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One word leaps to mind when I think back twenty years to the embedded technology of 2008–wires.
It seems strange to remind ourselves that it was not really too long ago that every device we used had to be tethered to something–be it another device like a networking hub or printer for data transfer, or a wall-mounted outlet for power–either on a permanent or intermittent basis.
Yes, our cell phones gave us the illusion of mobility, with their multiday battery life and transmission range of a couple of miles. But that illusion soon broke down if you talked for too long or moved into a “dead spot” between cell towers or journeyed into a tunnel. And remember those coffee shops with free Wi-Fi? It worked great until you moved your laptop (remember those?) more than a few feet.
Of course, wireless connectively was starting to achieve ubiquity in 2008, as 3G and WiMAX networks began to deliver transfer rates capable of streaming audio and video content of acceptable fidelity–and of course I mean “acceptable” for the time (just as silent movies were acceptable for their time). But even as the content pipes themselves became fatter, the power drain also increased, forcing us back into the world of wires more often to recharge our batteries. That problem was only solved when wireless power started to became co effective, from around 2012 onwards, when three things started to happen simultaneously.
First, battery technology improved by an order of magnitude almost over night as carbon nanotubes found one of their first mass-market applications. (Yes–there was a time when we were still trying to figure out what to do with these little beasts, although because they're now be found in everything from breakfast cereal to mascara, the youngsters among you may be forgiven for thinking they've been around forever.) That meant that batteries could last much longer between charges and could be topped off much more quickly.
Remember these little demons?
The second thing that enabled us to finally “cut the cord” was the introduction of induction charging technology in high-volume consumer products such as portable media players. This enabled our devices to recharge their batteries without any intervention on our part, whenever they moved within a few feet of a suitable charging station.
But what led us to true 24/7 mobility came about as part of the global response to what has come to be known as the World Fuel Crisis of 2012. Almost overnight, what we then thought of as “alternative” energy sources–solar, wind, and so forth–for the first time, became commercially cheaper than oil or any of its fossil-fuel friends. Over the course of the next decade, we gradually weaned ourselves off hydrocarbons–to the despair of Big Oil and joy of environmentalists–as affordable, localized power production and storage became the norm.
These three things contributed to the infrastructure we enjoy today: billions of small, lightweight embedded devices, all talking to each other and serving thousands of needs, and none of them ever dying thanks to a vast and invisible assortment of induction charging stations, built into our furniture and our cars, which are themselves fuelled by everything from sunlight to the movement of our own bodies.
Yes, it has taken twenty years to achieve true mobility; there are no more wires. So now when I reach the end of my tether, I know it can only be down to the software. Who knows, maybe in another twenty year s we'll no longer need to know what “reboot” means.
Neil Henderson is the general manager of the Embedded Systems Division, Mentor Graphics Corporation.