Xu: Shifting paradigms in ’08,’09

2008 was a year of change — and not just in politics.

The computer industry is changing — the product of the end of one cycle of technologies and the changing market conditions. New technologies began appearing in 2008 that will continue to gain traction in 2009 — technologies that may change the face of computing permanently. In both the hardware and software realms, new trends may mark a paradigm shift as remarkable as that created by the introduction of the CD-ROM and high-capacity hard drives a decade ago. 2009 will see the dawn of a new era of computers and how we use them.

Here’s why.

Portability is the new war cry of personal computing. After a banner year for mobile computing, there is no reason to doubt the continued growth in the popularity of mobile computers. Chips are simultaneously getting smaller and more powerful. The gap in performance between a laptop and a desktop, for most users, is too insignificant — especially when compared to the utility of portability. But the current market conditions call for a new brand of laptops: small, cheap, and extremely portable.

Enter the netbook. Having emerged in 2008, these eight-to-10-inch laptops are equipped with Intel’s Atom processor, a small, but powerful, processor that enables laptops to perform basic computing functions with an extremely slim profile. Asus and MSI have led the charge, with larger companies such as Dell, HP, and Sony following quickly on their heels. The list of Amazon Top-selling laptops is flooded with these sub-$400 notebooks — the only exceptions being Apple’s Macbook product line, seemingly the only successful consumer laptop left.

With the netbook’s new profile paradigm, 2009 will see the mainstream adoption of the Solid State Drive. The SSD stores data on flash chips, rather than on magnetic platters. While they are expensive now (a 64GB SSD retails for as much as a 320GB laptop hard drive), their price is dropping at a yearly rate of 60 percent, and by the end of 2009, the advantages of the SSD will outweigh its capacity shortages. SSDs have no moving parts, and are thus much less susceptible to the failures that plague conventional hard drives. They are also completely silent, draw less power, emit less heat and read much faster. All the signs point to SSDs becoming the future of computing — it’s only a question of time.

On the software side, 2009 will likely see the introduction of Microsoft’s Windows 7 operating system. What’s interesting about Windows 7, besides its broad improvement in performance over Vista, is its introduction of several features specifically built for touch computing. HP’s TouchSmart Pro was the first mainstream desktop computer to feature a touch screen, and Microsoft is banking on Windows 7 to lead computing into the brave new world of a touch interface. Apple’s iPod Touch and iPhone have revolutionized mobile touch computing; Microsoft hopes to do the same for desktop touch computing.

For computers, this past year was only the beginning of a fundamental shift in usage. The coming year will only build upon and accelerate that shift.

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