Disruptive forces are constantly at work in human culture. When something occurs at significant scale, the impact of those disruptive forces ripples in nonlinear ways across the entire ecology of human culture. These developments are game-changers. When something changes in the options for human beings by powers of 10, that jump in scale generally implies something revolutionary, a jump so big in the scale of vision that it radically changes our way of life and our culture in ways that can cannot be predicted or foreseen. The concept of the power of ten has been examined from a number of different perspectives, generally by some visual sense scaling from a view from the edge of the universe to inside an atom, a perspective that is powerfully informative and impressive (see molecular expressions from FSU; search "powers of 10"). The area of computing, digital literacy and networking also feel the impact of the power of 10. The personal desktop computer for $1000 is at least a tenth of the size, cost and speed of earlier computers that cost over 1 million dollars and took up the size of a room. This development continues with the next power of ten being something at least a tenth of the size of a desktop computer and at least a tenth of the price. Will it be a palm held computer such as a smartphone or PDA or will it be a netbook that requires a hand to grasp but two hands to operate? The much smaller size means that standard mouse and keyboard access are not as convenient as touch screens, thumb pads or voice commands which has encouraged computer engineers to rethink the operating systems that will be used to command these smaller devices. The smallest handheld devices in this discussion will be refered to as palm computers and the ones that just fit in two hands will be called netbooks. Because these computers run slower and have less file storage and memory, they are increasingly perceived of as a "Web-book" computer, using wireless access (wi-fi and cell phone technology) to the Internet to gain access to online applications and information, instead of storing these resources in the handheld computer itself.
Palm size computers come in many forms with many labels, including PDA or personal digital assistant, smartphones, and wi-fi phones. From 2005 onward the PDAs evolved rapidly into the smartphone concept merging cell phone and PDA ideas. The latest version of the iPod Touch is a general purpose computer and can handle Internet phone calling using Wi-Fi, e.g., VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) without a cell phone contract. (Clicks from this page will appear in the frame below.)
How does one work with a computer when there is no keyboard, mouse or reliable voice activation? All operating systems by definition require some method of entering commands to direct the computer's activity. To be able to hold a computer in one hand and communicate quickly using the other hand appeared to require a handwriting recognition program. These were also referred to as pen computers, because of the need for stylus to enter data. Later models dropped handwriting recognition in favor of thumb keyboards or thumbpads and screen keyboards.
Some of the early work on handwriting recognition was done by Xerox Corporation but they never developed a viable commercial computer product. Later, companies such as Palm and Symbian (released in 1996) developed their own handwriting recognition operating systems. Microsoft (Windows CE, released in 1996, a title that has evolved into Windows Mobile for what it calls Pocket PCs) and Linux altered their existing operating systems to incorporate handwriting recognition and thereby work on handheld computers. By 2004, state of the art PDAs included wireless communication for data and telephone including Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, slots for memory and compact flash cards, color screens with 320x240 pixel resolution and a wide range of applications similar to those found on desktop computers. In 2007, Apple, Inc. announced the iPhone product with finger and finger movement recognition.
Click these links to see a wide variety of different types of handheld or PDA computers in the frame below: Google handheld ; PDA; thumbpad; Yahoo "handheld computer" ; PDA, Blackberry, iPod Touch, iPhone.
Since the release of the first PDA in 1996, development of PDA technology and operating systems has been swift and rich with modern features. The good news though is that prices have been steadily dropping and features growing. Counting the used PDA market, prices range from $30 to several hundred dollars for a device that slips easily into a pocket or purse. Classroom sets of thirty for selected wifi (wireless) PDAs can bring the prices of such units down and close to $200 per unit and lower.
Netbook (Wikipedia, 2009; search "netbook definition") was a term coined by Intel for an ultra-small laptop computer with Intel's specialized low power CPU chips in reactions Negroponte's work at MIT with the $100 laptop concept which had leaped ahead of Intel's design thinking. Note the picture that shows the size differences between a standard 15 inch laptop and the 9 inch screen netbook. These models have become so popular that shipments will double this year, while mainstream laptop shipsments will remain flat" (Shah, July 13, 2009) with sales nearing 30 million for the year.
Current netbook prices range from $200 to $800 per unit (PriceGrabber search for netbooks) with new models and pictures of numerous new designs being announced almost monthly. The itch for one-to-one computer, each child with their own wireless computer, is strong. For many educators though, evidence would indicate that it is still not time to buy in with large scale purchasing for school students.
Why wait? That line of reasoning leads us back to the $100 laptop project whose current computer is the XO-1, sometimes called the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) XO-1 (Wikipedia) computer. This project has its own OLPC Web site, which is a good source of current development news and pictures of their engineering. Look carefully at the slideshow at the top of their opening screen for pictures of students using them around the world. The XO laptop was not just a brilliant and innovative hardware re-design, it was a careful rethinking of the operating system and applications to encourage learning. It is not just a smaller business laptop, it is an educatioal laptop. Read Lawton's careful analysis of the XO laptop, The XO Laptop Two years Later - Part 1 (Lawton, 2009).
The problem is that the netbook design is not really done. All netbooks should be thought of as a work-in-progress. The engineers have yet to solve some major problems with battery power and price. What has emerged that is new among the computer designers is that the awareness that it is not the computer chips or keyboard, rather the computer's screen, which is the major factor in cost and power use. New LCD screen designs that just emerged from the factories of Taiwan in the summer of 2009 are being shown to netbook manufacturing companies. There is some speculation that the new screens will be so cost effective that they will enable the XO to be sold in the $75 price range, perhaps as early as the summer of 2010. The leader in designing these new computer screens is a company called Pixel Qi. Pixel Qi is led by founder Mary Lou Jepsen, the former CTO (Chief Technology Officer) for the XO project. Time Magazine's Jsoh Quittner recently viewed and analyzed these recently released screens, a perspective best summarized in the title of his blog posting, Pixel Qi's Killer Display is the future of E-Reading (Quittner, May 30, 2009).
However the hardware is improved, the underlying significant value is in the operating system, in the design of specific tools that enable users to interact with it and to meet the goals and needs of education and business.
The relentless changes in engineering point to a future where another power of 10 jump is starting to happen and will become even more significant in the years ahead. Whether the Web-book handheld computer that you eventually purchase is an iPhone (palm computer) or a XO (netbook computer) is likely to be a personal decision that should be based on what it can do, not on the simple factors of cost or size. However, the impact of power of ten development on computers is hardly over. Handheld computers are just one step in the evolution of shrinking digital technology. Next generation development is already underway with research on wearable computers, eliminating the handheld device and distributing a network of computer functions within our clothing and jewelry. This implies further redesign of an operating system which will most likely have to work with touch and voice commands, with no keyboard in sight.
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version 1.0 1993 | version 3.02 Updated 6/14/2009 | Page author: Bob Houghton