Guest Opinion: The Next Industry Standard Architecture

By Nils Dahl

Date: September 27, 2001

Major companies in the computer industry are cutting back as sales slow down or decline. Instead of seeking and promoting new ways of using existing products, firms just make abrupt short term responses by slowing down, spinning off, or even going bankrupt. What a shame.

The current 'industry standard design' is a fixation. It isn't substantially different from the original CP/M design of long ago. Serial and parallel connections, storage interfaces to rotating magnetic disks of all sorts, and a fairly crude upgrade of IBM's video subsystem design.

Let's take flash memory. It isn't the cheapest form of storage but it uses almost no power, is very easy to add standby power to, and takes very little space. Can anyone imagine a small rack of flash cards in place of a hard drive? Gee, it seems like a great idea.

Instead we see kludges that even Don Lancaster would be ashamed of (and if you never heard of this pioneer of electronics, you missed someone great) - things like Internet Computers that keep their operating systems on cd disks and reload very slooooowly from a cd-rom drive when needed (sorry, Larry, but it just doesn't cut the mustard). Using the cheapest possible design often builds in fatal weaknesses in functionality.

So consider a standup flat panel unit similar to the famous Monorail of 1997 - a low cost design that not only offered a very small desktop footprint but also gave new meaning to the notion of a small but useful package. Use a brick power unit to isolate the computer from high voltages. Replace the hard drive with a combination of internal and external flash cards that stores the operating system and applications, offers instant swapping of all system software, and can be designed to provide a must faster parallel interface from storage to main memory.

Use an nForce chipset with a slowed down AMD processor that only needs a passive heat sink.

Add on 2 or more usb ports and Firewire ports for convenience of adding outboard storage and for connecting up all that consumer stuff.

If you want more flexibility, cook up a Firewire outboard subsystem that contains its own processor and adds serial and parallel ports - to make users happy that their new machine works just fine with all their expensive older peripherals. One fine example of such engineering was the SCSI Hustler - a Macintosh addon that hooked the older Macs' scsi port to a bunch of different i/o ports. Or you could look at the far older Multiplexor channel design that IBM mated to its 360/65 mainframe some 30 years ago. Nice, very nice. No data cell drives, please.

Oh, don't forget the universal joystick/midi port so that we can just move our midi adaptor cable from one computer to another. Users like that sort of thing. Heck, some day some inventor might design a neat pointing system that uses the joystick port effectively and inexpensively.

Oh, since nForce has ethernet support built in, remember to add the ethernet feature and connector.

And just to add a touch of elegance, add a flash card slot to all standard desktop box designs so that users who dislike drilling holes in walls can move hundreds of megabytes of data from one system to another just by carrying a pocketable data storage card from one room to another.

Now the happy home user can run MasterCook on the kitchen computer appliance and load in new categories of recipes with almost no effort - via flash card transfer. No bernoulli effect cartridges to get messed up as you dribble dip off your chips while working. No cd-r disks to get scratched or coated with glop. No floppy diskettes to reformat over and over as their coatings fail.

Flash memory is the key to new computer concepts yet it is being viewed as a solution for everything but long term data storage in home systems. This was the dream that bubble memory represented many years ago - if only the magnets those units needed had cost much less.

But why stop there. What's wrong with the idea of whole banks of flash cards interfaced to a neat RAID controller as failsafe storage in servers? The access time is much less than that of the best hard drives.

Most importantly, make the new design clean and compact. Don't even think about stuffing old electro-mechanical thingies inside the standup system box. Let users choose what to add and give them the convenience of arranging those units in shelves or other places out of harm's way, connected via usb and Firewire cables. You can even add an 'undercabinet mounting bracket' for the flat panel system case - to put it right next to your (or in place of) your undercabinet toaster, coffee maker, clock radio, or whatever else lives there. Sell a matching shelf unit to mount alongside the system - for storing external peripherals neatly. Sell wall mount standoffs as optional extras.

And if people really want wireless broadcasting of their computer activities to neighbors, there are choices in place already that will link your ultra-compact kitchen unit to the main box in some other room.

Oh, this whole idea also results in considerable reductions in power consumption, elimination of a major source of very nasty radiation (yes, the typical color display tube produces x-rays and other stuff that is rarely mentioned), and adds a freedom to use it almost anywhere you want. Yes, even there while you are sitting and thinking. Add a clear plastic enclosure and use it in the shower too.

And folks, when you design a power brick for any component, please add a 6 inch standard power cord so that the bricks can be arranged neatly instead of fighting for positions on top of a power strip. It only costs a few cents more. This is not a big enough deal to break your corporate profit potential. Or maybe someone can make and sell 6 inch extension cords through Wal-Mart at low, low prices. Who wants to get rich first? Gee, why not design just one power brick with multiple power sockets that each provide the usual dc voltages needed? Or a group of power bricks that vary in output capacity and number of device power sockets only.

Now anyone who has warehouses full of flash memory modules and owns a flash memory fab is in luck. When the beancounters begin whining, just lock them in small windowless rooms.

Heck, maybe some 'industry standard' player can beat out Apple in design work for a change. The 'trick' is to stop looking at existing cheap ways of doing things and start looking at better ways of doing things - ways that can be made less expensive with higher manufacturing volumes.


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