Alan Cane: Quest for desirable lightness of being

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A colleague reminds me that it is 25 years since the launch of the Sinclair ZX81, a tiny machine clothed in black ABS plastic that was many people’s introduction to personal computing.

But not computing as we know it today.

Nobody then really knew what a personal computer was for and the machines were essentially marketed as miniature versions of mainframes. The tiny devices were sold with a Basic interpreter and a thick handbook from which owners were expected to pick up the essentials of programming their new toy.

Some took to it like ducks to orange sauce and became the vanguard of the UK’s army of games programmers. Others left book, Basic and computer to gather dust and never touched a computer knowingly again. (“Knowingly” is an important distinction. It is not like refusing to have television in the house. With the advent of ubiquitous computing – tiny microprocessors everywhere – even the most hardened technophobe cannot avoid touching a computer-controlled product several times a day.)

The rest bought Apple IIs, BBC Bs and Amstrads, “proper” machines capable of running useful applications – well, word processing, anyway. Today, you would be hard pressed to find a Basic instruction book in the computer section of your local bookshop.

The ZX81, limited in power and memory though it was, was light: a mere 350g, admittedly without screen (several kg for a television set) or power supply.

Computers have never been so light. I am excluding personal digital assistants, mobile phones and the like from this category. They may be light but their small size makes them difficult to use for grown-up applications such as reading newspapers or company accounts.

So the search for lighter and lighter machines goes on.

Richard Holway, an industry analyst, noted in a presentation before the turn of the year: “It is clearly unacceptable for most executives to be carrying around laptops weighing in at the current norm of 2.7kg. Battery technology, too, must enable these devices to operate for days not hours.”

Not this year, though. NEC sends me a press release trumpeting the virtues of a laptop designed specially for the education market with four-hour battery life and weighing a mere 2.2kg. “Easy to carry in a schoolbag,” the company says. Which begs a variation on the old line: “Carry your 2.2kg laptop for you, miss?”

Mr Holway suggested that handheld “tablet” computers such as the “Flipstart” and the “OQO” were a move in the right direction. But again, these machines are on the small side for the average human. And far too small for those with less than perfect eyesight or butcher’s fingers.

Power will remain a problem.

Scientists are continuing to work frenetically on packing more energy into a given space but progress is slow. Panasonic, for example, this month announced batteries based on nickel oxyhydroxide chemistry, claiming a significant performance boost over conventional products.

However, the fuel cell, which converts hydrogen and oxygen into water releasing electrical power in the process has long been seen as an ideal solution for laptop computers. Panasonic has been working on the technology for five years and this month was able to demonstrate a cell providing 20 hours laptop operation for 7oz of pure methanol fuel. A commercial product, however, seems to be several years off.

The electronics in a laptop are both lightweight and take up little space. The question is how to provide a full-size screen and keyboard that are both light and conveniently portable. Here the answer may be e-paper, a material that can be rolled or folded like paper but is capable of displaying text and images like a conventional screen.

As Nick Hampshire and Guy Kewney point out in a recent report on e-paper*, years of research have finally yielded prototypes from Philips of the Netherlands and Plastic Logic of the UK, while many other companies are at a late stage of research and development. They expect the first commercial products to reach the market later this year.

So imagine a screen and a keyboard both of which could be unrolled rather like a parchment scroll to yield a full size laptop weighing only a few grammes. Would it prove to be popular?

Hampshire and Kewney questioned members of the public about their preferences with regard to an e-paper reader – which could be regarded as a proxy for a laptop – and discovered that most wanted an A4-sized device of between 100g and 300g in weight with a touch-screen or full qwerty keyboard and a connection to the internet.

Curiously, only 29 per cent wanted a screen which could be rolled into a tube, while 46 per cent wanted something bendable like thick card.

Exactly when super-slim machines of this kind might become available is open to speculation. Technology can be unpredictable. But unless the weight of portable devices can be substantially reduced without compromising usability, the much touted trend to computing mobility is likely to be slower than hoped.

*E-Paper Becomes a Reality. AFAICS Research London. www.afaics.com

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