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Coming soon: A laptop in your pocket

Low-power 'millicomputing' is a focus at Usenix

June 25, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - BOSTON — Your laptop is likely to soon go the way of 5.25-in. floppy disks, made obsolete by smaller, more useful technology: the smart phone.

Based on current trends for low-power chips used in devices like cell phones and iPods, we're likely to see eight times the CPU power in handheld devices by 2010 that we have today, computer architecture enthusiast Adrian Cockcroft said at the Usenix '08 technical conference this afternoon.

"I wouldn't need a laptop if I had that kind of performance," said Cockcroft, formerly a distinguished engineer at Sun Microsystems Inc. who now works for Netflix Inc. and is a member of the Homebrew Mobile Club, which designs open-source mobile phones.

Instead, Cockcroft envisions an always-on device that can connect wirelessly (and seamlessly) to your car while you're driving, to a desktop monitor and keyboard when you're working, and to other devices such as a projection system at meetings or a 3-D portable display, no matter where you are.

Such powerful handhelds could power what he called computer-assisted telepathy — permanent connections to alternate "worlds" such as Second Life — as well as "lifesharing," where people could be permanently connected to a network of friends. Teens are already texting, Twittering and using social networking in an effort to constantly communicate with as few impediments as possible, he noted; "lifesharing" would be a logical next step. For older users less interested in frictionless communication, such a powerful, constantly-on device connected to a next-generation display device could perform tasks such as reminding you of the name of someone you see at a party.

The progress behind such advances isn't the overall boost in processing capabilities seen under Moore's Law (where the density of transistors on a chip doubles every two years), Cockcroft said, but the increasing robustness of low-power chips and devices that use them. In other words: Handhelds are advancing faster than laptops. For example, laptop memory capacity typically doubles every two years, while pocket devices are seeing such doubling annually.

By the end of this year, smart phones will likely have double the CPU power and RAM of current state-of-the-art offerings like the iPhone, Cockcroft predicted. Next year, 1Mbit/sec. 3G networking will start being replaced by 20Mbit/sec. speeds, and users could see 100Mbit/sec. 4G by 2010. Faster networking speeds also help battery life, he said, since devices need less time for power-intensive sending and receiving of data.

In addition, wireless USB offering 480Mbit/sec. in a small area is "perfect for phones," allowing easy wireless multimedia transfers.

These increased capabilities will affect data centers as well, he said. "Whatever is hot in the consumer market," Cockcroft noted, "we figure out how to use it in the enterprise."

When PC servers replaced some Unix machines, he said, skeptics complained that the new machines were toys without industrial-strength I/O and with more management challenges. However, lower cost eventually led the smaller systems to replace larger ones where it made sense.

Cockcroft expects the same to occur with what he calls millicomputing — clustering extremely low-power chips on a board instead of using a more conventional architecture with a few processors consuming more power and generating more heat. A theoretical design he outlined would place 120 "millimodules" in the same space as a standard enterprise motherboard.

There would be a 256MB RAM limit for applications in such an architecture, so clearly such systems couldn't completely replace other systems in the enterprise, he acknowledged. However, considering that the cost of powering a server over several years can exceed the cost of the hardware itself, he argued, it makes sense to offload tasks to lower-power systems when possible.

Read more about Hardware in Computerworld's Hardware Topic Center.



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