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An end in sight?

Like rules, theoretical limits in computing seem to be made to be broken. Back in 1977, Ken Olson the president of Digital Equipment Corp. made the infamous comment that, "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.

Like rules, theoretical limits in computing seem to be made to be broken. Back in 1977, Ken Olson the president of Digital Equipment Corp. made the infamous comment that, "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."

Microsoft brain Bill Gates himself set the bar low for home computing in 1981 when he said of memory that "640K ought to be enough for anybody."

In recent years computer researchers have been more cautious in their predictions for the future, although there was the odd prediction that processor speeds would one day top out because of limited transistor widths, natural electrical resistance in copper-based CPUs, finite computer BUS speeds and elementary quantum mechanics.

Chip manufacturers kept beating the odds, however, creating technologies to allow for the manufacture of even narrower transistors. As a result processing speeds continue to increase to the point that the latest available models have been clocked at 3.4 GHz – one gigahertz faster than the fastest machines a year ago.

Still, the latest research suggests that at least one measure of system performance is about to tap out.

According to Wired magazine (, a group of scientists has discovered that there might in fact be an actual speed limit for storage and data retrieval on hard drives. The rate they came up with is still more than a thousand times faster than today’s storage devices and we’re probably decades away from hitting the wall, but still it’s a limit where none existed before.

The scientists may be wrong, but this storage prediction may be a little more accurate than previous computing predictions. The researchers at Stanford University used a particle accelerator to test and retest their theory, and left little room for error.

Basically hard disks are dotted with tiny areas that can be magnetized to represent either a 1 or a 0 in binary. To rewrite the data, changing the order of ones and zeroes, you have to send an electromagnetic pulse into the medium to reverse its polarity. The faster the pulse, the faster you can write and rewrite information.

The electromagnetic pulse is the limiting factor, it seems. According to their tests the high energy required to speed up pulses past a certain rate results in random magnetic changes to the medium rather than the ordered changes required to accurately store information.

The speed of data storage and transfer will ultimately limit the top speed of other hardware components, including processors and graphics cards because all those devices do is process the data stored on your disk.

On the bright side, magnetic disk data storage could one day be replaced by something even faster, like high capacity, low energy flash memory systems. Laser systems are also in development, along with other light-based hardware. It’s also possible that different memory systems, like RAM and hard disks, could be used in concert with one another to allow for faster start-ups and faster computing speeds. Only time will tell.

Camera phones incompatible

The ads make it look so simple. You see something funny or cute or life-changing, snap a quick photo using your oh-so-versatile camera phone, and then press a button to send the image to your grandma, husband, wife, insurance adjuster, or best friend who lives halfway around the world and presumably misses you.

The only problem with this scenario is that you can’t share pictures with someone who is signed on with a different cellular service provider. Since many services are regional or national in scope, you can scratch any hope of sending pictures to your friend halfway around the world or to grandma if she lives on the other side of the country. Even if your insurance adjuster lives in town, you won’t be able to send him the picture of your dented fender if he has a different service provider.

The problem isn’t selfish service providers, but rather the unusual fact that all of the different providers, in their race to market, created their own incompatible versions of cellular messaging and file swapping software without waiting for an industry standard to come along. In all of North America only Sprint and Bell Mobility customers can share photos.

Rather than sending a picture between two cameras, new Web-based services called moblogs have been making headway by functioning as middlemen in the whole confusing process. Basically you send your pictures to a moblog site, which your friends, relatives and insurance adjusters can then visit with their cameras to download.

U.S. cellular service providers say they should have most of the compatibility bugs, licensing agreements and other paperwork settled by the fall.

Fight looms for next DVD format

I bet you thought that DVD player you just bought would last a decade. Some people I know are only now discovering the beauty of DVDs after watching video tapes for the past 20 years, and probably assumed that their investment in a DVD player would give them just as much value in the long run.

Still, technology companies are determined to move ahead with a next generation DVD player that will be able to deliver higher definition audio and video for next generation high definition televisions and surround sound systems which are expected to become standard within the next five years.

The next generation of hardware will employ different lasers that can read finer detail. It will also require different discs that allow for three to four times as much information storage.

There’s no word on when these new DVD players will be available, but it’s a safe bet that they’ll be on store shelves in two to three years.

In the meantime the industry is battling over which format to use – the Blu-ray technology championed by Sony and a dozen other companies or the High Definition DVD championed by Toshiba, NEC and the movie industry. There’s also a third format that’s being perfected for the Chinese market that could make headway in this battle.

The movie industry won’t allow two formats at once like in the old VHS vs. Betamax days, so they’re going to have to settle this fracas, and fast.

Not that we, the consumers should care – I’m more worried about the fact that my DVD player could be completely obsolete in five years than a battle between Sony and Toshiba over lasers.

I wonder – what does a short-lived fad like the DVD craze do to the environment?