Doug Dixon, owner of Manifest Technology, www.manifest-tech.
com, will present “Flash Forward: The Rise of Small Tech Gadgets” as part of Princeton University’s free Lunch ‘n Learn Information Technology Seminar on Wednesday, April 15, at noon at the Frist Campus Center. Visit www.princeton.edu/~eos/lnl.shtml for more information.
Dixon also is East Coast technical editor at Camcorder & Computer Video Magazine and is a former technology leader and product/project manager at Sarnoff. He holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in computer science from Brown University.
Technology moves so fast. It’s a struggle even for me to keep up, though that’s the job that I signed up for when I went into the computer field. But it’s also what makes working with digital media so fun.
So how fast is technology changing? Well, Moore’s Law — actually more of an observation by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore — states that the number of transistors on a chip will double about every two years. Moore made his prediction in 1965, and it’s held true for the past 40-some years.
The Intel 8088 processor used in the original IBM PC back in 1979 had 29,000 transistors and ran at 5 MHz (million instructions per second). Today’s multi-core processors run at more than 3 GHz (billion instructions per second), and the latest silicon manufacturing process can pack more than 1.9 billion transistors on a chip.
Think that’s impressive? Storage technology is developing even faster. Over the past decade the storage density of magnetic disk has doubled annually. So now we’ve come to think it normal that hard drives and flash memory cards and USB drives will double in capacity every year or so — and while also dropping in price. In 2006 you could buy a 128 MB memory card for around $14. Today that same price gets you 4 GB. That’s five re-doublings in only three years.
It’s this rapid progression in flash memory that has really driven the development of all those fun portable devices that have quickly became indispensable parts of our daily lives. Yes, this flash revolution has swept away some older products and well-established business models, but that’s the usual price for progress and innovation — just as the CD threatened the radio business, and before that radio threatened live performances.
And the printing press threatened quill pens and ink wells.
USB drives. I really don’t miss the once-ubiquitous floppy drive, which was ejected five or so years ago in favor of the much more convenient USB drive. The floppy transitioned from the flexible 5 1/4 inch format from the late 1970s to the more rugged 3 1/2 inch format in the mid ‘80s, with a whopping 1.44 MB capacity. The early USB flash drives from 2000 started with 8 MB and are now available in up to 64 GB for less than $200 — again doubling faster than yearly.
Portable media players. While I still like the idea of having a collection of my favorite music on physical CDs, it’s a lot easier exploring a music library in digital format, and listening on flash-based portable MP3 players. After all, carrying an album on a CD is terribly clumsy compared to fitting an entire collection on a microSD card — and the CD is too big to fit in a portable player or mobile phone anyway. Portable media players also are more flexible, going beyond music to offer text, photos, and video.
Digital cameras. In the same way, photo film and chemical developing just cannot compete with the convenience of flash-based digital cameras for the mass market, especially as even inexpensive cameras feature plenty of resolution and auto-everything advanced features to help you avoid taking bad shots. With multi-gigabyte memory cards, you can just keep shooting away, and then easily upload your photos to edit and share.
Flash camcorders. Similarly, while I still like the idea of archiving my family memories on videotape, there’s no comparison to the ease in searching and editing video in digital format compared to shuttle through a tape, plus the convenience of shooting with smaller and lighter flash-based digital camcorders. These days pocket camcorders can shoot great-looking video, even in high definition, for about $100.
The flash revolution has just begun, however, as we can see several additional trends accelerating in the market, especially in the PC industry itself:
Solid state drives. Flash-based SSDs are encroaching on the domain of hard disk drives (HDD). SSD has a compelling story — it is more rugged (with no mechanical parts or spinning platters), more power efficient (with 10 to 15 percent longer battery life), weighs less, and offers significantly faster performance. Your system can start up and launch applications twice as fast. SSD does have a lingering concern about flash storage wearing out after too many write operations, but the industry has advanced the technology to have lifetimes on par with hard drives.
Hard drives do still offer higher capacity and lower cost, but the gap is shrinking. The Apple MacBook Air costs $700 more with a 128 GB SSD than with a 120 GB HDD. I’m looking forward to strong efforts this year by companies like SanDisk and Samsung to expand the SSD market by offering more storage at a smaller premium.
You can look forward to your next notebook having SSD storage, but the industry sees plenty of use for SSD right away in upgrading older systems. For example, instead of replacing an old laptop, you can swap in a SDD drive to make the systems feel young again, with a clearly visible performance boost for disk-intensive operations.
Netbooks: Or will your next notebook be a Netbook? This new category of small and inexpensive notebook is stripped down to focus on portability (at around 2 pounds) and significantly lower cost (closer to $500).
Netbooks are all about online access, but also run versions of Windows or Linux so you can edit documents and the like. To reduce size and cost, netbooks have smaller 7 to 10 inch displays, scrunched keyboards, no CD/DVD drive — and more sluggish performance with low-power processors like the Intel Atom and more limited memory and storage.
In comparison, “ultraportable” notebooks like the Apple MacBook Air and Sony VAIO TT series weigh closer to 3 pounds, and feature larger displays and better performance, but at premium prices ($1,800 and up).
In comparison, today’s upscale Sony VAIO P series Lifestyle PC has an 8 inch display, weighs 1.5 pounds, and fits in a jacket pocket or a handbag. It includes both Wi-Fi and mobile broadband (with cellular subscription), plus GPS. It’s powered by a 1.33 GHz Intel processor, with 2 GB memory. The VAIO P is priced at $899 with a 60 GB HDD, $1,199 with a 64 GB SSD, and $1,499 with 128 GB SSD — still a premium for the solid-state drive, but with larger capacity than the available hard drive.
Convergence. Netbooks are just one vision of the once-hyped “convergence” of computing, communications, and entertainment — combining a mobile phone, PDA, Internet access, portable media player, and camera. In this way, netbooks are positioned more as competition for smartphones, with the larger screen and near-full-size keyboard for extended usage.
Plus there are other kinds of multi-functional digital devices. E-book readers like the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader also can display music and photos. And handheld game units like the Nintendeo DS line and Sony PSP have a significantly expanded view of entertainment — the PSP also is a media player (including full-length movies) and Web browser, and the new DSi plays and captures music and photos — and allows you to edit them with fun effects to share wirelessly with friends.
So how will all these options fit in your lifestyle? Personally, I like having a take-everywhere smartphone with Internet access, rather than an almost-everywhere device like a netbook, which really does not fit unobtrusively in a pocket. And I need a full-up notebook anyway for business travel. Even in the longer term, I’m not sure it makes sense to integrate all these functions into a single device, compared to having separate dedicated devices for occasional activities such as listening to music, shooting better-quality photos and videos, and GPS navigation.
But Moore’s Law has not yet been repealed, and flash memory continues to grow in capacity and drop in price, so expect even more interesting, although sometimes confusing, products that use broadband wireless and massive storage to continue to extend the desktop and home set-top to mobile devices.