As notebook computers and mobile technologies continue to evolve, its natural to wonder about the next big thing.
Consider how quickly big changes happen in this industry. Only five years ago, wireless technology was used only by the Jetsons, many notebook PCs were still too slow to serve as desktop replacements, and brawny shoulder muscles were a prerequisite just to lift the things. Since then, notebooks have become truly mobile -- light, thin, high-powered solutions almost as common on desks as on airplane tray tables.
The next five years bring more of the same -- faster processors, smaller chips and longer battery life -- but what innovations will change the industry? And what is the breakthrough application that will really change the way we communicate?
A significant change in the look and feel of notebooks will come with the adoption of organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays, made of light-emitting organic material that glows when an electrical charge is passed through it. These flexible displays offer fantastic resolution and color, detail far superior to a standard TFT, and can be viewed in direct sunlight. However, OLED displays are still in their infancy -- they can be easily damaged by water and dust particles and last only a little over a year. Currently, the technology is only being used in small devices, like cell phones, but as it develops with more research, we will see the displays grow bigger and more durable. When OLED displays are incorporated into notebooks, many years down the road, they will cause a substantial change in size and shape.
Within five years, we will see significant advancements in organic storage. The "Millipede" concept points to one such advance. Millipede, being developed at IBM Research, uses thousands of nano-sharp tips to punch indentations representing individual bits into a thin plastic film, creating a powerful disk that is also re-writeable. Millipede has already demonstrated a data storage density of a trillion bits per square inch-- 20 times higher than the densest magnetic storage available today and enough to store 25 million printed textbook pages on a surface the size of a postage stamp. And still higher levels of storage density are expected. While current storage technologies may be approaching their fundamental limits, this nanomechanical approach is potentially valid for a thousand-fold increase in data storage density.
The result of these advances is, quite simply, storage that uses less power in less space. And since organic storage, unlike magnetic, involves no moving parts, these disks will not break. This technology, though expensive, could feasibly bring tremendous data capacity to mobile devices such as personal digital assistants, cellular phones.
One battery life-extending technology on the horizon is fuel cell. Unlike current notebook batteries that can plug in anywhere to recharge, fuel cell technology requires users to go to a cell refueling station to recharge their cells. While fuel cell technology will likely result in vastly extended notebook battery life, the infrastructure isnt in place to support it. And while fuel cells offer more battery life, they cannot, like standard batteries, be recharged for free.
The Next Big Thing
Technologies like OLED, nano-storage and fuel cell are definitely futuristic, and will, in many cases, shape the way we work. However, the future will probably find us computing in much the same way we do now. While there will certainly be advances in voice recognition technology, for example, until we achieve true artificial intelligence, our computers will still only be able to do what we say, not what we mean. And besides, most of us type just as quickly, and certainly more precisely, than we speak.
The next big thing, then, is not some far-out technology or funky device weve never seen, but simply the conversion of data. Five years from now, we wont be using one device that functions as a PC, a PDA and a cell phone, but we will be using technology consistent across all three devices. The calendar program you use will be accessible through your PC, your PDA and your cell phone, but will not reside in any one device. Data will become transparent to devices. Ten years from now, wireless will be the standard, bandwidth will have increased by leaps and bounds, and we will never be out of range. Devices will have self-maintaining autonomic capabilities, enabling them to "sniff" out networks to establish the best connection, switching seamlessly between wireless and cellular networks. IBM is already piloting these autonomic capabilities.
New technologies and applications not only make our computing experience better, they show us what we can do. Not every technology will take off and not every decade will totally reshape how we compute. Ten years from now, day-to-day computing wont entail having verbal conversations with our PCs or writing novels on PDA devices, but it will make thinking about wireless connectivity a thing of the past. While the way we use notebook computers will evolve again and again, what will remain constant is the effort to make our lives easier.