RealTime IT News

The End of Hardware as You Know It

Most big, long-term trends in computers and technology are well understood. Everyone knows, thanks to Moore and his Law, that gadgets get smaller, cheaper and faster.

But the least appreciated trend is the inexorable transition from mechanical to solid state. Don't look now, but we're about to reach the end of the trend -- soon just about all computer and consumer electronics devices will have no moving parts.

It's no mystery why solid state will take over. By replacing mechanical parts with electronic ones, devices can get smaller, cheaper, more energy efficient, rugged, long-lasting, easier to service and maintain and less prone to dirt and dust.

Just look at how electronic devices have evolved in the past ten years. Most cell phones had pull-out antennas. Now antennas are buried inside and fixed in place.

Mice had trackballs, which rotated physical metal bars inside the mouse to register movement on X and Y axes. Now mice use light to detect movement.

Wristwatches used to keep time via geared wheels pushed by a wound spring. Those still exist, but most watches are now just little computers.

The end of hard drives

Other transitions are still in the works. PC storage is transitioning before our very eyes from hard disk drives, which involve spinning magnetic plates with a fast-moving actuator arm that seeks out data, to flash storage, which is transistor-based technology.

The original Apple iPod was mostly hard drive. Now called the iPod Classic, the device is largely passed over by consumers in favor of the solid-state, flash-storage iPod Touch.

Tech pundits, including yours truly, registered some surprise that the iPod Classic and its antiquated hard drive wasn't officially discontinued in the latest Apple announcement.

In just a year or two, it's almost certain that nearly all laptops, netbooks, media players and other smaller devices will have solid state storage instead of hard disk drives.

A couple years after that, desktops will have them, too.

The end of buttons

TechCrunch pointed out this week that the "end of buttons" appears imminent.

The Apple iPhone is the biggest-selling smartphone in history, and it made the world safe for buttonless phones.

Of course, the iPhone does have buttons, including the big startup button at the bottom, as well as sleep-wake and volume control buttons. But the iPhone is a transitional device.

In the future, cell phones will have literally zero physical buttons.

Even TV remote controls are losing their buttons. The Boy Genius Report blog published a leaked photo of a future remote control unit by Apple that is supposed to ship with future versions of the Apple TV product.

If the post is true, Apple wouldn't be the first. Radio Shack, for example, sells the Kameleon remote control, which has a solid-state touch screen.

New digital cameras offer touch screens in place of mechanical buttons, including the, Nikon CoolPix S230, Nikon Coolpix S60, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500, Sony Cyber-shot DSC-G3 and the Sony Cyber-shot T900.

The end of disks

Removable media has undergone three simultaneous evolutionary paths. What started as paper with holes in it transitioned to tapes, floppy disks, not-so-floppy disks, CDs, DVDs and now Blu-ray.

Although the general trend in these advancing technologies has been toward fewer moving parts, total solid state functionality isn't practical. The disks have to be sucked in, spun and spit out using mechanical parts – which is why they'll go away.

Next page: The end of keyboards