There were two big pieces of tech news these past few days. One involved a product yet to be introduced that is being heralded as "the next big thing," the sexy you-gotta-get-one product of the decade - but which actually just rolls up and duplicates (rather nicely, it should be noted) technology already on the market.
The other piece of news was a lot less sexy and got a little bit lost in the computer press with all the noise about the other thing. But from a technical point of view and the potential effect on products of the the future, it was far more important, in my humble opinion.
First, sexy: Of course I'm talking about the iPhone (http://www.apple.com/iphone/phone), the newest killer product from Apple. This is the power smart phone to end all phones, with the functions of an iPod, a PDA, a Web browser and, of course, a cell phone. Like all other Apple products, the iPhone is all about ease of use, just like its Mac ancestors. The iPhone uses a cell phone version of Mac mail, Safari, the Mac Web browser, and makes extensive use of widgets as shortcuts to specific clusters of information on the Web such as stocks, weather and news. You can make a call just by touching the name of your correspondent on the phone's screen, and you can choose which voicemail messages to listen to in whichever order, a feature unique to the iPhone. In fact, the sense of touch is highly important to the iPhone, as you can scroll through screens, videos, songs and all sorts of things just by touching the appropriate spot on the screen. And it plays music, videos, photo slideshows and displays e-books - and you can sync up everything into your Mac or PC, directly into iTunes.
The iPhone is set to be released at the end of the month, and is priced at $499 - a mite pricey for most pockets, but a bargain if you look at it as a replacement for a cell phone, video iPod and PDA. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be available in Israel anytime soon as the initial production run is already spoken for by AT&T in the US. There is currently a great deal of speculation as to whether the iPhone will be available only with one of AT&T's calling plans, or with the company's "pay as you go" program, where you buy minutes without committing to a plan. But you would still have to be an AT&T customer - it's highly unlikely you would be able to get an unlocked iPhone so you could put your Israeli SIM chip in it (it's a quad band GSM phone, so it would work with GSM networks in Israel, like Orange).
Like any kid who can't have a toy he longs for, I whined, pouted and threw a tantrum when I found out there wouldn't be any unlocked iPhones; then I went to stage two, acceptance - and realized I could, if I wanted, get at least some of the features of the iPhone in already available products that come in an unlocked version. Among the models that come to mind are the Motorola Ming Smart Phone PDA (http://www.motorola.com.hk/eng/motomobile/a/a1200/), Sony Ericsson w710i Walkman/Exercise phone, The HTC TyTN PDA (http://tinyurl.com/zm4a9), and the Nokia N80. Each of these phones includes at least some of the functions of the iPhone, which means that the iPhone's greatness is that it wraps up diverse technologies into one easy-to-use package. A cynic would call the iPhone "warmed over technology," but I think fitting all these different functions into an integrated single unit in which all the functions work together properly in tandem is definitely innovative.
But it's not revolutionary. The iPhone, if it takes off, is likely to force other phone manufacturers to do more device integration. Apple's great accomplishment was to take the different technologies and unify them in a single device, but the iPhone is built on existing technology; it's innovation is in its packaging and marketing, and its success will spur on a horde of imitators who will seek to better package their own technologies. The iPhone is the next step in the evolution of the handheld device, and for that it deserves much credit and admiration.
But the other piece of news promises a real breakthrough in the way we do things today. SanDisk, the world's largest maker of flash memory, has just released a 64 GB flash SSD that can act as a replacement for a hard drive in a laptop. Previously, Sandisk's largest SSD was 32 GB - a bit small for most users - but the release of the 64 GB version promises to catapult SSD use in laptops by technological furlongs.
SSD stands for Solid State Drives, and that means that, like with flash memory chips you put in cameras and PDAs, there are no moving parts. According to Sandisk, that gives SSDs a predicted life six times greater than "traditional" hard drives; you can drop them without fear of damaging or erasing them, they require less power than the competition and they're a lot faster for data access - as much as twice as fast in most circumstances - as typical hard drives. Plus, they're a lot quieter - none of that "whirring" associated with regular hard drives.
Given a choice, who wouldn't take a flash SSD over a clunky, whirring and relatively fragile hard drive? The answer is, nobody. From sales of four million units this year, the Gartner Group technology researchers say Sandisk will be shipping 32 million of the things by 2010. Where are those SSDs going to go? Into laptops like the Toshiba Dynabook (http://www.i4u.com/article9374.html), an advanced notebook that weighs barely a kilo. A super light laptop you can take anywhere, even on the toughest road trip, and not have to worry about shorting out the hard drive? This could change - revolutionize - the entire way people use laptops. Cool!
Maybe, at first glance, not as cool as the iPhone - but when you think about it, widespread use of SSDs will change a great deal about the way we use laptops. Now how cool is that?