IoT Edge Computing

Off-The-Shelf Hacker: Will Your Next Laptop Be Your Last?

31 Oct 2018 6:00am, by

Hedley the robotic skull and I are in Minneapolis this week for the Embedded System Conference. I’m anxious to walk around and talk to people about the very latest trends in embedded and physical computing systems.

Halloween is also a great time to do something exceptionally scary… like, leaving my laptop at home.

I’ve used laptops pretty much exclusively since 1986. My very first machine was a Toshiba T-1100 Plus. It was a real screamer running at 7.16MHz on an Intel 80C86 processor. It had a massive 640MB of RAM and a pair of 720KB floppy disks. Hard drives came out in the later T1200 model. The display was monochrome and could manage 640×200 resolution. There was also a rechargeable Ni-Cad battery. The beast weighed nine pounds and set me back over $2000. It was a sweet machine.

The old Toshiba isn’t going to the ESC show.

That Was Then, This Is Now

My 10-year-old, duo-core ASUS Linux notebook won’t be in Minneapolis either.

Instead, Hedley is acting as my laptop this time. My “skull top” has everything needed for daily computing tasks, except email. My modern Samsung Galaxy S8+ super phone handles that job just fine. While a skull top computer is a funny concept, is it really?

The conference is providing me with a press pass, so people’s opinions on everyday utility computing related to embedded systems are at the top of my list. Physical computing is certainly a hot topic, as well. I have a ton of questions. For example:

  • Will desktop computing ever merge with embedded systems? If so, what will the interfaces look like?
  • Current technology is immensely powerful, how will this affect embedded systems in the near future? Long term?
  • Other than the weather and to-do lists, what applications are useful on a fridge top computer?
  • Will I be able to write an article on a “fridge top” computer? Does that make sense
  • Will embedded systems blend into the furniture?
  • Is the embedded system industry only focused on manufacturing? What other verticals?
  • Who are the top innovators in embedded systems?
  • What new applications will take advantage of embedded systems with lots of general purpose input/output pins?
  • What problems will be solved using network, cellular and mesh connectivity in embedded systems?
  • Is Linux viable and useful for embedded systems? What are the alternatives?
  • How are schools preparing the next bunch of embedded systems developers, maintainers and troubleshooters?
  • What infrastructure is industry building to support general-purpose embedded computing?

My trip to Minneapolis is coming at a great time. I’ll be surrounded by embedded computing experts, getting people thinking with Hedley and wondering if I still even need a laptop anymore. The experience will be both educational and hopefully enlightening.

The Next Notebook May Be My Last

To me, the future of embedded computing is a bit fuzzy. Are we on the cusp of throwing our notebooks and desktops overboard and do our article writing, software development and accounting spreadsheets on a big screen in the living room? Or a super-duper, whiz-bang smartwatch? Probably not.

I think the future of notebooks and general desktop computing is equally fuzzy. My ASUS Linux notebook is getting old and cost about $850 back in 2008. With the right choice, I could conceivably have it for a decade. What will the world will look like in ten years?

Dr. Torq’s economic theory of notebooks posits that the price of a laptop remains the same over time, while the performance steadily moves upward. Each latest and greatest machine, within a general performance tier, always costs the same. A top-end notebook always costs $2000 or so. An economy notebook with modest features and speed always go for around $300. Even the low-end model is usually a substantially more powerful machine than last year’s model.

Maybe I should consider a Lenovo Legion gaming notebook.

We recently bought one for our daughter at Best Buy. While my family has moved almost entirely over to Linux, she had to have a machine that could run Autodesk’s Revit architectural software for her classes. Autodesk never seemed to get on the Linux bandwagon. Revit is only offered under the Windows operating system. Being the artsy type, my daughter originally chose a Mac Book Pro as her college laptop.

Dr. Torq’s economic theory of notebooks: the price of a laptop remains the same over time, while the performance steadily moves upward.

There are no Mac or Linux programs comparable to Revit, so we bit the bullet and bought a Windows machine. The Y530 is a rugged package with a strong hinge and beefy chassis. It is also packed with a six-core Intel i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, a 1920×1080 resolution display and NVidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti graphics with 4 GB of dedicated video memory. As you would expect, putting all those things together makes running Revit a non-issue. The price for all this fun was just over $1000 including tax.

Those capabilities would certainly minimize the effort needed for editing my tutorial videos, exploring artificial intelligence software and designing 3D models for as yet undefined steampunk microcontroller projects clinking around in my head.

What’s Next

The world is changing and fast. The next few years will bring awesome new capabilities to both embedded and physical computing. Voice recognition, voice synthesis and vision systems are progressing at a crazy pace. We’ve explored those topics in past articles.

What will our audience think as Hedley talks and tracks me around the room, while also managing my slide show? Good question. And, where do we go from here?

I’m looking forward to my time at the Embedded System Conference. Naturally, the insights and trends I find will then make their way into this column.

The New Stack is a wholly owned subsidiary of Insight Partners, an investor in the following companies mentioned in this article: Torq.