Hardware

The future for computers

Where are we heading in the computer industry?

Whether we like it or not, computers are here to stay. Though what form the computer will take in the coming years and how cheap the computer can be will almost invariably determine how much of an impact the computer will continue to have on our lives. Will we still have computers in 10 years from now? Or will it merge into our television sets and become the videophone?

Computers will get smaller...

For a start, the one thing that has definitely changed a lot and which has appealed to more and more consumers has been the size of the computer.

In the 1960s, a typical computer would have been virtually impossible to carry around under the arm for personal use. Computers in those days were huge beasts designed to fit into a room. In the 1980s, computers came in small enough plastic boxes to be placed more or less permanently on a coffee table or office desk.

Then came the emergence of the laptop. This was a godsend for many business professionals who wanted something much more compact to manage all their information needs as well as bring their entire work home whenever they want. Although, for a long time, the price of laptops kept it well in the domain of the rich and powerful, things are changing as we speak. Today, second-hand laptops and the new-range of portable laptops such as the G3 iBook from Apple Computer Inc. is bringing the technology to a much more personal, cheaper and compact level to the masses than ever before.

Now all that is required to make the information technology revolution even more prominent in the minds of the consumer is to build an incredibly strong, durable, thin, reliable and low-cost laptop machine that literally everyone can have.

UPDATE
April 2003

Now the humble laptop is going the other way because of increasing screen sizes. But they are getting thinner and slightly more tougher laptops. And don't be too surprised if you should see some laptops with screens that can be rotated 360 degrees for presentation purposes such as the new Microsoft "Convertible" Tablet PC for around A$4,000.

NOTE: Make sure the laptops have been well tested in the marketplace for durability and stability before buying the latest computers with all their fandangled extras.

Computers will get faster...

What about the speed of the computer? Yes, this will change as well. However, while the trend towards a faster computer will certainly continue in the foreseable future, most consumers are now starting to realise that computer speed is not the most important issue. While computer manufacturers may go to a lot of trouble highlighting the latest 3.4GHz microprocessor, performing real-world tasks on a computer using almost all the known software available today (if software manufacturers choose to make their software run on all systems) is now easily achievable on a 500 to 750MHz machine. The extra speed is therefore becoming unnecessary except for the very latest commercial-quality software that utilises sophisticated interface rendering features such as the shading capabilities on MacOSX and for the most specialised areas of business, graphic designing, video production and research work such as complex 3D graphics modelling.

The EUV Industry Consortium has unveiled in May 2001 a prototype machine that, by 2006, could make chips smaller and nearly 10 times faster than any state-of-the-art chips available today. The machine, called the Engineering Test Standard, uses extreme ultraviolet light to print circuits onto microchips in a technique similar to photography. The implications of this new technology by the Consortium (consisting of chip-manufacturing giants like AMD, IBM, Infineon Technologies, Micron Technology and Motorola) is the ability to develop new highly responsive and compact low-powered microprocessors capable of running at speeds of up to 10GHz by 2006 according to Intel.

UPDATE
August 2002

Although one would think the extra speed would no longer be necessary for consumers, we may now have to readjust the "500 to 750MHz machine" mentioned above to something like "2GHz to 2.5GHz machine". Apple Computer, Inc and Microsoft have released the latest operating systems, namely MacOSX and Windows XP respectively. Both are fancy-looking graphic monstrosities designed presumably to make the experience of launching and organising files and applications on a computer an easy, enjoyable, stable and secure one. But their size has made the 500MHz computer look like it is running at a "snail's pace". As a consequence, you would be better off buying a quality machine containing the revised specifications if you wish your life in the digital world to be a pleasant one.

Mind you, having an operating system that will slow down your computer does have its benefit. It means that hardware manufacturers can continue to see the value in making new, faster microprocessor chips. At the end of the day, it is all about making a profit.

UPDATE
March 2003

The 64-bit microprocessor chips are coming. This month should see a flurry of new microprocessors from AMD and hot on its trail similar products from Intel and IBM. But the big news will be on AMD's release of Athlon 64, the 64-bit processor previously codenamed ClawHammer.

The main advantage of 64-bit processors is the ability to run just a little bit faster. Running a little faster is an understatement. In fact, with a 2GHz 64-bit microprocessor, you can run several applications simultaneously just as fast as if you were running one of them on a standard computer with a 1GHz 32-bit microprocessor.

In other words, if you are not already overloaded with enough information from your current technology and your employer is starting to think you are lazing about on your standard computer, you can now blow your brains out with a microprocessor capable of running a larger number of applications at nearly full speed. And yes, you can expect employers in the near future to be asking their employees to think in a multiprocessing way and make several decisions simultaneously!

Not multiskilled? The 64-bit microprocessors will have ways of making you multiskilled like never before!

UPDATE
October 2003

The AMD Athlon 64 3200+ processor has been released for A$730. The speed of this 2GHz 64-bit microprocessor is equivalent to a standard 32-bit 3.2GHz Pentium 4. For increased speed, the software you buy today will have to be upgraded to take advantage of this new microprocessor. At the moment, the chip will run Windows XP and this is how the speed has been measured against a 3.2GHz Pentium 4. But if you wait until Microsoft releases the upcoming Windows XP-64 operating system in 2004, you should experience a significant increase in speed. For an even slightly higher speed, you may wish to consider the 2.2GHz AMD Athlon 64 FX-51 designed specifically for 3-D gaming although it could also be used for multimedia applications if you so wish (and obviously more useful).

UPDATE
24 May 2004

A radical decision has been made by Intel to drop a number of projects in favour of building faster Pentium and Xeon microprocessors. On the surface of things, the decision to make high speed microprocessors seems to be no different from its competitors. However, a closer look has revealed something interesting. Intel has wisely realised pushing the clock speed beyond 3.4GHz will produce too much heat and this would dramatically shorten the lifespan of computers. While other hardware manufacturers such as Apple Computer, Inc. would prefer to see shorter lifecycles for computers as a way of forcing consumers to spend more money on new computers, Intel should be commended on doing the exact opposite to the herd. So how will Intel achieve higher speeds without increasing the heat emissions? Intel intends to build new multicore microprocessors. Multicore means combining two or more "lower clock speed" processors on a single slice of silicon. Speeds should potentially exceed 3.4GHz, however, the heat emissions will be much lower.

Now if only Apple Computer, Inc. could do the same by combining two or more G3 or G4 processors to achieve greater speeds rather than one or two single G5 heaters processors.

Computers will become more stylish and attractive to look at and use...

What about good looks? Yes, that will be an important issue in the future. Computers should be more than just a box for punching a whole lot of buttons in order to create and store lots of characters in it so we may communicate our ideas to others. It has to look good so we can enjoy what we are doing. That is why Apple Computer Inc. has done reasonably well in its latest range of laptops (i.e. the iBooks) because of their appealing design, bright colours and ease of use which has attracted a lot of consumers.

Computers will get easier to use...

As for the ease of use of computers, this will certainly be important in the future. Most computers today are still seriously hampered by overly complicated operating systems, keyboards, feature-rich software applications, and a tangle of communication and power cables. The need for simplification is absolutely paramount. For example, why not start incorporating built-in voice recognition and infra-red ports to all computers in the future as a standard feature?

Among other efforts now being made to simplify the "box", researchers at the Australian National University are developing new wireless technology for communicating over the Internet and with any peripheral device. According to the home page of the Telecommunications Engineering Group at http://www.anu.edu.au/RSISE/teleng/ as of January 2001:

"We are on the verge of a wireless revolution. In the same way the Internet and the World Wide Web have swept the globe and are changing the way we do business, exchange information, and communicate, the telecommunications and computer companies are investigating wireless, go-anywhere, do-anything products and services. The video phone in old sci-fi movies, the "beam me up, Scottie" communicator of Star Trek, and the Apple Newton are becoming closer and closer to you and me.

'Yet there are some major technical obstacles in the way, with no easy solution. For instance, only a narrow radio bandwidth is allocated for mobile wireless services. With present systems there is not enough "room" for everyone to communicate all at once, yet everyone should enjoy this increasingly important feature. Another problem is handsets. Mobile phones should be smaller, lighter and cheaper. Their batteries should last longer. Telecommunications research seeks and evaluates innovative solutions to these kinds of problems."

Communication between computers and their chips will eventually be wireless

And Intel Corporation, the makers of the PC microprocessor, are getting into wireless technology in a big way. According to Intel's Chief Technology Officer Pat Gelsinger, the company is aiming to incorporate wireless radio communication devices directly into the next generation of chips. Perhaps this will help to do away with the old complex circuit board construction where multiple copper tracks are eliminated and replaced with a bunch of radio transmitters and receivers inside the chips.

As Gelsinger explains:

"We literally can get to the point where radios are integrated into every product that we build, able to operate across PAN, across LAN, across WAN environments, seamlessly roaming, connecting to all of them." (1)

The only problem with this interesting new wireless technology is what happens if another similar computer containing the latest wireless radio chips is brought in close proximity to another computer with the same chips? Will it be possible for one computer to control another, or even perhaps see what another person is doing on his/her computer?

At the moment, wireless technology has reached the stage of allowing computer users with their laptops to communicate on the Internet and with the latest peripherals without a cable using BlueTooth technology, such as the new aluminium 17-inch screen Apple PowerBook G4 computers.

Wireless electrical power transmission: A more useful endeavour for hardware manufacturers?

Now all we need is for someone to develop a radio wave to electrical current converter circuit to help power laptops and so help us to get rid of the old and cumbersome AC power cord problem forever. Actually, the feasibility of wireless transmission of power was already proved thanks to a worldwide patent in 1988 from the electrical engineer Sir Raymond Phillips of Texas, USA (World Patent Publication Number WO 88/00769). For the full story about wireless transmission of power, click here.

Or maybe we shouldn't expect the entire business world to jump at the idea straight away, especially the electricity companies, because that would mean the energy to power laptops (or any electronic device for that matter) could be easily and freely derived from the radio waves emanating from any transmitting station (e.g. the "free-to-air" radio and television stations etc). Now that would put a serious dent in all those profits made by power utility companies in the world. Ouch!

So what else is in stall for us in the future?

Computers will use higher quality hardware components...

Developing higher quality electronic components inside the personal computer is becoming the next great aim of computer manufacturers. Why? According to Apple's latest strategy, professionals are looking for a personal computer capable of producing high-quality professional results. For example, sound engineers require hard disks to spin accurately to ensure that there is no time delay (or latency) creeping into the music they produce when mixing together several different sound tracks during a professional recording session. Otherwise, special software would be required to synchronise the sound tracks or at least compensate for any inaccuracies produced by the hardware technology.

That's why Apple Computer, Inc. is developing (as of May 2001) new audio software capable of providing the kind of professional results people are looking for in the music industry, such as controlling specific audio devices and sequencing. This latest software move by Apple (or at least the core audio system components) is expected to be embedded into the music/audio architecture of MacOSX in the next couple of years.

The approach to introducing the new audio technology will be just like the development of QuickTime by Apple for digital video editing professionals and in developing a top-class video editing package called Final Cut Pro to implement many of the core video system components of QuickTime. (2)

Computers may become more durable and rugged in construction...

The next thing of interest to the consumer will be the durability of any computer on the market for environmental and other reasons. Already consumers are learning of the wastefulness of the old desktop computers in the 1980s and 1990s where scenes of computer monitors, keyboards and motherboards at local rubbish tips were a common sight. While the tiny laptops may be slightly more appealing in this respect by using less resources to make the machines, the problem of computer waste in the environment is still an important issue to this day (3).

Then there is the concern of how easy it is for a laptop to get damaged. Now some manufacturers are considering the ruggedised nature of laptops to make them more durable and tougher.

This appears to be the trend at the moment with computer manufacturers such as Toshiba emphasising the importance of a very long lifecycle in their computer products and designing laptops with shock-mounted hard drives and screens and a tough metal alloy finish. For example, in a Toshiba advertisement published in the 23 June 2000 edition of Business Review Weekly, page 27:

"Designed to cut costs on every level.

'OBJECTIVE: To design a mobile computer specifically for corporate users to help them cut the total cost of ownership....

'SOLUTION: Develop a design with a very long lifecycle (a revolutionary idea in this new-today-superseded-tomorrow industry). Make it easy to install, service, and upgrade (ditto). Make its architecture stable, scalable and flexible (ditto). Build in forward, backward and parallel compatibility for components, accessories and docking stations (ditto).

'RESULT: The Toshiba Tecra 8100 is a uniquely stable platform that can cut hardware costs by extending the replacement cycle...."

As of June 2005, Toshiba has delivered a new tough laptop with built-in shock absorbing properties for the screen and hard drive housed inside a strong magnesium alloy skin. The laptop is called the Protege R200.

However, some companies are trying to go in the opposite direction as a means of getting consumers to constantly repair and/or buy new machines. Of particular note in this regard is Apple Computer, Inc. This is a company notorious for creating hardware faults in a number of computer products even after the same faults have appeared in earlier models.

For further details, click here.

Making computers that last may be good for the environment, but as reporter Nick Galvin of The Sydney Morning Herald said:

"...this is the last thing the hardware and software vendors want. Their marketing strategies are built around persuading consumers to upgrade early and often. Shortening the time between buying a computer and discarding it in favour of a better model is one of the main drivers of the IT industry. This is especially true in a market such as Australia, there, by world standards, the level of PC ownership is already very high and first-time buyers are hard to come by." (Galvin, Nick. Screen savers: The Sydney Morning Herald. 21-22 May 2005, p.6 (pp.6-7).)

As a consumer, you will have to speak with your wallets by choosing the computers that do last and use the least amount of materials.

For example, if you need advice on a suitable computer from, say, Apple that is built better than most of its other products (e.g. the titanium G4 PowerBook), click here. Or better still, go for a quality Toshiba PC laptop.

Computers will be flexible...

With that durable design of computers comes a certain level of flexibility to permit all of its technology to be updated to the latest if required. This is expected to be important in the future as changes in technology continue to proceed at a phenomenal rate. However, it would be a good idea that the main internal components be designed within standard sizes agreed by all world computer manufacturers, and for each component to act like a piece in a solid 3D jigsaw puzzle with strong quality connectors for attaching the components together. This will go a long way towards easier updating throughout the lifetime of the consumer as well as ensuring durability in the computer.

Conclusion

In summary, the future for the computer looks like one where small size, portability, good design, solid and durable construction, and ease of use and flexibility are paramount for the success of the computer industry (4). If we need convincing of the importance of these factors, we only have to look at the increasing popularity of robust non-PC Internet-ready small appliances such as mobile phones.

Or we could read all the latest news about PC sales slumping to an all time low considered by some experts as the "annus horribilus" period for the IT industry.

"Why the drop in PC sales?" you ask. Ian Grayson, editor of The Australian IT explained it in this way:

"From a consumer perspective, PC vendors have clearly lost touch with their consumers. While chip makers have been obsessed with being first to market with every incremental increase in processor speed, and vendors in getting them into boxes and onto shelves, the needs of the end user have become secondary.

'The old two-year upgrade cycle many PC owners were used to is no more. The 750MHz PC bought last year has more than enough grunt to handle virtually anything thrown at it. Where is the compelling reason to buy a new one?

'Vendors [and computer manufacturers] are going to have to become a lot better at marketing if they want the heady days of the early 1990s to return.

'Expecting someone to fork out $3000 for a PC which offers little more in practical terms than the one they already own is not going to work.

'The recently launched PlayStation 2 console also must be factored in. With the ability to connect to the internet, it has the potential to take pride of place in many non-PC households.

'Add to this the growing power and popularity of mobile phones and PDAs, and first-time PC buyers are going to become harder nuts to crack.

'The market has changed dramatically. Unless the major players recognise the new factors at work and focus both their products and marketing campaigns more effectively, the slide of the past couple of weeks will continue to gather speed." (5)