A Look At The Rapidly Changing Face Of Computing

Don’t blink! That’s the advice from Jeffrey Harrow, author and editor of the on-line journal The Rapidly Changing Face of Computing. Harrow is a principal member of the technical staff for Compaq Computer Corp.’s Corporate Strategy Group. He holds six patents for computing technologies and is a respected technical fellow. I heard Harrow speak at a recent technical conference, and he opened my eyes to the future of computing.

While most of us spend our time in the trenches of today’s technology, Harrow spends his time looking at what’s coming. The future to him isn’t just six months out, or 12, or even 24 months. Harrow is peering years down the road, when phenomena such as DNA computing and molecular electronics may be commonplace.

Now the thought of molecular electronics – in which circuits assemble themselves through chemical processes – might seem too far-fetched to believe. But Harrow’s information is thoroughly researched, and he tends to report on technologies that have been proven, even if only in an engineer’s or scientist’s lab.

Harrow tells a very compelling story about the rapidly changing face of computing. To help his audience understand and appreciate the future, he looks at what we’ve experienced in the Information Age. For example, in less than 20 years, technology advances have let the cost of storage drop from about US$60 per megabyte in 1984 to less than four-tenths of a penny per megabyte in 2000.

Innovations in storage technologies lead to the doubling of capacity every nine months – twice the rate of Moore’s Law. Fluorescent, multilayered storage is one technology Harrow says is around the corner. Engineers can store 140GB of information on a medium that looks similar to a DVD. And NEC Labs is working on holographic storage technology that will yield far greater capacity.

Harrow says that’s nothing compared to what’s happening in communications. End-user bandwidth is growing exponentially. Remember those old 110-baud modems we used to use? Engineers can now deliver 3.28 terabits/sec over fibre. Fibre capacity doubles every six months – four times the rate of Moore’s Law. Yet, Harrow says, this still only represents less than one-half of 1 per cent of the total capacity of a fibre.

Computers are becoming incredibly sophisticated, too. Harrow speaks of future complete computing devices – a microprocessor, memory, storage, caching, communications and so forth – that are one to two millimetres in size. Fitted with wing-like devices, these computers can become airborne; hence the name “Smart Dust” computers. And remember, these things are not science fiction, but are being explored in labs today.

What about all these Web-enabled devices that are hitting the market? With everything from refrigerators to automobiles soon to be able to connect to the Internet, we’ll be running out of IP addresses.

Not to worry, Harrow says. The specifications for IPv6 should provide more than 1,564 IP addresses for every square meter of the planet. That should satisfy our addressing needs for a while.

Harrow appears to be completely bullish on wireless Internet access and computing. He reports that we can expect to see nearly a 500 per cent increase in the data rate with the new IEEE 802.11a wireless standard. “This kind of wireless LAN bandwidth will make multimedia, and the new high-bandwidth applications, as trivial as viewing a Web page is today!” Harrow writes in a recent journal.

With these kinds of improvements in wireless access expected within the year, perhaps it’s time for your organization to explore the potential uses.

For an eye-opening look at the future, I recommend you subscribe to Harrow’s newsletter. (It’s also published as an on-demand, on-line radio show.) The Rapidly Changing Face of Computing comes out weekly, and it’s free. Read through the archive of back issues and subscribe at www.compaq.com/rcfoc.

Musthaler is vice president of Currid & Company, a Houston-based technology assessment firm. She can be reached at [email protected].

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