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.
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The second trend is toward solid state removable media. “Thumb drives” have replaced floppies, and could soon start replacing CDs and DVDs as prices fall. There’s even some chatter that Microsoft could offer the netbook version of its Windows 7 operating system on a thumb drive.
But the biggest trend is away from media altogether in favor of downloads. Software is now mostly purchased and delivered over the Internet. And even full-length movies are downloaded, rather than watched from disk.
All the major movie rental companies, including Blockbuster and Netflix, are offering downloadable full-length movies. In just a year or two, this is how most at-home movies will be delivered.
Both these trends — solid state removable media and downloadable code — will kill off disks and clunky, mechanical disk drives from our devices forever.
The end of keyboards
And the last bit of old-fashioned mechanics to vanish from our desks will be our keyboards.
Apple’s rumored product direction is to transform everything into an iPhone. First up is the rumored tablet, which will have an on-screen keyboard and multi-touch screen. Then, I believe, Apple will offer a bigger tablet.
Eventually, Apple desktops will be like giant iPhones, positioned at a drafter’s table angle, and controlled with fingers on glass. Want a keyboard? Just do the “keyboard” gesture, and one will appear on-screen.
Apple won’t be alone. Microsoft Windows will support multi-touch, no-keyboard computing as well. Microsoft even has a patent for an extremely innovative on-screen keyboard.
According to the patent application, the virtual keyboard is divided in half, just like Microsoft’s ergonomic line of keyboards. Each half automatically appears or moves itself to be positioned perfectly under your fingers. So no matter where you drop your hands while in typing mode, the “F” key is always under your left index finger, for example, and the “J” key is always under your right.
On future Apple and Microsoft multi-touch operating systems, haptics will give you psychologically satisfying tactile feedback. Voice-recognition and voice command, as well as better auto-correct and predictive typing will make the whole experience of getting words into your computer faster and easier than keyboards alone can do.
Some of us will go kicking and screaming into this solid state future. But resistance is futile. A world of electronics with no moving parts is a near certainty.
All trend lines point to the total elimination of funky contraptions that use gears, wheels, spokes and motors and other industrial-revolution technologies.
So as Moore’s Law continues to make gadgets smaller, cheaper and faster, the solid state trend will make them greener, cleaner, stronger and easier to use as well.
In addition to writing for Datamation, where this column first appeared, Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows magazine. He can be reached at [email protected] or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.