Edge of Innovation

How Bell’s Law predicted the Mini PC, Compute Stick and Smart Dust


You’ve probably heard of Moore’s Law. Over 50 years, it has predicted that the number of transistors on integrated circuits will double every two years, making them faster, cheaper and smaller. The shrinking size and increased efficiency of today’s processors is transforming computing, creating devices unlike anything we’ve seen before. The Micro Mote pictured above is a case in point.

New computing classes enable new applications and new uses

This creation of new computer classes was theorised by DEC/Microsoft veteran Gordon Bell back in 1972. Bell’s Law observed that new computer classes evolve with the arrival of improved processor and memory technology, new user interfaces and network connectivity. These new computing classes, suggested Bell, enable new applications and new uses, attract new users and can even create whole new industries.

Six years ago, nobody could make a living as a mobile app developer. The job didn’t exist. Sixty years ago, computers were room-sized mainframes built with vacuum tubes and diodes. Now, you can fit a 64-bit computer into your pocket.

Computer classes might come and go but laptop and desktop form factors have remained dominant. But even these continue to shrink.

Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook
The 2015 Dell XPS 13 cleverly incorporates a 13-inch display into an 11-inch form factor. It’s one of the thinnest and lightest laptops you can buy. Image: Courtesy of Dell Inc.

The Dell XPS 13 is one of the world’s smallest and lightest Ultrabooks around, cleverly fitting a 13-inch Quad HD display into a compact 11-inch chassis. While Apple’s new MacBook, powered by a fanless Intel Core M processor, is 13.1mm thick and weighs less than a kilogram. In comparison, I’m writing this on a three year-old laptop that’s a hefty 2.2Kg and barely qualifies as ‘portable’.

A desktop PC without the ‘desktop’ part

Improved technology continues to reduce the size of the traditional desktop PC too. We’ve seen various small form factor approaches over the years, culminating in today’s mini-ITX, Next Unit of Computing (NUC) and Intel’s ‘no wire’ Mini-Lake PC designs, which promise to shrink the NUC down by another 30%.

Smaller still, is the USB flash drive-sized Compute Stick, which enables any monitor or TV with a USB connection to be turned into a Windows 8- or Linux-powered PC. Inside is a 1.33GHz quad-core Intel Atom Z3735F processor, paired with Intel HD Graphics and 32GB of storage via an eMMC slot. It’s a desktop PC, but without the ‘desktop’ part.

Intel Mini PCs
In a presentation at IDF 15, Tin Poay Chuang, Engineering Manager at Intel showed just how PCs are rapidly shrinking in size.

Yet the Compute Stick still isn’t as small as computing gets. Intel’s Curie is as small as a button, while the world’s smallest computer has recently been revealed to be only half a centimetre in size. The M3, aka Michigan Micro Mote, is so small that it can balance on the edge of a coin and almost 150 of the teeny-tiny computers can fit inside a thimble.

The M3 never needs to be recharged

Built by members of the University of Michigan’s Electronic Engineering and Computer Science faculty, the Micro Mote is described as a “fully autonomous computing system that acts as a smart sensing system.” Designed to power the next generation of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, the M3 features a 1mm-square solar cell that produces 20nW of power. This is enough energy under ambient light, say its creators, to run perpetually.

Michigan Micro Mote on the face of a coin
The Michigan Micro Mote is so small it can fit easily onto the face of a coin. Will these ‘smart dust’ sensors make the Internet of Things a reality?

The line of proposed ‘smart dust’ devices includes motes that are equipped with temperature sensors, pressure sensors and motion-sensing imagers.

“The current pinnacle of the project is an imaging system that packs visual imaging, ultra-low power motion detection, wireless communications, battery, power management, solar harvesting, processor and memory into a package measuring a mere 2 x 4 x 4mm,” says the University.

Bell’s Law has already described the march from mainframe to Mini PC and from workstations to wearables. The next step on the journey is towards millimetre-scale computing, from pocketables to wearables and from wearables to invisibles – interconnected, energy-autonomous devices that are so small, we might not even know they are there. – Dean Evans


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