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Week in review: Unfolding Origami

Despite hints at big announcements, Microsoft offers whispered details while Apple brings big noise to iPod.

Despite hints at big announcements, Microsoft offered little more than whispered details while Apple Computer tried to crank up the volume on its iPod line.

Microsoft updated the Web site for its secretive Origami Project, offering a more elaborate tease, but also confirming key details about the Windows-based minitablet.

"I am everywhere you are, but never in the way," reads the cryptic text of the site, with pictures showing a mountain peak and a subway. "Who am I?...Find out 3.9.06."

However, right-clicking outside the flash animation of the main Web page and viewing the source code provides this: "Origami Project: the Mobile PC running Windows XP."

Although Microsoft continues to play somewhat coy, sources have provided a pretty clear picture of the minitablet devices. They will carry Microsoft's software, but be made by several other companies, sources have said. They will also be larger than a typical handheld computer, with at least some of the devices using a roughly 7-inch screen.

Rumors about the device have been swirling during the past week, but more details are not expected until later in March, likely at the CeBit show that takes place March 9 to 15 in Hannover, Germany, sources say.

Meanwhile, Apple unveiled the "home stereo quality" iPod Hi-Fi, which CEO Steve Jobs said is of higher quality than other speakers available today. The large speaker system comes with a built-in iPod dock, as well as an auxiliary port to connect an iPod Shuffle or other device.

"It's really a home stereo reinvented," Jobs said. "It's home stereo reinvented for the iPod age."

The iPod Hi-Fi sells for $349 and can plug directly into the wall or run with six "D" batteries.

Apple also introduced its third Intel-based Mac, a revamped version of its petite Mac Mini. The new Mac Mini is available in two models: The low-end model sells for $599 and comes with a 1.5GHz Intel Solo single-core chip, a 60GB hard drive and a combo drive that can play DVDs and burn CDs.

Some CNET News.com readers were left unimpressed with Apple's announcements.

"I'm a Mac freak and this was super, super, lame," . "An overpriced speaker? A new Mac Mini which is $100 more? What happened to the $500 dollar Mac? Oh well."

Fixing the holes
Apple also released a security update for Mac OS X that fixes 20 vulnerabilities, including a high-profile Web browser and Mail flaw disclosed last week. The set of patches addresses a variety of security flaws, including several that could let an attacker gain control over a computer running the operating system software.

The Apple security update addresses those flaws, which affect the Safari Web browser and Apple Mail client. The vulnerabilities expose Mac users to risks that are more familiar to Windows owners: the installation of malicious code through a bad Web site or e-mail because of improper validation of downloads.

The patch arrives after two weeks of intense scrutiny for Apple Mac OS X safety, prompted by the discovery of two worms and the disclosure of two security flaws in that period.

While these threats represent a sea change, there is no need for Mac owners to worry, security experts said, as the published attacks are still mainly theoretical and not widespread. But they caution that Apple fans should not be smug: Now that it's been done, other malicious code writers are likely to turn their attention to the operating system. It's a "small step in malicious code development for OS X," said Kevin Long, an analyst at security specialist Cybertrust and a Mac user for 11 years. "The message we need to get out there is that Mac users should not be complacent."

Meanwhile, a group of security researchers claims to have found the first virus that can jump to a mobile device after infecting a PC. The malicious software, dubbed "Crossover," was sent anonymously to the Mobile Antivirus Researchers Association, the group said in a statement released on Monday. The virus is a proof-of-concept bug and was not released in the wild, meaning that it doesn't pose an actual risk for PC and device users.

When executed, the virus checks what type of machine it is running on. If it is a Windows PC, it will jump to a handheld device as soon as it detects a connection using Microsoft's ActiveSync synchronization software. When running on a portable OS, it will erase all the files in the "My Documents" folder and copy itself to the start-up folder.

Cutting edge
A nearly four-decade-old insight has led a man to invent an industrial design that could change personal computing, aeronautics and how drinking water is purified. Now he believes spirals are a key to making a wide array of machines more energy-efficient.

His energy makeover began with fans and air conditioners, including the inefficient cooling systems of PCs. Jay Harman said his company, Pax Scientific, has signed a contract with Delphi, a maker of components for everything from PC fans to car air conditioners and refrigerators, and it is in talks with several other PC makers and aerospace contractors.

Another company with an eye toward energy efficiency is Microsoft, which is looking to make scrolling through e-mail less work for your hands and more work for your feet. The software maker's research unit has developed a prototype e-mail program in which cubicle dwellers can wade through e-mail and delete messages using their feet. The StepMail program uses a standard dance pad.

The premise of the footwork project is that computer input is a continual strain on the hands, while other tasks, such as playing the piano or riding a bicycle, use both hands and feet. It's part of a broader look at the role feet can play in computing, an effort dubbed "Step User Interface."

StepMail is one of more than 150 projects that Microsoft showed off at its two-day TechFest. The annual event, which took place at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., headquarters, allows workers from product teams across the company to check out what the company's 700-person research unit is up to.

Those who have scoffed at some of the forensic techniques featured on TV's "CSI" police-drama series may be interested in two new creations that could make crime fighting easier.

Technology developed by NASA engineers lets photographers add measurements to objects in a picture with the use of laser dots, the space agency said this week. That tool, which has helped NASA scientists find and analyze damage to spacecraft, may soon be widely useful to police investigating crime scenes.

The device, called the Laser Scaling and Measurement Device for Photographic Images, is a black box weighing about half a pound, and attaches directly to a camera. With twin lasers an inch apart, the tool can project a pattern of dots in a photographer's field of vision. Once the image loads into specialized software, the photographer can then set points of interest within the picture and set distances between those references.

Meanwhile, researchers have created a sensor to instantly test for cocaine in a person's blood, streamlining a process that otherwise takes hours. The group said the sensor could also conceivably be used to test for exposure to biotoxins and other substances.

The sensor contains a specific, artificially fabricated DNA molecule that reacts when it meets cocaine. In seconds, the molecule turns from a floppy, formless shape into a rigid structure. When adding a blood or saliva sample contaminated with cocaine to the sensor, the change can be instantly measured by sending electrons through the DNA and seeing how they travel.

Also of note
Microsoft settled on six versions of its upcoming Vista operating system, including an Ultimate edition that will combine the best of the company's corporate and consumer features...More than 60 years after the end of World War II, a distributed computing project managed to crack a previously uncracked message that was encrypted using the Enigma machine...Severe airline accidents could be a consequence of passengers defying the ban on making cell phone calls while flying, a new study has shown.