January 18, 2001, 9:12 AM — Don't blink! That's the advice from Jeffrey Harrow, author and editor of the online journal The Rapidly Changing Face of Computing. Harrow is a principal member of the technical staff for Compaq's Corporate Strategy Group. He holds six patents for computing technologies and is a respected technical fellow. I heard Harrow speak at a recent technical conference, and he opened my eyes to the future of computing.
While most of us spend our time in the trenches of today's technology, Harrow spends his time looking at what's coming. The future to him isn't just six months out, or 12, or even 24 months. Harrow is peering years down the road, when phenomena such as DNA computing and molecular electronics may be commonplace.
Now the thought of molecular electronics -- in which circuits assemble themselves through chemical processes -- might seem too far-fetched to believe. But Harrow's information is thoroughly researched, and he tends to report on technologies that have been proven, even if only in an engineer's or scientist's lab.
Harrow tells a very compelling story about the rapidly changing face of computing. To help his audience understand and appreciate the future, he looks at what we've experienced in the Information Age. For example, in less than 20 years, technology advances have let the cost of storage drop from about $60 per megabyte in 1984 to less than four-tenths of a penny per megabyte in 2000.
Innovations in storage technologies lead to the doubling of capacity every nine months -- twice the rate of Moore's Law. Fluorescent, multilayered storage is one technology Harrow says is around the corner. Engineers can store 140G bytes of information on a medium that looks similar to a DVD. And NEC Labs is working on holographic storage technology that will yield far greater capacity.
Harrow says that's nothing compared to what's happening in communications. End-user bandwidth is growing exponentially. Remember those old 110-baud modems we used to use? Engineers can now deliver 3.28 terabits/sec over fiber. Fiber capacity doubles every six months -- four times the rate of Moore's Law. Yet, Harrow says, this still only represents less than one-half of 1% of the total capacity of a fiber.
Computers are becoming incredibly sophisticated, too. Harrow speaks of future complete computing devices -- a microprocessor, memory, storage, caching, communications and so forth -- that are one to two millimeters in size. Fitted with wing-like devices, these computers can become airborne; hence the name "Smart Dust" computers. And remember, these things are not science fiction, but are being explored in labs today.
What about all these Web-enabled devices that are hitting the market? With everything from refrigerators to automobiles soon to be able to connect to the Internet, we'll be running out of IP addresses.