The Personal Supercomputer in Your Pocket
OK, imagine its 1984 (for a glimpse into the past, see my previous post, "If Houses Grew Like Hard Drives"). Someone walks up to you on the street (possibly dressed in a black suit) and hands you an iPhone 3G. What would you think? Remember, 1983 was the year Motorola introduced the DynaTAC 8000X "brick" phone - and it was just a (very large mobile) phone... Technical issues with using a 3G phone in the 1980s aside, I’m sure you’d think it was of extraterrestrial origin (or some other advanced civilization from the earth’s core). And that was only around 25 years ago.
As an engineer I’ve watched the evolution and fusion of personal portable devices - I’ve owned many of them as well. It was predicted in the late 1990s that portable devices (i.e. cell phones, music players, video camcorders, DVD players) would somehow "merge" into a single device that you'd carry in your pocket. I remember having those discussions around the lunch table with my fellow engineers circa 1998 (only ten years ago). It went something like this... "Hey guys, I just got a Rio MP3 player (from Diamond Multimedia)... totally cool gadget! It holds up to twelve songs with no moving parts... it hooks up to my parallel port and I can download any song I want - I just need to compress the CD song with the Rio software and I’m mobile. Someday there’ll be a unit like that with five hundred megabytes of storage and a full color LCD that could hold pictures too!"
It was hard to imagine what would be possible with shrinking semiconductor process geometries, FLASH memory densities, display technology and power management. We could only see so far into the future and it quickly became cloudy. The best we could do was to envision evolutionary progress - improving on what we already knew. But what was happening in the labs at Apple, Nokia, Samsung, LG and others was "revolutionary". It was made possible by semiconductor manufacturers and other technology suppliers. We never saw the coming of CMOS image sensors with optics so small you could fit an entire video camera into the volume of a sugar cube (or less). We could not imagine an 80 gigabyte rotating media hard drive that was only one inch on a side and no thicker than a match book. We might have imagined a few hundred megabytes of FLASH memory in a device, but not tens of gigabytes - that was science fiction.
Along with the functionality, we missed the connectivity completely. In the late 1990s the World Wide Web was just taking off. It was an era of the "New Economy" where stores were virtual and information was just a click away... that is, if you had a personal computer, a modem (56 kilobits per second) and a phone line. We never would have imagined the 3G mobile web supported by a "cloud" of millions of computers spread around the globe supplying every imaginable variation of endless content.
All of what I’ve mentioned is now old news... things that have come and gone within a six month design cycle. Moore’s law continues to march us forward into the future possibly jumping to quantum well transistors and saying goodbye to shrinking CMOS processes and the power they consume. Display technology will continue to improve providing either projected (i.e. pico-projectors) images or screens that role up. Battery technology may get a boost from new materials that allow Lithium chemistry batteries to charge in seconds instead of hours.
So what’s next? As Yoda might say, "The future I cannot see... very cloudy it has become". What I can see is the evolutionary component of our technology. It is quite clear that as a civilization we will continue to push the thresholds of our knowledge and provide continuous improvements in the methods used to facilitate the tools of everyday existence. OK, that’s a bit poetic, but what does it mean to you? Pull your Personal Mobile Device (PMD) out of your pocket, hold it in your hand and imagine the kids of 2034 laughing at how primitive a device it is! They will all have the equivalent of a modern supercomputer in their pockets that never need charging, are always connected to the "cloud" at gigabit speeds, use gesture, facial and voice recognition, are flexible, self cleaning and can project full 3D images directly onto their retinas... our present devices will be their "brick" phones. something to think about! Till next time...
p.s. check out Nokia's "Morph" for a glimps into the future...