Peering into the Future

With this issue Computerworld introduces Future Watch. These stories will give you a glimpse into the next phases of enterprise computingThis new kind of article debuts from the test centre of Computerworld's US sister publication, InfoWorld. Our top-notch analysts and editors put down their testing tools to evaluate not-quite-ready-for-prime-time technologies that will profoundly influence the ways we work and live in the near future. In each Future Watch, we will identify an emerging technology or trend, examine the business-related issue it targets and how it may solve that problem, and then discuss the ramifications of that technology.

The ways in which the emerging technology will influence business is our primary focus, and we will also examine the viability of each technology or trend within the business environment.

To launch Future Watch we will give you the scoop on Biometrics, Digital Certificates, Synthetic Characters, Natural Language Processing, and Webtops. We chose these technologies because of their expected impact on the future of enterprise computing. This is just the beginning and there are many more to come.

These articles take an in-depth look at how burgeoning technologies and technological trends will shape the business environment of tomorrow. This is but our first instalment of Future Watch, and we want your feedback and to know what technologies you'd like to see us cover in upcoming issues. E-mail your suggestions to test_center@infoworld.com and copy to richard_wood@idg.com.auSecurity in the hands, eyes of users?

Entering user IDs and passwords to log on to OSes and other business applications works well on a system-by-system basis, but its simplicity masks serious security problems. Employees are likely to use easy-to-guess passwords or leave a written list near their computer. With no way to confirm whether or not use is authorised, nothing can prevent an ill-intentioned intruder from accessing sensitive material by pulling a list of passwords from a desk drawer. It is like a passport system that doesn't require photos.

In addition, time-consuming tasks behind the management of user IDs and passwords diverts already scarce resources from other important responsibilities.

Biometric authentication technologies offer the best hope for solving these problems. Confirming identity by unique physical attributes greatly reduces the chance of a successful user masquerade. Also, an employee may not be able to remember a dozen passwords and PINs, but is very unlikely to forget or misplace his or her thumb.

Many shops will adopt biometric solutions with an eye toward protecting system access, but will also benefit from less time wasted on forgotten passwords.

Some biometric techniques are affordable and viable even now.

Fingerprint recognition hardware can be deployed for $US200 to $US300 per desktop. Look for technologies such as voice and face recognition to be practical in three to five years. Iris and retina scans are unlikely to gain acceptance due to people's natural protectiveness of their eyes.

All the hardware in the world is worthless without software on which to operate. A lack of attention by OS designers to develop necessary APIs has retarded implementation of biometrics. But that is starting to change, thanks to maturing standards, growing customer demands, and increasing federal security requirements.

In January, Novell unveiled its Novell Modular Authentication Service, providing an interface between NDS and biometric and other authentication technologies. Microsoft announced in May that I/O Software's Biometric API (BAPI) and SecureSuite technology would be incorporated into future versions of Windows; I/O sells these today as third-party products for Windows.

There are substantial hurdles before biometric authentication becomes widespread. -- PJ Connolly

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