Unicode, XML, and digital signal processing... there are many technologies you don't know about that you couldn't get through your day without. Here are the 10 most important technologies you almost certainly use but almost never think about.

Every aspect of our lives is affected or influenced by digital products. Whether it's the internet, making a call on our mobile phones or even just watching a DVD on our cinema-style home-entertainment system. But such everyday items that we take for granted rely on key technologies.

We've rounded up the 10 technologies that are most key to the way our lives work today. We bet you've even used some, if not all of them, today without even giving them a second thought.

NEXT PAGE: unicode - speaking your language > >

  1. The keys to today's digital age
  2. Unicode
  3. Digital signal processing
  4. Managed code
  5. Transistors
  6. Why you couldn't live without XML
  7. Nonvolatile RAM
  8. Lithium ion batteries
  9. Voice over IP (VoIP) calls
  10. Graphics acceleration
  11. High-speed net access

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest news and reviews about the internet and internet tools.

You may not spend much time considering Unicode, XML, and digital signal processing, but you couldn't get through your day without them. We've uncovered the 10 most important technologies you use but never think about.

Unicode

We use computers for every kind of communication, from IM to email to writing a best-selling novel. The trouble is computers don't speak our language. They're all digital; before they can store or process text, every letter, symbol, and punctuation mark must first be translated into numbers.

So which numbers do we use? Early PCs relied on a code called ASCII, which took care of most of the characters used in Western European languages. But that's not enough in the age of the World Wide Web. What about Cyrillic, Hindi, or Thai?

Enter Unicode, the key to modern computing. The Unicode standard defines a unique number for every letter, symbol, or glyph in more than 30 written languages, and it's still growing.

At nearly 1,500 pages and counting, Unicode is incredibly complex, but it's been gaining traction ever since Microsoft adopted it as the internal encoding for the Windows NT family of operating systems.

Most of us will never need to know which characters map to which Unicode numbers, but modern computing could scarcely do without Unicode. In fact, it's what's letting you read this article in your web browser, right now.

NEXT PAGE: digital signal processing > >

  1. The keys to today's digital age
  2. Unicode
  3. Digital signal processing
  4. Managed code
  5. Transistors
  6. Why you couldn't live without XML
  7. Nonvolatile RAM
  8. Lithium ion batteries
  9. Voice over IP (VoIP) calls
  10. Graphics acceleration
  11. High-speed net access

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest news and reviews about the internet and internet tools.

You may not spend much time considering Unicode, XML, and digital signal processing, but you couldn't get through your day without them. We've uncovered the 10 most important technologies you use but never think about.

Digital signal processing

Digital signal processing (DSP) helps make modern mobile phones possible. Digital music, digital photos, digital videos... it's easy to forget that we live in a fundamentally analogue world.

Computers can cope with all that we see and hear only through the application of highly complex mathematics, a field known as digital signal processing.

Wherever you find digital media, DSP is at work, facilitated by a whole subcategory of specialised chips and circuits. DSP algorithms correct for errors while your optical drive reads the music off a CD. They're at work again as you compress the audio into an MP3 file, and again when you play it back through your surround-sound speakers.

DSP is to digital media as gears and springs are to a pocket watch. It works its magic below the surface: invisible, yet totally essential. It's safe to say that without it, virtually none of the digital technologies that we take for granted today - from DVDs to mobile phones, inkjet printers to DSL broadband - would be possible.

NEXT PAGE: the importance of managed code

  1. The keys to today's digital age
  2. Unicode
  3. Digital signal processing
  4. Managed code
  5. Transistors
  6. Why you couldn't live without XML
  7. Nonvolatile RAM
  8. Lithium ion batteries
  9. Voice over IP (VoIP) calls
  10. Graphics acceleration
  11. High-speed net access

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest news and reviews about the internet and internet tools.

So you don't care about Unicode, XML, and digital signal processing? Well, you couldn't get through your day without them. Here are the 10 most important technologies you use but never think about.

Managed code

Microsoft's .NET is a managed code environment. Programming is a lot more complicated than it used to be.

Modern operating systems are like onions, with layers upon layers of subsystems to interconnect and manage. Worse, bugs and unnoticed security flaws, even ones that may have once seemed trivial, can be serious threats in the net-connected era.

For a growing number of developers, the solution is to use platforms designed to relieve some of the burden. Programs written for such managed-code environments as Java and Microsoft's .NET don't run on the bare hardware the way traditional programs do.

Instead, a virtual machine acts as an intermediary between the software and the system. It's like a robot nanny for computer programs, silently taking care of memory management and other housekeeping drudgery while keeping an eye out for potential security violations before they happen.

To an end user, a managed-code program may seem no different than a traditional one, but software that runs in a virtual machine makes for a more reliable, stable, and secure computing experience. And with .NET rapidly becoming the preferred platform for Windows development, managed code may soon be the norm, rather than the exception.

NEXT PAGE: transistors

  1. The keys to today's digital age
  2. Unicode
  3. Digital signal processing
  4. Managed code
  5. Transistors
  6. Why you couldn't live without XML
  7. Nonvolatile RAM
  8. Lithium ion batteries
  9. Voice over IP (VoIP) calls
  10. Graphics acceleration
  11. High-speed net access

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest news and reviews about the internet and internet tools.

You may not think much of Unicode, XML, and digital signal processing? Well, you couldn't get through your day without them. Trust us. Here are the 10 most important technologies you use and need, but never give a second though.

Transistors

Later this year, Intel plans to unveil the world's first integrated circuit to contain 2 billion transistors.

Moore's Law says that the number of transistors we can put into integrated circuits will double approximately every two years. That's a lot of transistors, but what do they all do?

Simply put, the transistor may well be the greatest invention of the 20th century. It's really nothing more than a voltage-controlled switch, but that humble description hides incredible power.

Linked together in various ways, transistors can form circuits that are the basis of every type of digital logic, right up to the CPUs that power our modern PCs and servers.

What makes today's chips so powerful is the industry's ability to cram components ever closer together. The transistors on the processor inside your PC might be only about 100 atoms across, but improvements in manufacturing technology will keep them shrinking, for the time-being at least.

Some day, optical chips or even quantum processors may replace current chip designs and outperform them many times over. For now, we'll have to content ourselves with continuing to improve upon an often-ignored technology that has served us for 50 years and counting.

NEXT PAGE: why you couldn't live without XML

  1. The keys to today's digital age
  2. Unicode
  3. Digital signal processing
  4. Managed code
  5. Transistors
  6. Why you couldn't live without XML
  7. Nonvolatile RAM
  8. Lithium ion batteries
  9. Voice over IP (VoIP) calls
  10. Graphics acceleration
  11. High-speed net access

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest news and reviews about the internet and internet tools.

In your average day you probably don't spend much time considering Unicode, XML, and digital signal processing. But you should. Here are the 10 most important technologies that you use but never think about.

XML

You've probably heard of XML, but what is it? Where is it?

Although you may never have encountered it directly, XML is everywhere. Now in its tenth year, it has become virtually the common language of data exchange.

XMLstands for extensible markup language. Extensible because developers can add to it to suit the needs of particular applications.

But what makes it really valuable is the fact that it's a language, much like HTML. Unlike some data formats, XML files aren't just streams of incomprehensible numbers. XML is designed to be read by humans as well as machines. A developer who 'speaks' XML can look at a document written in an unfamiliar XML dialect and still understand what it's trying to say.

This powerful combination of features makes XML incredibly useful for all kinds of applications. But perhaps its biggest coup was Microsoft's decision to switch to XML-based file formats for Office 2007.

As it turns out, you actually may have XML documents sitting on your desktop right now, without realising it.

NEXT PAGE: nonvolatile RAM

  1. The keys to today's digital age
  2. Unicode
  3. Digital signal processing
  4. Managed code
  5. Transistors
  6. Why you couldn't live without XML
  7. Nonvolatile RAM
  8. Lithium ion batteries
  9. Voice over IP (VoIP) calls
  10. Graphics acceleration
  11. High-speed net access

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest news and reviews about the internet and internet tools.

You probably don't spend much time considering Unicode, XML, and digital signal processing. Perhaps you should. Here are the 10 most important technologies that you use but never think about.

Nonvolatile RAM

Isn't it strange? Your pockets stay the same size, yet you can carry more and more in them every year.

In 1956, IBM's first hard drives used disks that were more than 60cm wide. It's hard to believe that today's microscale drives use the same technology, in essence.

Incremental advances, such as the discovery of giant magnetoresistance and the invention of perpendicular recording heads, have produced staggering results. Between 1990 and 2005, magnetic hard drives increased their storage capacity a thousandfold, putting even Moore's Law to shame.

But even with those astounding improvements, hard drives hit a wall when it came to portable devices. They were still too big and too fragile for many gadgets.

Enter solid-state drives based on non-volatile RAM. The technology has been used for storage since the 1970s, but it remained phenomenally expensive until manufacturing processes caught up with the demand. Now it is everywhere: in MP3 players, digital cameras, mobile phones, and even some laptops.

Manufacturers aren't sitting still; cutting-edge technologies such as 'racetrack memory' could lead to solid-state storage that is smaller, faster, and more reliable than ever.

NEXT PAGE: lithium ion batteries

  1. The keys to today's digital age
  2. Unicode
  3. Digital signal processing
  4. Managed code
  5. Transistors
  6. Why you couldn't live without XML
  7. Nonvolatile RAM
  8. Lithium ion batteries
  9. Voice over IP (VoIP) calls
  10. Graphics acceleration
  11. High-speed net access

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest news and reviews about the internet and internet tools.

You couldn't get through your day without unicode, XML, and digital signal processing. Don't believe us? We've looked at the 10 most important technologies that you use but never think about.

Lithium ion batteries

When we were kids, our toys came 'batteries not included'. With our grown-up, high-tech toys, on the other hand, the battery is often one of the most important features. As essential as mobility has become to how we use technology, it simply wouldn't be possible if our choices were still limited to D, C, and AA.

The invention of lithium ion batteries was the key. The earliest rechargeables were made with lead - hardly a prescription for portability. But because lithium is the lightest metal, lithium-based batteries can store more energy at a given weight than any other variety.

Lighter batteries mean smaller, lighter devices; beginning in the 1990s, you could actually put a phone in your pocket.

Running time remains an ongoing challenge, but researchers have no shortage of solutions. In addition to improved lithium ion batteries that use nanotechnology, a number of battery alternatives are slowly coming to market, including ultracapacitors and fuel cells.

In fact, pardon me for saying that battery technology is poised for its next big explosion, and personal technology is sure to advance because of it.

NEXT PAGE: voice over IP (VoIP) calls

  1. The keys to today's digital age
  2. Unicode
  3. Digital signal processing
  4. Managed code
  5. Transistors
  6. Why you couldn't live without XML
  7. Nonvolatile RAM
  8. Lithium ion batteries
  9. Voice over IP (VoIP) calls
  10. Graphics acceleration
  11. High-speed net access

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest news and reviews about the internet and internet tools.

You couldn't get through your day without unicode, XML, and digital signal processing. Don't believe us? We've looked at the 10 most important technologies that you use but never think about.

Voice over IP (VoIP) calls

VoIP made possible the inexpensive long-distance calls that use prepaid calling cards. You've made a few Skype calls and you've looked into digital phone service from your broadband provider, but that's as close as you've gotten to VoIP (voice over IP) technology. Or so you think.

In truth, VoIP is revolutionising the telecom industry, blurring the lines between voice calls and digital networks.

Those prepaid calling cards that offer rock-bottom international rates? VoIP makes them possible. Similarly, a growing number of businesses use VoIP behind the scenes to eliminate long-distance charges between branch offices.

Routing calls over the internet circumvents traditional telephone company charges, and fewer fees and taxes mean lower prices. Digital calls are easier to direct and manage, which makes them attractive even to traditional telephone companies. Don't be surprised if soon the landline you've lived with forever is replaced by an all-digital alternative, although you'll likely be none the wiser.

em>NEXT PAGE: the importance of graphics acceleration

  1. The keys to today's digital age
  2. Unicode
  3. Digital signal processing
  4. Managed code
  5. Transistors
  6. Why you couldn't live without XML
  7. Nonvolatile RAM
  8. Lithium ion batteries
  9. Voice over IP (VoIP) calls
  10. Graphics acceleration
  11. High-speed net access

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest news and reviews about the internet and internet tools.

Consider Unicode, XML, and digital signal processing... no, really, do. You couldn't get through your day without them. We've looked at the 10 most important technologies that you use but never think about.

Graphics acceleration

Thought your fancy video card was only good for gaming? Think again. Its graphics processing unit (GPU) is really like a second, highly specialised CPU. When it comes to certain kinds of complex maths, its performance puts your desktop CPU to shame.

Until recently, all that power went to waste when you weren't chalking up frags. But computer scientists are finding novel ways to use GPU acceleration to speed up applications offscreen, as well.

For example, a StanfordUniversity Project, which uses many PCs around the world acting together as a supercomputer to assist protein folding-related disease research, can offload calculations to the GPU to multiply its performance many times.

Because the kind of calculations used to draw 3D graphics are also applicable to many other problems, GPU acceleration is potentially useful for a wide variety of applications, from maths-intensive science and engineering to complex database queries.

Newer, even more complex chips, such as nVidia's Aegia physics engine can do even more. No wonder nVidia has begun working on chips for the workstation market.

Increasingly, your PC's performance won't depend on the speed of any single chip. As AMD and Intel get into the game, expect future desktop CPUs to incorporate CPU and GPU capabilities into a single, multicore package, bringing the best of both worlds to gamers and non-gamers alike.

em>NEXT PAGE: high-speed net access

  1. The keys to today's digital age
  2. Unicode
  3. Digital signal processing
  4. Managed code
  5. Transistors
  6. Why you couldn't live without XML
  7. Nonvolatile RAM
  8. Lithium ion batteries
  9. Voice over IP (VoIP) calls
  10. Graphics acceleration
  11. High-speed net access

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest news and reviews about the internet and internet tools.

Unicode, XML, and digital signal processing, you couldn't get through your day without them. Here are the 10 most important technologies that you use but almost never think about.

High-speed net access

WiMax provides a greater range of broadband access than does the more common Wi-Fi. Where would we be without fast internet access? It's easy to forget that just 10 years ago, most of us were still using ordinary modems.

The broadband revolution ushered in streaming video, MP3 downloads, internet phone calls, and multiplayer online gaming. And we owe it all to TV.

In the 1980s, cable companies were promising 500 channels of round-the-clock programming. Cable was poised to become the most important wire into the house; but the telephone companies had an ace up their sleeve. A new technology could push high-frequency signals over ordinary phone lines, which previously had been good only for low-bandwidth voice calls.

The telephone companies saw this as an opportunity to offer video on demand and to compete with the cable companies at their own game.

Or so they thought. The plans of the telcommunications companies for video on demand dried up by the mid-1990s, but the technology remained. Now called DSL, it had morphed into a high-speed household on-ramp to the internet. The cable companies followed suit with a comparable technology, and the broadband speed race, for both DSL and cable began in earnest.

Both cable and DSL still use traditional frequency signaling over copper wires, but new breakthroughs are poised to go mainstream. Fibre to the premises (FTTP) promises lightning-fast network speeds, and WiMax will push broadband into territories that wires can't reach today. As for what applications this next broadband revolution will bring - well, we have only begun to imagine.

  1. The keys to today's digital age
  2. Unicode
  3. Digital signal processing
  4. Managed code
  5. Transistors
  6. Why you couldn't live without XML
  7. Nonvolatile RAM
  8. Lithium ion batteries
  9. Voice over IP (VoIP) calls
  10. Graphics acceleration
  11. High-speed net access

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest news and reviews about the internet and internet tools.