The last 12 months changed the shape and definition of computers, which no longer necessarily involve a keyboard, a monitor, and a mouse. Apple started the year by launching its tablet (The iPad, Like an iPhone, Only Bigger), which soon spawned many imitators (Androids Will Challenge the iPad). Google started the year by showing off the most powerful smart phone yet (Google Reveals its New Phone) and ended it with a personal computer that relies entirely on the Web, by way of Chrome OS (The Browser Takes All).
Another new category of computers grew out of the industry’s obsession with adding computing power to television. Google’s ambitious but troubled effort (Google TV Faces Some Prime-Time Challenges) joined a more established apps-for-TV scheme from Yahoo (Yahoo Brings Apps to TVs) and a stripped-down entrant from Apple (Apple Shows a Facebook Rival and Apple TV 2.0). All put Web-streamed content and social networking at the heart of their strategies, trying to connect living-room viewing with online friends (Making TV Social, Virtually).
The new kinds of computers required new kinds of controls. 2010 saw enhancements to touch technology, such as a way to simulate the sensation of texture on a flat screen (Touch Screens that Touch Back) and a more powerful version of the laptop track pad (Upgrading the Laptop’s Touch Pad). New physical interfaces were also introduced, such as Microsoft’s technology for gestural control (Hackers Take the Kinect to New Levels) and a prototype device that the user controls by tapping a forearm (Putting Virtual Controls on Your Arm). More speculative projects showed that it’s possible to control a cell phone with your eyes (Eye Tracking for Mobile Control) or brain (Mobile Phone Mind Control).
All these innovations were made possible by continuing advances in the power and compactness of computer components. One route that both Intel (Computing at the Speed of Light) and IBM (Electricity and Light in One Chip) explored was to try to overcome the limitations of electricity by developing computers that run on light instead. Another radical idea, realized by a startup, was to create chips that work with probabilities, not 1s and 0s, an approach that could speed cryptography and other statistical calculations (A New Kind of Microchip).
Meanwhile, Apple (What’s Inside the iPad’s Chip?) and the Chinese government (China: a New Processor for a New Market) each took chip design in a new direction. Apple is striving to make chips for the iPad that balance portability and power, and China to make computing power available inexpensively to parts of the huge country that are as yet unwired.
When designing an embedded system choosing which tools to use often comes down to building a custom solution or buying off-the-shelf tools.