerotic partnership structure where the partners don’t have any oxygen to be innovative,” said Lou Mazzucchelli, an entrepreneur in residence for a venture capital fund backed by the state of Rhode Island and a former technology analyst. “I believe Microsoft was painted into a corner. If they’ve didn’t move soon, Apple would have so much of a lead, it would be almost impossible to catch them.”

Steven Guggenheimer, a Microsoft corporate vice president, said in a statement that the company’s hardware partners were not a factor in Microsoft’s decision to create a tablet computer of its own. “Microsoft has tremendous respect for our hardware partners and the innovation they bring to the Windows ecosystem,” Mr. Guggenheimer said. “We are looking forward to the incredible range of new devices they are bringing out for Windows 8.”

One of the best illustrations of how Microsoft came to the decision to create its new tablet, the Surface, is the company’s sometimes rocky relationship with Hewlett-Packard, the world’s biggest maker of PCs. Even before the iPad was announced in early 2010, Microsoft executives understood that computers were on the verge of a transformation, to touch-based controls from keyboards and mice.

A decade earlier, Bill Gates, Microsoft’s chairman, had even introduced a forerunner to the iPad — called the Tablet PC — but the product, manufactured by other hardware companies, was clunky. It was a flop.

In 2007, the iPhone opened the eyes of the technology industry to the possibilities of touch-based mobile devices. Microsoft included some crude touch capabilities in its Windows 7 operating system, released in 2009, though few users had computers that could take advantage of the features.

With rumors swirling about Apple’s pending introduction of the iPad, H.P. and Microsoft scrambled to create a new tablet computer, a prototype of which Steven A. Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive, showed during a keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Jan. 6, 2010.

When it came to making a finished device though, the H.P. tablet — later named the H.P. Slate 500 — began to change for the worse, according to the former Microsoft executive and a former H.P. executive who worked on the project and requested anonymity in discussing internal matters. While its early visual designs impressed many people within the two companies, the product was “completely ruined” as H.P.’s manufacturing organization began to procure the parts they believed would be sufficient to power the device, the former Microsoft employee said.

In the end, the H.P. tablet was thick, the Intel processor it used made the device hot, and the software and screen hardware did not work well together, causing delays whenever a user tried to perform a touch action on its screen. “It would be like driving a car, and the car not turning when you turn the wheel,” the former H.P. executive said.

That kind of problem was unacceptable, especially after Steven P. Jobs, then Apple’s chief executive, unveiled the first iPad, to glowing reviews, just three weeks after the H.P. device was shown.

Microsoft worked with other hardware partners to devise products that would be competitive with the iPad, but it ran into disagreements over designs and prices. “Faith had been lost” at Microsoft in its hardware partners, including by Steven Sinofsky, the powerful president of Microsoft’s Windows division, according to the former Microsoft executive.

H.P. fumed at Microsoft for not doing more to create Windows software that was better suited to touch-screen devices. Executives complained that Windows 7’s keyboard software did not work well, and that on-screen icons were too small for fingers to tap.

Microsoft refused to commit significant resources to help H.P., partly because the company was devoting its energy to Windows 8, a new version of its operating system being tailored for touch-screen devices.

A second former H.P. employee said the company and other computer makers needed more innovation from Microsoft than it was delivering. He said computer makers viewed the licensing fee they paid for Windows as a subsidy for Microsoft’s research and development, an investment that would enable them to have competitive products.

Henry Gomez, a spokesman for H.P., declined to comment.

In April 2010, H.P. made a bold move to gain more control over the software powering its products by paying $1.2 billion to acquire Palm, maker of the WebOS operating system for mobile devices. An important factor in that decision was Microsoft’s repeated delays in releasing a new operating system for smartphones, which paralyzed partners like H.P., according to one of the former H.P. employees.

But poor sales of the WebOS tablet and smartphones doomed the effort. (It did not help that H.P. fired two chief executives during that period for unrelated reasons.) The company has released WebOS as open source software but no longer makes devices based on it. Last year, H.P. briefly contemplated spinning off its PC business before reconsidering the move.

Against this backdrop, Microsoft began to invest more in developing its own tablet hardware, though the company still had not decided whether to sell such a device itself or license it to others by the end of 2010, the former Microsoft executive said.

Some who study the technology industry still believe Microsoft will get out of the business of selling its own tablet computer as soon as it can persuade other hardware companies to build compelling devices of their own. “I think once they jump-start it, they plan to make money the way they always have — from licensing software,” said Michael A. Cusumano, a management professor at M.I.T.

In a nod to Apple’s work with aluminum, Microsoft began to closely study materials that could be used to create a distinctive case for a tablet. Members of the Windows team gravitated toward magnesium, a lightweight metal that felt good to testers when held in their hands, according to the former Microsoft executive.

Last week, Microsoft executives spent a significant portion of their presentation describing the magnesium case of Surface, which they described as strong and scratch-resistant. “The case is one-of-a-kind,” Mr. Sinofsky said, holding the gray device in his hands.

November 22, 2013

Iconic Cambridge hardware store holds its last sale

125-year-old store was facing tough rivals and a soft economy

In 1888, Benjamin Harrison was elected president, the Washington Monument opened, and Francis Xavier Masse opened his hardware store at the corner of Sherman and Walden streets in Cambridge.

Through the decades, FX Masse Hardware Co. was known for its personal service and traditional, no-nonsense atmosphere, the go-to place to have keys made or pick up an emergency snow shovel.

Now, third-generation owner David Masse says it’s time to go. Competition from big-box stores and the Internet, combined with a difficult economic climate, have persuaded the 73-year-old that it’s time to take a long-delayed retirement.

Masse’s will close its doors this fall, after 125 years. With it will go a bit more of old Cambridge.

“It has been difficult to maintain the business,” Masse said Tuesday as customers searched for bargains among the profusion of racks, shelves, and hanging tools on the first day of a going-out-of-business sale. “We were still able to make a living, but there was not a lot of profit on it.”

By mid-afternoon, customers had lined up seven or eight deep at the well-worn counter, where Masse, his son Andrew, and their staff raced to keep up with demand.

Kerry Campbell, 69, stood among the hammers, chisels, and paint brushes for a moment to recall her long relationship with the store, which began with a recommendation from a Harvard student in 1968.

“It was my first Cambridge apartment, and I came here for things like keys and spray paint — the same things I’m here for today,” she said.

Campbell said she was sad to see the shop close.

“The only other store that’s even vaguely like this — and it’s not really like this — is Tags,” she said, referring to the much larger Porter Square hardware and housewares retailer. “These people have been here 20, 30, 40 years.”

Robert Harlow, 68, said he’d been a customer since 1974.

“I just wandered in as a stranger, but I kept coming back and it started to feel more like home,” he said.

Harlow’s favorite memory involves a chance run-in with a famous Cantabrigian.

“I was standing in line . . . buying doorknobs, and I looked over next to me and there was Julia Child,” he said.

“I said, ‘Miss Child,’ and she looked over. I said, ‘I’m buying doorknobs,’ and she said, ‘Strangely, so am I,’ ” Harlow said, imitating at Child’s distinctive, burbling voice.

He told the famous chef he was making stuffed peppers for dinner. “She said, ‘Ooh, I love stuffed peppers. That’s a comfort food,’ ” Harlow said.

While customers reminisced Tuesday, David Masse sounded more pragmatic.

“I’m looking forward to retiring,” he said. “I’ve been coming in every day for 60 years.”

He and his wife of 31 years, Patricia, plan to devote themselves to travel — she has her eye on a trip to Italy, for starters. “Her bags are packed,” he said.

Masse is the grandson of FX Masse, who left his family farm in Quebec at 12 and took a job to help support his 15 siblings. Four years later, he borrowed $20 and took a train to Cambridge, getting off at Sherman Street and finding work that day at a bakery down the street.

He founded the store at 26, buying a building diagonally across the intersection from the spot where he built its current location in 1900. Upon his death in 1953, he passed the store on to his son Frederick, who passed it on to his son David when he died in 1992.

Over the decades, David Masse watched the area’s transformation.

“When I started working here 60 years ago, across the street where St. Peters Field and Danehy Park are now, that used to be the Cambridge dump,” he said.

Before that, Masse said, it was the New England Brick Co. — until the clay ran out. Near present-day Alewife Station was an industrial park with steel companies that bought goods at his store.

He lost business when those companies moved away, he said, but the store survived on sales to contractors building and renovating homes.

The rise of the big-box hardware store cut into that business, and the economic downturn of 2008 nearly decimated it, Masse said.

In previous recessions, he said, many homeowners decided against hiring contractors but proceeded with improvements, doing the work themselves and buying from local stores. But in the recent recession, most called off their renovations.

“We were still able to make a living, but there was not a lot of profit on it,” he said.

When, after a decade-long search, Masse found a buyer for his parking lot across Sherman Street, he knew it was time to go. The new owner will build rental housing, he said, while Masse converts the hardware store into two apartments, to go with the four he already owns upstairs.

A third-generation businessman, Masse good-naturedly shrugged off the nostalgia some customers felt over the store’s closing.

“I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said with a smile. “They can’t.”

November 18, 2013

Robot Treats Brain Clots With Steerable Needles

Surgery to relieve the damaging pressure caused by hemorrhaging in the brain is a perfect job for a robot.

That is the basic premise of a new image-guided surgical system under development at Vanderbilt University. It employs steerable needles about the size of those used for biopsies to penetrate the brain with minimal damage and suction away the blood clot that has formed.

The system is described in an article accepted for publication in the journal IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering. It is the product of an ongoing collaboration between a team of engineers and physicians headed by Assistant Professor Robert J. Webster III and Assistant Professor of Neurological Surgery Kyle Weaver.

Brain clots are leading cause of death, disability

The odds of a person getting an intracerebral hemorrhage are one in 50 over his or her lifetime. When it does occur, 40 percent of the individuals die within a month. Many of the survivors have serious brain damage.

“When I was in college, my dad had a brain hemorrhage,” said Webster. “Fortunately, he was one of the lucky few who survived and recovered fully. I’m glad I didn’t know how high his odds of death or severe brain damage were at the time, or else I would have been even more scared than I already was.”

Steerable needle could prevent “collateral damage” during surgery

Operations to “debulk” intracerebral hemorrhages are not popular among neurosurgeons: They know their efforts are not likely to make a difference, except when the clots are small and lie on the brain’s surface where they are easy to reach. Surgeons generally agree that there is a clinical benefit from removing 25-50 percent of a clot but that benefit can be offset by the damage that is done to the surrounding tissue when the clot is removed. Therefore, when a serious clot is detected in the brain, doctors take a “watchful waiting” approach — administering drugs that decrease the swelling around the clot in hopes that this will be enough to make the patient improve without surgery.

For the last four years, Webster’s team has been developing a steerable needle system for “transnasal” surgery: operations to remove tumors in the pituitary gland and at the skull base that traditionally involve cutting large openings in a patient’s skull and/or face. Studies have shown that using an endoscope to go through the nasal cavity is less traumatic, but the procedure is so difficult that only a handful of surgeons have mastered it.

Last summer, Webster attended a conference in Italy where one of the speakers, Marc Simard, a neurosurgeon at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, ran through his wish list of useful imaginary neurosurgical devices, hoping that some engineer in the audience might one day be able to build one of them. When he described his wish to have a needle-sized robot arm to reach deep into the brain to remove clots, Webster couldn’t help smiling because the steerable needle system he had been developing was perfect for the job.

Webster’s design, which he calls an active cannula, consists of a series of thin, nested tubes. Each tube has a different intrinsic curvature. By precisely rotating, extending and retracting these tubes, an operator can steer the tip in different directions, allowing it to follow a curving path through the body. The single needle system required for removing brain clots was actually much simpler than the multi-needle transnasal system.

I think this can save a lot of lives.When Webster returned, he told Weaver about the potential new application. The neurosurgeon was quite supportive: “I think this can save a lot of lives. There are a tremendous number of intracerebral hemorrhages and the number is certain to increase as the population ages.”

Graduate student Philip Swaney, who is working on the system, likes the fact it is closest to commercialization of all the projects in Webster’s Medical and Electromechanical Design Laboratory. “I like the idea of working on something that will begin saving lives in the very near future,” he said.

Active cannula removed 92 percent of clots in simulations

The brain-clot system only needs two tubes: a straight outer tube and a curved inner tube. Both are less than one twentieth of an inch in diameter. When a CT scan has determined the location of the blood clot, the surgeon determines the best point on the skull and the proper insertion angle for the probe. The angle is dialed into a fixture, called a trajectory stem, which is attached to the skull immediately above a small hole that has been drilled to enable the needle to pass into the patient’s brain.

The surgeon positions the robot so it can insert the straight outer tube through the trajectory stem and into the brain. He also selects the small inner tube with the curvature that best matches the size and shape of the clot, attaches a suction pump to its external end and places it in the outer tube.

Guided by the CT scan, the robot inserts the outer tube into the brain until it reaches the outer surface of the clot. Then it extends the curved, inner tube into the clot’s interior. The pump is turned on and the tube begins acting like a tiny vacuum cleaner, sucking out the material. The robot moves the tip around the interior of the clot, controlling its motion by rotating, extending and retracting the tubes. According to the feasibility studies the researchers have performed, the robot can remove up to 92 percent of simulated blood clots.

“The trickiest part of the operation comes after you have removed a substantial amount of the clot. External pressure can cause the edges of the clot to partially collapse making it difficult to keep track of the clot’s boundaries,” said Webster.

The goal of a future project is to add ultrasound imaging combined with a computer model of how brain tissue deforms to ensure that all of the desired clot material can be removed safely and effectively.

Other members of the research team are Jessica Burgner, formerly a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt and now executive director of the Hannover University Center for Mechatronics in Germany, and Ray Lathrop, a graduate student at Vanderbilt.

The research was supported by National Science Foundation CAREER Award IIS-1054331 and Graduate Research Fellowship as well as a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service.

November 6, 2013

Robotic Therapy Aids Kids’ Handwriting Skills

Researchers from Leeds and Bradford are working with colleagues from the United States to develop an exciting new robotic device that helps children to practice and improve their manual (hand) coordination.

The findings of a pilot study are being presented today at the British Psychological Society’s Annual Conference in Reading, detailing the first time this innovative new technology has been trialled in a UK school.

The collaboration involves Professor Mark Mon-Williams, Dr. Liam Hill from the University of Leeds, Katy Shires from the Bradford Institute of Health Research and Professor Geoffrey Bingham’s lab from the University of Indiana (USA). This team has been working on creating a haptic robotic training system that gives children feedback and scaffolds their performance as they practice hand and wrist movements commonly made during handwriting and other manual tasks.

The device has already been tested in a study in the United States, results showing that the increased feedback it provides particularly aids children who have underlying movement problems, providing them with the extra support they need whilst trying to learn everyday tasks they typically have great difficulty with (e.g. handwriting, using cutlery and dressing themselves).

How does it work?

A child holds a pen connected to the cradle of a small robotic arm. They then move the pen around in order to play ‘computer games’ presented on the screen of the computer. The games the children play require them to practice hand and wrist movements commonly made during handwriting (and other manual tasks). As the child plays the games the robot’s arm (purple arrow) helps them learn the correct movements by pushing and pulling the pen in the direction required to make the right moves. The strength to which the arm pushes/pulls towards the correct movement can be varied so that as the child becomes more confident the arm can reduce its level of support, allowing the child to increasingly do the task on their own.

What are we doing?

Recently we have just completed the first UK pilot study using this robotic device, demonstrating its feasibility for use (i) in the classroom and (ii) with children of a younger age than previously studied. Working with a small number of five to seven year old children in a primary school in Bradford, who had a wide range of manual abilities, we investigated their level of motivation and enjoyment whilst practicing for 20 minutes on a variety of robotic arm tasks presented previously in US-based studies using the system. We also trialed simpler versions of these tasks, which were expected to be more age appropriate for the younger children we were working with.

All the children found the tasks highly enjoyable and were able to perform them to an acceptable level. Differences in performance between children previously identified by their classroom teachers as having handwriting difficulties were also noticeable (e.g. taking longer to complete, making more errors if the level of support the robotic arm provided was reduced). Plans are now underway to run a larger intervention study within schools in Bradford that will formally investigate whether the findings from the US can be replicated in younger school children here in the UK (i.e. will the system help them improve their handwriting and manual-dexterity development?).

Dr Hill said: “In trying to support a child with handwriting and coordination difficulties one of the major challenges teachers and occupational therapists come up against time and again is the limited time they have to work one-to-one with each child. In this respect haptic robotic technologies have huge potential efficiency benefits. They provide a means by which children can receive supported practice, at a level which adjusts to their growing abilities, without the need for one-to-one interaction with a therapist. Banks of these systems could be used simultaneously by multiple children in a clinic or in the classroom setting, under the supervision of a single overseeing professional.”