Thursday 16 July 2009

Apple and the Netbook?

The Netbook generation is now well established. The world is largely feeling the economic pinch. Consumers aren't buying the biggest fastest desktop PCs anymore, but instead tending to buy either full featured Notebook computers or increasingly cut-down, low-end but adequate Netbook machines for basic net connectivity, browsing, email and simple document processing. The user experience on these small screen, small keyboard, underpowered devices leaves a lot to be desired, but hey they are cheap and small and do a job, so many people put up with it. Apple has for some time maintained that they don't believe they could make a Netbook which isn't a crap user experience and so have yet to enter the marketplace. Recent rumours suggest that a new Netbook sized device from Cupertino might be launched this year or early next so what might it look like?

When Apple launched the iPhone, they made much of the problems of tiny button keyboards which took up a third of the real estate on most smartphones at the time. I don't see them launching a NetBook competitor which features a cramped sub-size keyboard either, which suggests that a full size touch screen keyboard would be more likely. This would also define a form factor which differentiates the new device from its hugely successful notebook range and revive images of a mac tablet. Cost permitting, I would expect their alu-unibody design to be re-exploited again in this new offering. But a larger version of an iPhone as a tablet/Netbook? No - however it's likely that Apple will re-invent the Netbook/Tablet PC just like they did with the phone. And like the phone, it won't be the cheapest, but it will be highly desirable and something that others follow and try to emulate.

There are 3 things that Apple are very good at and will undoubtedly apply to this new product:
1. Exploiting existing assets - In this case it probably means the operating system OSX, the AppStore and mushrooming developer community, their online cloud element "MobileMe", and even perhaps relationships with Cellular Operators? I wouldn't be surprised if a rosetta-like layer in the OS allows existing Mac dashboard widgets and iPhone Apps to run without modification on day one, automatically being scaled for the bigger screen size (9-10") and looking gorgeous.
2. Carefully positioning within the existing product range - distinction without cannibalism as I call it. When they launched the iPhone, they didn't cannibalise sales of iPod, and with any Netbook/Tablet they won't risk damaging NoteBook sales. So there will be some distinctive features and a price point which achieves this.
3. Innovation aimed at their customers - this will include innovative features not because they are possible but because they are attractive and useful to the customer base the product is aimed at. And this customer base is often made up of multiple distinct sectors, e.g. education, business, consumer, so it means a feature is there because it provides something for everyone. If a micro-projector was included for example, it would offer business folk the ability to present slides anywhere, but would also allow kids in school to show their work to the class easily. Similarly a slim tablet form factor which makes it extremely easy to carry around during the working day, could also lend itself to being a high-res digital photo frame when idling/charging/syncing at home on the sideboard.

We shall see if any of this happens at all ...

Wednesday 15 July 2009

Power from the air

People often ask me about how gadgets will be powered in the future. In the short term, we will see better chemistry allowing batteries to improve, alternatives to batteries such as fuel cells for some applications, and components within devices which consume less power or manage their power consumption more effectively. In the longer term, power harvesting from natural sources, from movement and kinetic energy will be employed too, and we should make progress on bio-organic solutions that work in a similar way to how nature powers itself. Some recent research by Nokia is one of the harvesting solutions.

The Nokia research describes how they can harvest energy from ambient radio waves. This is similar to how some RFID tags are powered, such as those used in anti-theft applications. Currently experiments have been successful in harvesting 3 to 5 milliwatts of power which can charge a device which is in standby mode. The goal of the research is to harvest up to 50mW, and recharge a device which is turned off. Typically, energy harvesting from ambient radio waves has been done with traditional radio receivers and transmitters which have a limited range of usable radio waves. The Nokia example of extracting power from the air uses a very wideband receiver which works between 500MHz and 10GHz.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Polymer based disk storage

Imagine the contents of 250 DVDs being squeezed onto a disk the size of an American 25 cent coin. Researchers from two American universities have been able to create error-free arrays of storage cells just 3 nanometres in size. This is possible by exploiting self assembly properties of chemically dissimilar polymer chains and creating extremely dense but perfectly regular formations. Using this cell size, it is potentially possible to reach storage densities of 10Tb (Terabytes) per square inch!

The same technology may also be exploited in the design of circuits, which currently tends to use photolithography techniques. The problem with this is that the limited resolution of light will eventually be reached. The polymer approach also reduces the amounts of acids and other harsh chemicals required.

Storage as a commodity is a journey which seems to be speeding up.

Monday 6 July 2009

Solar cell efficiency

The quest to find sustainable ways to power future devices continues. There will be some incremental developments in the photo-voltaic (PV) solar cells but a significant revolutionary step would be ideal. At present many PV cells based on silicon are only 15% efficient at best. A new approach using gallium arsenide (GaAs) cells is claiming over 28% efficiency. Much of the effort at present is going into broadening the absorption spectrum that the cells cope with. The difference in efficiency between Si and GaAs cells means that one square centimetre of GaAs cell should be compared with one thousand square centimetres of Si cell. The current downside is that Si is much cheaper but this may change over time. The use of lenses and mirrors allows light to be concentrated on the cells, typically 500 times. A one centimetre square cell could thus yield around 14 watts of electricity. At a time when the weather has been especially sunny here in the UK, solar energy at an affordable price is something many would look forward to in future.