One of the joys – and one of the biggest pain points – of our industry is the constant change. We no sooner wrap our brains around one set of technologies than another leaps onto the scene.
For the channel, however, those new technologies often have lovely dollar signs attached. Either they’ve already piqued the interest of customers, or they provide an opportunity for a little lucrative educating while they’re shiny new and margins are high.
A solid storage opportunity
Consider, for example, solid state disks (SSDs).
Some netbooks and high-end laptops already offer the technology, which is basically memory that acts like disk storage.
Currently, says Troy Winslow, director of product marketing for Intel Corp.‘s NAND solutions group (NAND memory forms the basis of USB flash drives and most currently available memory cards, as well as SSDs), there are two types of NAND flash memory: single level cells and multi-level cells.
Of the two, single level cells, which store one bit per cell, are more reliable and provide higher performance, but are also more costly. Multi-level cells store two bits per cell, are cheaper, but the tradeoff is in lower performance and reliability.
Intel incorporates single level cells in its enterprise-class SSDs, which offer 32 or 64 GB of storage. Multi-level technology goes into the client drives, with capacities of 80 or 160 GB today, and up to 300 GB next year.
Although the single cell capacities seem relatively small, Winslow says that because the SSDs are many times more responsive than traditional 10,000 or 15,000 RPM high-speed enterprise hard drives, they can feed data to CPUs briskly enough to compensate. He sees them being used not as primary storage, but as performance enhancing cache, while slower disk storage handles the large volumes of data.
In these eco-conscious times, one of the biggest benefits of SSDs is in power savings. With no motors running and no platters to spin, power consumption is measured in milliwatts rather than in watts.
However, there are downsides too, as users of early SSD models can attest. Flash memory is only capable of a limited number of write and erase cycles and, like any memory, can be subject to corruption due to electronic fluctuations. Winslow says that these issues have been addressed in the current crop of devices, with controllers and firmware that deal with error correction and wear leveling.
He sees a big reseller opportunity in the upgrade market for client drives. Today, users can purchase SATA SSDs that can directly replace hard drives, offering better performance, lower power consumption and lighter weight in mobile computers.
In desktops, he says, the SSD can store the operating system and compute-intensive applications, with traditional hard drives in secondary bays to handle data storage. SSDs are especially useful for cutting down on I/O bottlenecks, so gamers trying to eke the last shreds of performance from their systems are a prime market.
New opportunities in virtualization
Cutting down on startup bottlenecks is the focus of DeviceVM Inc. Its Splashtop and Splashtop for Business take the failed notion of a mini-OS that lets laptop users access e-mail and PIM data from a tiny screen on the laptop’s lid and turns it into a more usable solution. Splashtop products are installed on PCs by the manufacturer (HP, LG and others currently offer enabled models, with more announcements coming), and let the user pop into a Linux-based environment in seconds, where they can check e-mail, surf, game, or perform other basic functions without waiting for the primary OS to boot. Splashtop for Business also includes virtual desktop clients so administrators can provide a locked-down environment if appropriate. Steve Rokov, senior director of enterprise marketing, says some choose to stick with Splashtop for Business connecting to centrally managed virtual desktops, forgoing a local fat client entirely.
Desktop virtualization is still very much a technology that’s struggling to emerge, but Raj Mallempati, director of product marketing for enterprise desktop products at VMware Inc., believes that the tipping point is here. He sees centrally managed virtual desktops as the upcoming norm on a multitude of devices, from modern desktops through older systems to handheld devices. In fact, he says, the equivalent of a hypervisor for mobile devices is already under construction, and will allow user data to be kept in synch over multiple devices, via the cloud. Imagine keeping personal and work phone data in step, for example.
Giving new life to old technologies is the theme of another domain to monitor. Gabriel Silberman, senior vice-president and director of CA Labs, says the company is working on tools to assist in the understanding of assembly language code, driven by the needs of corporations with thousands of lines of legacy code and no-one on staff that understands or can maintain it.
Another area on Silberman’s radar is a variation on cloud computing, which has been showing its dark side recently. While customers are cooling towards the notion of a public cloud after numerous highly-publicized failures, CA sees emerging technologies revolving around the so-called private cloud, an emulation of the model on a corporate network. Putting critical systems outside their control, he says, is always a concern for companies, so a private cloud that offers cloud benefits without those risks is an attractive prospect that provides incremental savings over virtualization. And private clouds offer reseller opportunities that “the Cloud” does not.
The Paper Chase
The paperless office has been a conservationist goal for many years, and a subject of great debate. It will save trees and energy, they say. It will also eliminate clutter and filing, adds corporate management, eager to save both cash and space. And it will make work extremely difficult in some cases, counter the workers on whose heads this goal was dropped. It’s thus no surprise that the dream of the paperless office remains just that: a dream.
One potential solution to the conundrum is reusable paper. Not paper that’s used and recycled, but sheets that can be used over and over: the best of both worlds.
Xerox Corp. recently demonstrated just that. Its reusable paper is printed not with toner, but ultraviolet light, using technology similar to that in photochromic glasses (the ones that go dark in the sun, and lighten when you go indoors). Since people typically want their printouts to last longer than a few minutes, the method was tweaked so heat was required for printing as well as light. Like those glasses, the images on the paper gradually fade over time and ultimately disappear (typically in a week or so, if they’re exposed to normal light), or they can be erased immediately with yet more heat. Xerox’s tests have shown that a sheet is good for at least fifty uses.
Of course, right now the prints are only monochrome, and they’re purple – not exactly commercial quality output, but good enough for short-term output of e-mails and other transient documents. And the “printer” is currently a single sheet flatbed monster. Ultimately, these devices will look like ordinary laser printers, and will function as such as well as containing the ultraviolet/heat technology, allowing users to print either transient or permanent documents at will.
There are a few wrinkles to be ironed out before this technology goes live. Leaving printouts in a hot place, say a car on a summer day or a sunny desktop, will cause them to fade prematurely. The special coated paper needs to be produced in sufficient volume to make it commercially viable, and printers need to be designed.
Xerox can’t say when reusable paper will be commercially available, but when it is, it will create some interesting opportunities.
Anyone who uses a Palm Pre smartphone is likely acquainted with its Touchstone charging system. All you need to do to charge the device is put it down on the charger, a little slanted platform that you plug in using the standard Pre a/c adapter. The Pre is then charged through its special Touchstone back cover, thanks to the magic of induction.
Induction, for the uninitiated, takes advantage of the fact that an oscillating current flowing through coils in the Touchstone charger induces voltage in coils in the back cover of the Pre, charging the battery without a direct wire connection.
Powermat takes the technology a step farther. Its products – plain black mats that plug into a single electric socket – can charge multiple devices at once, monitoring each separately and cutting off power when it’s fully charged. Special receivers are available for many devices (a battery cover for the BlackBerry, for example, and a dock for the iPod), and the company also provides a universal charger that connects to unsupported units through one of eight plug-in tips. The company claims that devices charge as quickly as they would when plugged in.
The same technology was demonstrated at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, embedded in a desk. That allowed the user to power virtually any enabled device, simply by putting it down on a “hot” spot.
Today, the target devices are small consumer electronics such as smartphones; look for the technology to expand its scope to power larger items.