This is part of IEEE Spectrum’s special report: Top 11 Technologies of the Decade
Paper or Plastic?
In 2020, newspapers will still be with us, but they won’t be paper
Despite the increasing sophistication of electronic displays, with their staggering color palettes and expanding contrast levels, Gutenberg’s 15th-century technology didn’t begin to give way until the 2000s. That was when electronic paper made its debut in digital book readers like Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook.
E-paper exploits a phenomenon called electrophoresis, discovered in 1807 and revived at Xerox PARC in the 1970s but put to practical use at MIT’s Media Lab only in 1997. It uses a jolt of current to make the black dye inside thousands of microcapsules sandwiched between flexible polymer sheets rise to the top of the capsules so that the “ink” becomes visible through one of the sheets. A great advantage of this method is that it draws power only when updating the image on the screen. Recent models offer a contrast ratio similar to that of a newspaper.
Speaking of the dailies, they just may supplant books as the killer app for e-readers. Uploading a digital version of your hometown broadsheet on a plastic sheet that you can roll up and tuck in your bag would eliminate the cost of printing and distribution, and it’d also save a lot of trees.
—Willie D. Jones
The New Computing Covenant
Apple brings tablets down from the mountain
In his 1972 article “A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages,” computer scientist Alan Kay imagined the DynaBook, then a computer of “science fiction,” around 2 centimeters thick, weighing less than 2 kilograms, and the size and shape of a paper notebook, with a power-charging connection for use at work or in libraries. Arguably, the first machines even to resemble Kay’s tablet device emerged in the 1980s, as digital clipboards for insurance adjusters and salespeople.
Then, in April 2010, Apple released the iPad. Only 1.34 cm thick, the Wi-Fi–enabled and 3G-capable model weighs just 0.73 kg. Apple sold some 2 million units in 60 days and 3 million in 80 days. Meanwhile, HP, Dell, Samsung, Notion Ink, Asus, and Lenovo, among others, all have similar tablet computers on the market or are planning them.
According to Jeff Hawkins, developer of the 1989 GridPad, an early tablet, and later of the Palm Pilot, the consumer versions had to wait for flat color displays, low-power CPUs, better batteries, and wireless networks. “The technology didn’t exist 20 years ago that was necessary for successful consumer tablets,” he says.
Still, Kay says, tablet computers haven’t yet reached his vision of the DynaBook. “What end users can make, and what it takes to make something, are both woefully inadequate on today’s machines,” he says. With a different approach, he adds, tablets such as the iPad could be “one of the greatest educational amplifiers for children ever made.”
Compress Me a Song
A German researcher took us from albums to algorithms
When my children are my age, they will surely look back with bemusement at the crude means by which their elders entertained themselves. They’ll laugh at the thought of vinyl platters spinning like carousels, cartridges containing spools of magnetic tape, and even laser-etched metal sheets embedded in plastic discs. They’ll take for granted that you can carry every bit of music you own in your pocket.
And it’s no sweat now, because NAND flash memory sells for about a dollar per gigabyte. But back in 1989, when a German researcher introduced the idea behind the MP3 compression algorithm, flash memory cost several hundred dollars per megabyte. Several things happened at the close of the last decade that together marked the dividing line between B.C. (before compression) and A.D. (Apple domination). In 1997, the first MP3 player was introduced, with enough storage capacity for about six songs (paltry, it’s true, even by 8-track standards). Two years later, Shawn Fanning rolled out Napster, providing an easy way for people with MP3 files to share the songs in their collections. Around that same time, the first USB flash memory key drives arrived, further stoking demand for nonvolatile memory.
In 2001, when Apple introduced the first iPod, consumers’ expectations were irrevocably changed. (Pay for music online? Perhaps. Buy a whole LP? Fuhgeddaboutit.) By 2006, digital music had unseated its predecessors: Five billion digital music files were swapped on peer-to-peer networks that year, and the ubiquitous iPod, aided by Apple’s iTunes online music store, was fast approaching 100 million units a year in sales.
Think: When was the last time you even saw someone carrying a portable CD or cassette player or found yourself browsing the shelves in a record store?
—Willie D. Jones