Pocket Computers

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A stagnation of power

Apple launched the thirteenth version of the iPhone on Monday. The expectation was that the new phone will be a complete overhaul with a new design. Apple historically releases a revamped design every two years, while in between it launches ‘S’ versions of latest models that usually have only minor tweaks.

However, this time around, Apple moved a step backwards. Instead of the much anticipated ‘iPhone 7’, the company launched the ’iPhone SE’. The phones design is that of the iPhone 5S, a model that was released in 2013 with a four-inch screen. It’s just a reincarnation of the 5S with a faster chip and better camera.

Apple launched the first iPhone in 2007. At the time the mobile phone market, in particular the smartphone market, was full of bulky handsets with QWERTY keyboards, pixelated displays, awful cameras and a weak user interface making for a non-user friendly, underpowered device.

The iPhone pioneered the modern smartphone with the first generation iPhone. By eliminating the keyboard, the multi-touch technology, which is the staple of the smartphone now, was an alien feature that only Apple dared to explore, perfect and delve into the world of pocket computers.

Steve Jobs’ endless pursuit of perfecting a design in terms of both aesthetics and usability fuelled his incessant need to invent products that changed the conventional way of doing things. By merging their saviour, the iPod with a phone and internet connectivity he literally created the market for smartphones.

The iPhone became the yardstick for modern day smartphones over the years. Although Apple had heavily patented their dream device, competitors didn’t hesitate to adopt Apples exclusive new design. In particular, Samsung, a company that actually provided parts for Apples devices, came out with devices similar to the first iPhone. Apple sued and the case is still ongoing.

Since 2007 there has been an exponential increase in the power of chips that smartphones use. From Apples single core 32-bit chips in the first iPhone to the latest iPhone 6S and SE with the 64-bit dual-core ‘A9’ chip. Samsung’s latest chip set is a quad-core chip, the Exynos 8890 that ships with their latest phone, the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge.

This increase in power and reduction in size has come about at a rate that was established in 1965 by Gordon Moore,a chipmaker who later founded Intel. He said that the processing ability, or the number of electronic components which could be fitted into an integrated circuit, would double every two years. This meant that every two years the power of the chip would increase twofold with a corresponding reduction in size.

This notion has come to be known as Moore’s Law and has held true for the last 44 years. We have seen devices such as mobile phones to laptops to in fact anything using a chipset become smaller, neater, sharper and leaner. Intel is the leading maker of microprocessors since 1971. Since then up till the launch of the first iPhone and towards 2012, their chips kept becoming smaller and faster.

But this trend has stagnated. After five decades, Moore’s Law no longer applies as making chips smaller does not guarantee an increase in speed and reduction in price. This is not to say that chips won’t get better. They will, but at a slower pace. Intel says that the power of a chip is now doubling every 2.5 years rather than two.

Evidence of the growth witnessed in the past 50 years is all around us. Over three billion people use smartphones around the world. These computers that fit into one’s pocket would have required a full room in the ‘80s and still would not have produced the same amount of power.

The launch of the iPhone SE is a regression from Apple’s culture of upgrading and innovating design and technology. It is an example of the end of Moore’s law. Priced at $399, it is more of a commercial decision to target smaller markets where purchasing power is limited but evolution in internet connectivity is fast paced, Pakistan for example.

Samsung has adopted a similar approach with the launch of their Galaxy S7 edge by slightly increasing the thickness of the phone to allow for a bigger battery. This again is a step backwards from the traditional pursuit of thinner and smaller models where battery power is compromised for aesthetics.

Huge R&D budgets were utilised to bring chips to the size they are today. Those budgets were justified by the market that was created with every leap forward in terms of size and speed. The development of smaller chips has plateaued as reducing the size further does not necessarily guarantee better performance.

Therefore R&D budgets need to be rationalised and prioritised now. It has started to make less economic sense too. In 2015 Intel’s revenue was $55.4 Billion, only a two percent increase from 2011. The next significant reduction in chip size at the pace of growth today will come around the 2020s, requiring bigger R&D budgets every year. So the pace of revenue growth is not keeping up with the increase in cost of production.

Companies now have to re assess their business model. The formula of increased power, speed and performance in a smaller package is quickly proving to be more difficult to maintain. One of the problems that need to be solved and where phone makers in particular can increase market share is the performance of the batteries that power their devices.

More features require more energy. Multiple applications running simultaneously, high definition cameras making 1080p videos, downloads and uploads, 4G and Wi-Fi connectivity coupled with the conventional messaging and calling functions of a phone drain the battery. Any innovation in that respect will be the key. A thicker S7 edge and a smaller new iPhone is a move in that direction.

The next big thing is going to be just incremental changes. Only small improvements in existing features will be seen. A better,more responsive voice activated feature i.e. better SIRI for example. LG has been struggling to mass produce flexible screens for a while now. This could possibly be a feature as revolutionary as the multi touch screen.

The cell phone is an appendage to the human body. Making it smart has only been possible with the fast paced innovation in terms of the size and power of the microprocessor. As the innovation stagnates, devices, especially mobile phones now have to look towards improving existing features.

Any radical improvement in computing ability is going to take time. Until then, don’t expect a revolution like the one brought about by the first iPhone.

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