Thinner devices spell end for ports

23 11 2008

MacBook_Air_front

Let’s face it, laptop computers and other electronic devices are getting smaller, thinner, and more powerful everyday. Computers like the MacBook Air are a good example of how compromise on functionality was required to make the device as thin and light as it is. It is 0.76 inches thick and tapers off 0.16 inches and weighs in at three pounds. However, significant compromises and a custom processor from Intel were required to make this a reality. The

MacBook_Air_ports

 computer has a customized power cable. It has room for either a 160-gigabyte hard disk or a 128-gigabyte solid-state drive, nothing more. It can only come with 2 gigabytes of RAM. There is a video-out connector, either Micro-DVI or DisplayPort. There is an audio-out port and a single, solitary USB 2.0 port. Only one! Of course, the Air is too thin to include an optical drive. This only becomes a problem if you want to import an audio CD, watch a DVD, burn a disc, or install software from an optical disc. Apple offers a USB-connected optical drive for $100. Also, there is no ethernet port. All networking is done over 802.11g/n wifi.

I hate to sound like I am bashing Apple or the MacBook Air. I love the MacBook Air. I could live with its compromises and would love to own one. I think Apple is an extremely innovative company that makes lots of great, high-quality products. I just felt it was important to illustrate the compromises made in order to make an ultracompact computer to prove my point.

My point is this: wireless data transfer rates are high that simple file transfers can easily be done wirelessly in most situations. It typically has a throughput of 74 Megabits per second. In my own opinion, that is fast enough to move music, standard-definition movies, and software around with relative ease. Larger files might be better left overnight to transfer. However, like most thinks technological, wireless networking continues to evolve and data throughput will only continue to get faster.

That’s wifi. Then there are technologies like Wireless USB and Bluetooth. These have a much shorter range than wifi. Bluetooth 2.0 +EDR has a maximum speed of 3 Mb/s and Wireless USB 1.1 will have a theoretical maximum speed of 1.0 Gb/s. So, this allows devices that are enabled for either of these technologies to exchange data very quickly when they are in close proximity. For most cases, this is when a computer and a phone or PDA are sitting on a desk next to each other.

MacBook_Air_powerNow, that’s data transfer. What about power? Power ports are huge issue because they take up space, both inside and outside. This puts a minimum thickness requirement on what ever device the power port is installed. Apple was able to (somewhat) work around this by curving the bottom of the MacBook Air, putting the MagSafe port on the bottom and including a 90-degree bent power connector. Since all electronic devices need to be powered, a power port has always been a necessary evil and will continue to be for at least several years. There are currently companies like WildCharge who are creating induction-based charging systems for consumer electronics. This would allow for a device to be placed on an inductive charging surface and charge with out cables. Unfortunately, this technology has yet to receive wide adoption and WildCharge’s own website only offers solutions for three mobile phones, the Motorola Razr and Blackberry’s Curve and Pearl.

Here is my vision for compact electronics and ultracompact notebooks. I see them moving away from conductive charging systems (power adapters, cords, etc.) and into inductive charging systems. Imagine simply having a small pedestal that you put your mobile phone, iPod, and notebook onto when you get home. It charges even faster than the old charging systems. You don’t have to keep track of cables or having your outlets filled up with chargers. Without all those power cables running around, there is less clutter in your work area. There are fewer cords to trip over. There is zero risk of accidental electrocution. The convenience goes even further because it is now possible to install inductive charging systems in tables, desks, and countertops. You can just set your notebook down on the kitchen counter and it starts charging.

As for pushing files around, again, you have less clutter. No more cables and ports, remember? Wireless technologies have advanced to the point where you can surf the web, download and upload files, and transfer contacts, photos, music, and video around your house without plugging in a single USB or Ethernet cable. Since phones already have Bluetooth and have used it successfully for years, it is a simple matter of moving into our mp3 players like the iPod and the Zune.

I realize that some of the advances I am seeing would take a while to successfully implement. Induction power systems are a reality today. Some of the advances in data transfer technology are still a few months or years off, but they are coming and they will be affordable to nearly everyone. Without the need to build ports into our lightweight compact devices, we will no longer have to make so many compromises and these stripped-down notebooks will become even more appealing. I seriously hope you will give the next few years of hardware evolution some thought. I would welcome any thoughts you may have on the subject.

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