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Solid-State PCs: Computing's Next Horizon

By Jack M. Germain
Dec 21, 2006 4:00 AM PT

Coming to computer stores in the not-too-distant future will be a new type of PC. It will not have a hard drive, and the operating system will be burned onto a chip, making malware manipulations and viruses problems of the past.

Solid-State PCs: Computing's Next Horizon

This trend toward solid-state PCs is being driven, in part, by security concerns and a push to converge operating systems toward Unix/Linux platforms. The elimination of spinning storage platters, which are near the end of their bulk capacity, will also increase operating speed.

Could cheap Asian computing appliances being developed with an open source operating system on a microchip be the ultimate Microsoft killer? The Mobilis computer out of India, a Linux-based mobile desktop with a 7.4 inch LCD screen, is one example of the newer, more powerful -- and cheaper -- hardware to come.

"Solid-state PCs are entirely feasible to develop, but there still are issues to solve in booting from Flash RAM (random access memory)," Robert Hoffer, cofounder and managing director of NewForth Partners, told TechNewsWorld. "The ideal approach is to use Linux. This is already being worked on by numerous companies."

Natural Progression

Though still in the conceptual stage, the solid-state PC may soon be production-ready, said Ken Steinberg, CEO of Savant Protection. His company specializes in malware containment and has been experimenting with improved operating system security for such devices.

"Solid-state PCs are a natural progression of existing technology," he said, adding that networking components have been working from solid state devices for some time. "The concept of solid state is only an upgrade, electronically, to what we have now."

Solid-state PCs are already under development in Asia and South America," said Brooke Partridge, CEO and principal consultant for Vital Wave Consulting. "[Developing] solid-state devices with an embedded OS is a very intriguing concept and meets the needs consumers have for durability and cost-effectiveness," she noted.

Quantum Leap

Solid-state computing hinges largely on the use of quantum physics, noted Steinberg. The concept of large hard drives no longer makes sense, he added, as solid-state components can handle massive amounts of storage.

One approach, he suggested, is to put the OS in EPROM (erasable programmable read-only memory). "Quantum physics capability is ready to do this. Memory is very cheap, and quantum physics is getting us to the point of success."

Problems surrounding security and data storage without spinning hard drives will be solved very soon, he claimed.

It is possible today to produce a solid-state PC using the Linux OS, and to do the same thing with the Windows OS in two or three years, Steinberg added.

The computer industry is on the verge of seeing solid-state replacements for the aging spinning platter technology, said Hoffer, who admitted that a gap still exists between Flash RAM and traditional spindle storage.

"However, the time is right to move forward with Flash RAM storage because spindle drive capacity is at the end of its possibilities for greater storage," he said. "Ultra-light PCs and laptops make the most sense as the target vehicle for this new technology."

Hoffer expects researchers to solve the storage issues in the next two to three years. The results, he said, will be solid-state PCs that will be lighter weight.

Write Space

Today's operating systems are vulnerable to intrusion because they live on a device that permits write-only access, according to Steinberg. For instance, the core component in the Windows OS is not locked down, but Linux can lock down the OS, making it the OS of choice for solid-state computers.

"Looking at the last 20 years of computer technology, the industry has allowed vendors to write to the OS space. We need to change this," he said.

A major driving force for changing the write-space design of the OS will come from federal legislation, such as HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), according to Steinberg. He said that it is only a matter of time before manufacturers start to do it.

"We are already doing this at Savant. We are putting hardware in a lockdown mode. This will be the next new horizon in computing," he predicted.

No Microsoft Killer

Even if Linux were to become the primary OS for solid-state PCs, the new technology probably would not destroy Microsoft's dominance in any so-called operating system war. Hoffer does not think a solid-state PC would destroy Microsoft.

"The notion of shifting architecture of the PC won't impact on Microsoft," he surmised. "Developers won't abandon Macs or Windows computers. We will still need a viable desktop workstation."

When Microsoft is confronted with new technology, it is infamous for developing its own brand and continuing to control the market, said Partridge.

Then there is the matter of moving data to the Internet to avoid the need for an on-board storage device. "The solution is feasible now -- and probable in 60 months," said Hoffer.

The Internet could replace the need for local bulk storage. For instance, Google offers a suite of applications that only need an Internet connection and Web browser to provide word processing, spreadsheet functionality and online storage of documents, Hoffer added.

"Issues still exist around broadband, but the industry is already going in that direction," he said. "Solid-state PCs are more evolutionary than revolutionary," he concluded.

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