The Future of Your PC's Hardware------->The Next Big thing? The memristor, a microscopic component that can "remember" electrical states even when turned off. It's expected to be far cheaper and faster than flash storage. A theoretical concept since 1971, it has now been built in labs and is already starting to revolutionize everything we know about computing, possibly making flash memory, RAM, and even hard drives obsolete within a decade. The memristor is just one of the incredible technological advances sending shock waves through the world of computing. Other innovations in the works are more down-to-earth, but they also carry watershed significance. From the technologies that finally make paperless offices a reality to those that deliver wireless power, these advances should make your humble PC a far different beast come the turn of the decade.
In the following sections, we outline the basics of 15 upcoming technologies, with predictions on what may come of them. Some are breathing down our necks; some advances are still just out of reach. And all have to be reckoned with.
1-Memristor: A Groundbreaking New Circuit
Photograph: Courtesy of HPSince the dawn of electronics, we've had only three types of circuit components--resistors, inductors, and capacitors. But in 1971, UC Berkeley researcher Leon Chua theorized the possibility of a fourth type of component, one that would be able to measure the flow of electric current: the memristor. Now, just 37 years later, Hewlett-Packard has built one.
What is it? As its name implies, the memristor can "remember" how much current has passed through it. And by alternating the amount of current that passes through it, a memristor can also become a one-element circuit component with unique properties. Most notably, it can save its electronic state even when the current is turned off, making it a great candidate to replace today's flash memory.
Memristors will theoretically be cheaper and far faster than flash memory, and allow far greater memory densities. They could also replace RAM chips as we know them, so that, after you turn off your computer, it will remember exactly what it was doing when you turn it back on, and return to work instantly. This lowering of cost and consolidating of components may lead to affordable, solid-state computers that fit in your pocket and run many times faster than today's PCs.
Someday the memristor could spawn a whole new type of computer, thanks to its ability to remember a range of electrical states rather than the simplistic "on" and "off" states that today's digital processors recognize. By working with a dynamic range of data states in an analog mode, memristor-based computers could be capable of far more complex tasks than just shuttling ones and zeroes around.
When is it coming? Researchers say that no real barrier prevents implementing the memristor in circuitry immediately. But it's up to the business side to push products through to commercial reality. Memristors made to replace flash memory (at a lower cost and lower power consumption) will likely appear first; HP's goal is to offer them by 2012. Beyond that, memristors will likely replace both DRAM and hard disks in the 2014-to-2016 time frame. As for memristor-based analog computers, that step may take 20-plus years.
2-32-Core CPUs From Intel and AMD
Photograph: Courtesy of IntelIf your CPU has only a single core, it's officially a dinosaur. In fact, quad-core computing is now commonplace; you can even get laptop computers with four cores today. But we're really just at the beginning of the core wars: Leadership in the CPU market will soon be decided by who has the most cores, not who has the fastest clock speed.
What is it? With the gigahertz race largely abandoned, both AMD and Intel are trying to pack more cores onto a die in order to continue to improve processing power and aid with multitasking operations. Miniaturizing chips further will be key to fitting these cores and other components into a limited space. Intel will roll out 32-nanometer processors (down from today's 45nm chips) in 2009.
When is it coming? Intel has been very good about sticking to its road map. A six-core CPU based on the Itanium design should be out imminently, when Intel then shifts focus to a brand-new architecture called Nehalem, to be marketed as Core i7. Core i7 will feature up to eight cores, with eight-core systems available in 2009 or 2010. (And an eight-core AMD project called Montreal is reportedly on tap for 2009.)
After that, the timeline gets fuzzy. Intel reportedly canceled a 32-core project called Keifer, slated for 2010, possibly because of its complexity (the company won't confirm this, though). That many cores requires a new way of dealing with memory; apparently you can't have 32 brains pulling out of one central pool of RAM. But we still expect cores to proliferate when the kinks are ironed out: 16 cores by 2011 or 2012 is plausible (when transistors are predicted to drop again in size to 22nm), with 32 cores by 2013 or 2014 easily within reach. Intel says "hundreds" of cores may come even farther down the line.
3-Nehalem and Swift Chips Spell the End of Stand-Alone Graphics Boards
When AMD purchased graphics card maker ATI, most industry observers assumed that the combined company would start working on a CPU-GPU fusion. That work is further along than you may think.
What is it? While GPUs get tons of attention, discrete graphics boards are a comparative rarity among PC owners, as 75 percent of laptop users stick with good old integrated graphics, according to Mercury Research. Among the reasons: the extra cost of a discrete graphics card, the hassle of installing one, and its drain on the battery. Putting graphics functions right on the CPU eliminates all three issues.
Chip makers expect the performance of such on-die GPUs to fall somewhere between that of today's integrated graphics and stand-alone graphics boards--but eventually, experts believe, their performance could catch up and make discrete graphics obsolete. One potential idea is to devote, say, 4 cores in a 16-core CPU to graphics processing, which could make for blistering gaming experiences.
When is it coming? Intel's soon-to-come Nehalem chip includes graphics processing within the chip package, but off of the actual CPU die. AMD's Swift (aka the Shrike platform), the first product in its Fusion line, reportedly takes the same design approach, and is also currently on tap for 2009.
Putting the GPU directly on the same die as the CPU presents challenges--heat being a major one--but that doesn't mean those issues won't be worked out. Intel's two Nehalem follow-ups, Auburndale and Havendale, both slated for late 2009, may be the first chips to put a GPU and a CPU on one die, but the company isn't saying yet.
4-USB 3.0 Speeds Up Performance on External Devices
The USB connector has been one of the greatest success stories in the history of computing, with more than 2 billion USB-connected devices sold to date. But in an age of terabyte hard drives, the once-cool throughput of 480 megabits per second that a USB 2.0 device can realistically provide just doesn't cut it any longer.
What is it? USB 3.0 (aka "SuperSpeed USB") promises to increase performance by a factor of 10, pushing the theoretical maximum throughput of the connector all the way up to 4.8 gigabits per second, or processing roughly the equivalent of an entire CD-R disc every second. USB 3.0 devices will use a slightly different connector, but USB 3.0 ports are expected to be backward-compatible with current USB plugs, and vice versa. USB 3.0 should also greatly enhance the power efficiency of USB devices, while increasing the juice (nearly one full amp, up from 0.1 amps) available to them. That means faster charging times for your iPod--and probably even more bizarre USB-connected gear like the toy rocket launchers and beverage coolers that have been festooning people's desks.When is it coming? The USB 3.0 spec is nearly finished, with consumer gear now predicted to come in 2010. Meanwhile, a host of competing high-speed plugs--DisplayPort, eSATA, and HDMI--will soon become commonplace on PCs, driven largely by the onset of high-def video. Even FireWire is looking at an imminent upgrade of up to 3.2 gbps performance. The port proliferation may make for a baffling landscape on the back of a new PC, but you will at least have plenty of high-performance options for hooking up peripherals.
5-Wireless Power Transmission
Wireless power transmission has been a dream since the days when Nikola Tesla imagined a world studded with enormous Tesla coils. But aside from advances in recharging electric toothbrushes, wireless power has so far failed to make significant inroads into consumer-level gear.
What is it? This summer, Intel researchers demonstrated a method--based on MIT research--for throwing electricity a distance of a few feet, without wires and without any dangers to bystanders (well, none that they know about yet). Intel calls the technology a "wireless resonant energy link," and it works by sending a specific, 10-MHz signal through a coil of wire; a similar, nearby coil of wire resonates in tune with the frequency, causing electrons to flow through that coil too. Though the design is primitive, it can light up a 60-watt bulb with 70 percent efficiency.
When is it coming? Numerous obstacles remain, the first of which is that the Intel project uses alternating current. To charge gadgets, we'd have to see a direct-current version, and the size of the apparatus would have to be considerably smaller. Numerous regulatory hurdles would likely have to be cleared in commercializing such a system, and it would have to be thoroughly vetted for safety concerns.
Assuming those all go reasonably well, such receiving circuitry could be integrated into the back of your laptop screen in roughly the next six to eight years. It would then be a simple matter for your local airport or even Starbucks to embed the companion power transmitters right into the walls so you can get a quick charge without ever opening up your laptop bag.
6-64-Bit Computing Allows for More RAM
In 1986, Intel introduced its first 32-bit CPU. It wasn't until 1993 that the first fully 32-bit Windows OS--Windows NT 3.1--followed, officially ending the 16-bit era. Now 64-bit processors have become the norm in desktops and notebooks, though Microsoft still won't commit to an all-64-bit Windows. But it can't live in the 32-bit world forever.
What is it? 64-bit versions of Windows have been around since Windows XP, and 64-bit CPUs have been with us even longer. In fact, virtually every computer sold today has a 64-bit processor under the hood. At some point Microsoft will have to jettison 32-bit altogether, as it did with 16-bit when it launched Windows NT, if it wants to induce consumers (and third-party hardware and software developers) to upgrade. That isn't likely with Windows 7: The upcoming OS is already being demoed in 32-bit and 64-bit versions. But limitations in 32-bit's addressing structure will eventually force everyone's hand; it's already a problem for 32-bit Vista users, who have found that the OS won't access more than about 3GB of RAM because it simply doesn't have the bits to access additional memory.
When is it coming? Expect to see the shift toward 64-bit accelerate with Windows 7; Microsoft will likely switch over to 64-bit exclusively with Windows 8. That'll be 2013 at the earliest. Meanwhile, Mac OS X Leopard is already 64-bit, and some hardware manufacturers are currently trying to transition customers to 64-bit versions of Windows (Samsung says it will push its entire PC line to 64-bit in early 2009). And what about 128-bit computing, which would represent the next big jump? Let's tackle one sea change at a time--and prepare for that move around 2025.
7-Windows 7: It's Inevitable
Whether you love Vista or hate it, the current Windows will soon go to that great digital graveyard in the sky. After the tepid reception Vista received, Microsoft is putting a rush on Vista's follow-up, known currently as Windows 7.
What is it? At this point Windows 7 seems to be the OS that Microsoft wanted to release as Vista, but lacked the time or resources to complete. Besides continuing refinements to the security system of the OS and to its look and feel, Windows 7 may finally bring to fruition the long-rumored database-like WinFS file system. Performance and compatibility improvements over Vista are also expected.
But the main thrust of Windows 7 is likely to be enhanced online integration and more cloud computing features--look for Microsoft to tie its growing Windows Live services into the OS more strongly than ever. Before his retirement as Microsoft's chairman, Bill Gates suggested that a so-called pervasive desktop would be a focus of Windows 7, giving users a way to take all their data, desktop settings, bookmarks, and the like from one computer to another--presumably as long as all those computers were running Windows 7.
When is it coming? Microsoft has set a target date of January 2010 for the release of Windows 7, and the official date hasn't slipped yet. However, rumor has the first official beta coming out before the end of this year.
8-Google's Desktop OS
In case you haven't noticed, Google now has its well-funded mitts on just about every aspect of computing. From Web browsers to cell phones, soon you'll be able to spend all day in the Googleverse and never have to leave. Will Google make the jump to building its own PC operating system next?
What is it? It's everything, or so it seems. Google Checkout provides an alternative to PayPal. Street View is well on its way to taking a picture of every house on every street in the United States. And the fun is just starting: Google's early-beta Chrome browser earned a 1 percent market share in the first 24 hours of its existence. Android, Google's cell phone operating system, is hitting handsets as you read this, becoming the first credible challenger to the iPhone among sophisticated customers.
When is it coming? Though Google seems to have covered everything, many observers believe that logically it will next attempt to attack one very big part of the software market: the operating system.
The Chrome browser is the first toe Google has dipped into these waters. While a browser is how users interact with most of Google's products, making the underlying operating system somewhat irrelevant, Chrome nevertheless needs an OS to operate.
To make Microsoft irrelevant, though, Google would have to work its way through a minefield of device drivers, and even then the result wouldn't be a good solution for people who have specialized application needs, particularly most business users. But a simple Google OS--perhaps one that's basically a customized Linux distribution--combined with cheap hardware could be something that changes the PC landscape in ways that smaller players who have toyed with open-source OSs so far haven't been quite able to do.
Check back in 2011, and take a look at the not-affiliated-with-Google gOS, think gos in the meantime.
9-Gesture-Based Remote Control
Photograph: Courtesy of ReatrixWe love our mice, really we do. Sometimes, however, such as when we're sitting on the couch watching a DVD on a laptop, or when we're working across the room from an MP3-playing PC, it just isn't convenient to drag a hockey puck and click on what we want. Attempts to replace the venerable mouse--whether with voice recognition or brain-wave scanners--have invariably failed. But an alternative is emerging.
What is it? Compared with the intricacies of voice recognition, gesture recognition is a fairly simple idea that is only now making its way into consumer electronics. The idea is to employ a camera (such as a laptop's Webcam) to watch the user and react to the person's hand signals. Holding your palm out flat would indicate "stop," for example, if you're playing a movie or a song. And waving a fist around in the air could double as a pointing system: You would just move your fist to the right to move the pointer right, and so on.
When is it coming? Gesture recognition systems are creeping onto the market now. Toshiba, a pioneer in this market, has at least one product out that supports an early version of the technology: the Qosmio G55 laptop, which can recognize gestures to control multimedia playback. The company is also experimenting with a TV version of the technology, which would watch for hand signals via a small camera atop the set. Based on my tests, though, the accuracy of these systems still needs a lot of work.
Gesture recognition is a neat way to pause the DVD on your laptop, but it probably remains a way off from being sophisticated enough for broad adoption. All the same, its successful development would excite tons of interest from the "can't find the remote" crowd. Expect to see gesture recognition technology make some great strides over the next few years, with inroads into mainstream markets by 2012.
10-Radical Simplification Hits the TV Business
The back of most audiovisual centers looks like a tangle of snakes that even Medusa would turn away from. Similarly, the bowl of remote controls on your coffee table appeals to no one. The Tru2way platform may simplify things once and for all.
What is it? Who can forget CableCard, a technology that was supposed to streamline home A/V installations but that ultimately went nowhere despite immense coverage and hype? CableCard just didn't do enough--and what it managed to do, it didn't do very well. Enter Tru2way.
Tru2way is a set of services and standards designed to pick up the pieces of CableCard's failure by upgrading what that earlier standard could do (including support for two-way communications features like programming guides and pay-per-view, which CableCard TVs couldn't handle), and by offering better compatibility, improved stability, and support for dual-tuner applications right out of the box. So if you have a Tru2way-capable TV, you should need only to plug in a wire to be up and running with a full suite of interactive cable services (including local search features, news feeds, online shopping, and games)--all sans additional boxes, extra remotes, or even a visit from cable-company technicians.
When is it coming? Tru2way sets have been demonstrated all year, and Chicago and Denver will be the first markets with the live technology. Does Tru2way have a real shot? Most of the major cable companies have signed up to implement it, as have numerous TV makers, including LG, Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony. Panasonic began shipping two Tru2way TVs in late October, and Samsung may have sets that use the technology available in early to mid-2009.
11-Curtains for DRM
Petrified of piracy, Hollywood has long relied on technical means to keep copies of its output from making the rounds on peer-to-peer networks. It hasn't worked: Tools to bypass DRM on just about any kind of media are readily available, and feature films often hit BitTorrent even before they appear in theaters. Unfortunately for law-abiding citizens, DRM is less a deterrent to piracy than a nuisance that gets in the way of enjoying legally obtained content on more than one device.
What is it? It's not what it is, it's what it isn't--axing DRM means no more schemes to prevent you from moving audio or video from one form of media to another. The most ardent DRM critics dream of a day when you'll be able to take a DVD, pop it in a computer, and end up with a compressed video file that will play on any device in your arsenal. Better yet, you won't need that DVD at all: You'll be able to pay a few bucks for an unprotected, downloadable version of the movie that you can redownload any time you wish.
When is it coming? Technologically speaking, nothing is stopping companies from scrapping DRM tomorrow. But legally and politically, resistance persists. Music has largely made the transition already--Amazon and iTunes both sell DRM-free MP3s that you can play on as many devices as you want.
Video is taking baby steps in the same direction, albeit slowly so far. One recent example: RealNetworks' RealDVD software (which is now embroiled in litigation) lets you rip DVDs to your computer with one click, but they're still protected by a DRM system. Meanwhile, studios are experimenting with bundling legally rippable digital copies of their films with packaged DVDs, while online services are tiptoeing into letting downloaders burn a copy of a digital movie to disc.
That's progress, but ending all DRM as we know it is still years off. Keep your fingers crossed--for 2020.