Cybernaut 

Power plays in 2008

It’s been a big year for technology, no question. On the hardware side, going back to fall of 2006 releases, we have been given the Wii, the PS3, the iPhone, the LG Voyager, affordable duo core laptop processors, the Amazon Kindle bookreader, the OLPC XO-1 laptop (One Laptop Per Child program), the Asus EEE mini laptop, Microsoft computer tables, affordable GPS, phones with GPS, smaller iPods, bigger flash drives, to name just a few.

On the software side we’ve seen Microsoft Vista and Office, Apple Leopard, the Opera Mini browser for cell phones, new versions of Linux, the groundbreaking OLPC operating system and software, games like Bioshock and Halo 3, the emergence of Facebook, Adobe CS3, Google Docs, Mozilla Firefox 3, Google Earth 3, and more.

Nothing amounts to a quantum leap of any kind, and every new technology has its good points and bad points. For example, the Kindle bookreader has been criticized for being a little too expensive and for the lack of colour in the screen, which was designed to mimic paper. The price on the iPhone was dropped $200 within three months of its launch, screwing hundreds of thousands of early adopters. Apple Leopard may be revolutionary, but also has problems with data loss and talking to peripherals like printers. New and cool doesn’t always equal good.

At this time of year every single high-tech website will release its annual lists of the Best and Worst 2007, covering everything from cell phones to servers. While entertaining, I find looking back a lot less interesting than gazing into future.

Here’s a sneak peak of what I think we should expect around the corner — in a word, it’s all about power.

The One Laptop Per Child (http://laptop.org) movement is revolutionary in many respects, not the least that designers actually succeeded in creating a web-enabled, wireless laptop for about $120 that children love to use. However, since the laptops are for use in developing countries and power supply is an issue, the designers had to create ways to recharge the battery using solar power, pull cords and hand cranks.

The XO-1 laptop was also optimized to use up to 20 times less power in operation than conventional laptops by optimizing the hardware, allowing for power-saving screen options, removing the disk drive and hard drive in favour of flash memory, and streamlining a Linux operating system to create small but powerful applications. Other companies will sit up and take notice, and begin adapting XO-1 ideas to their own products.

Coming at it from the other side, chip makers like Intel have pretty much broken the theoretical 65 nanometer limit for how narrow you can create circuitry before it degrades with a new insulating process that allows for 45 nanometer scale circuitry. Smaller circuitry allows for more powerful chips, but also reduces power consumption significantly.

As well, Samsung has just announced a new 64 GB solid state flash drive that should be in production next year. Solid state drives use less energy, operate faster and are considered more stable than disk drives, which require moving parts. Getting the cards into devices like laptops will expand battery life considerably.

2008 could also be the year that we see the real introduction of nano energy and ultracapicitor batteries that can charge in seconds or minutes, compared to hours for conventional batteries. Expect their use in small scale products first, like batteries for phones. However, one Toronto-based company, called Feel Good Cars (www.feelgoodcars.com), is planning to release a car in 2008 featuring the batteries. Home power systems that can be charged from rooftop solar cells or helix-style windmills are expected to follow.

When it comes to vehicles, several electric options are on the way, in addition to Feel Good Cars’ Zenn vehicle. Tesla Motors (www.teslamotors.com), which made waves last year with their high-end electric sports cars, is rumoured to be releasing a cheaper, more utilitarian vehicle. Then there’s Dynasty (www.itiselectric.com), which is also Canadian, and rumour has it GM is preparing to release the Chevy Volt electric car in 2008, as well as vehicles that run on alternative fuels like hydrogen.

While the costs are high at this point, consumers can expect them to drop as batteries become cheaper and more people buy in. Over the lifetime of a vehicle it’s worth it — by plugging into the power grid instead of filling up with fuels, it’s estimated that most cars are four to 10 times less costly to run. The only negative is their limited range and slow charge times, but how far do most of us drive on any given day?

When it comes to hybrid vehicles that use a combination of electricity and combustion for power, almost all major car manufacturers are getting into the game. It’s rumoured that the Mini Cooper is next.

When all is said and done it’s nice to know that the future of technology, bright and shiny as it is, also has a greenish tinge to it.

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