Feature Article

September 22, 2020

Miniaturization Made the Difference in These 4 Tech Industries



In any segment of the tech industry, finding a way to make smaller electronic components is one of the surest paths to creating a groundbreaking product and earning a fortune. The most famous example of miniaturization in practice is, of course, the personal computer industry. The Intel 4004 – an integrated circuit that crammed 2,250 transistors into a single microchip – made the PC possible. It was released in 1971.

Just five decades ago, a computer required its own air-conditioned facility and a team of operators running around in lab coats. Today, the smartphone that you carry in your pocket is infinitely more powerful than what would have been considered a “supercomputer” only a decade or two ago. That’s miniaturization in action. Simply by figuring out a way to make smaller transistors, a company can make electronic devices that are smaller, more efficient and more powerful – all while being cheaper than the last generation of products.

Miniaturization hasn’t just benefitted the computer industry. In fact, it’s affected your life in many more ways than you might realize – and it has changed these 4 tech industries forever.

Photography

When the first affordable digital cameras reached the market two decades ago, the writing was on the wall for the companies that were still making traditional analog cameras. The early digital cameras were large and clunky, of course, and the pictures that they captured weren’t as good as what you could get with traditional cameras. Film-based cameras, however, were very expensive to use. The high costs of buying rolls of film and developing those rolls meant that many people rarely bothered taking pictures unless they were on vacation or attending important events. In comparison, once you purchased a digital camera, you could take as many pictures as you liked for free.

The point at which miniaturization changed everything for photography, however, was when phones with built-in cameras began to appear. By that point, digital cameras had become very affordable and quite good. The problem, though, was that the quality of a camera only matters if you’re actually carrying that camera. When electronics makers began adding cameras to their phones, it became possible for people to have cameras available at all times without the need to carry extra gadgets in their pockets.

Today, smartphone cameras are so good that even standalone digital cameras have become irrelevant for just about everyone except photography hobbyists and professionals. Smartphone cameras have enabled people to document and share every aspect of their lives. They have enabled entrepreneurs to become social media personalities. The smartphone camera has also become a powerful force for social change – and none of it would have been possible without miniaturization.

Vaping

If you’re a former smoker who has quit with the help of an e-cigarette from a company like VSAVI, miniaturization has changed your life because it has enabled the creation of tiny vaping devices that look and feel almost exactly the same as tobacco cigarettes while delivering enough nicotine to be completely satisfying. That wouldn’t have been possible without tiny integrated circuits and energy-dense lithium ion batteries.

Inventors have wanted to create vaping devices since at least 1963. The technology of the 1960s, though, simply wasn’t ready. Today, miniaturization has made it possible for millions of former smokers around the world to switch to vaping and become tobacco free.

Calculators

Most people don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about calculators today. When you need to crunch some numbers, your “calculator” is just an app on your phone or computer. Think about what life used to be like, though, for people who needed to perform mathematical calculations on a daily basis. In the 1960s, a calculator was a device that consumed a significant portion of your desk and required a wall outlet for power. If your job didn’t specifically require the use of a calculator, you probably didn’t have one.

By the 1970s, though, companies like Sanyo, Sinclair and Texas Instruments had begun to design smaller calculators that performed calculations using the latest integrated circuits rather than circuit boards full of transistors. From there, miniaturization happened rapidly. At the beginning of the 1970s, a “portable” calculator weighed more than a pound and cost several hundred dollars. By the end of the decade, you could buy a pocket calculator for just a few dollars.

Cloud Services

Miniaturization has allowed web-based services to progress by leaps and bounds over the past decade. A great many of the applications that you use on your computer or phone on a daily basis – such as Gmail, Facebook and Instagram – don’t really reside on your device at all. What you use on your device is just a set of communication protocols. Those protocols interface with remote servers that perform all of the actual computations.

It’s been a while since web-based email and social media services were considered revolutionary. Think about all of the other online services, though, that weren’t available a decade ago. Today, it’s possible to have a phone or computer with almost no applications stored locally because cloud-based servers host those applications. Your device merely provides storage for your personal files. You have no need for a traditional cable TV service because you can stream your favorite shows and sporting events in high definition over the Internet. It’s even possible to stream console-quality games on almost any device. A remote server waits for your input and does all of the work, sending the result to your device as a streaming video feed.

Ultra-fast flash-based storage is one of the key technologies making it possible for web servers to perform complex calculations and serve millions of users simultaneously without slowdowns. In the past, web servers stored data on magnetic hard drives. The read/write head of a hard drive can only perform one operation at a time, so a server would quickly buckle under the load of just a few simultaneous users. Today, though, cloud-based servers use flash memory for data storage. With no moving parts, solid-state drives are infinitely faster than magnetic hard drives and allow servers to handle dramatically more users simultaneously without slowdowns.

In the personal computer industry, the ultimate result of miniaturization is the fact that you now have a supercomputer in your pocket. That’s as small as a traditional PC can ever get. In cloud services, though, there is still plenty of room for advancement as artificial intelligence and machine learning enable the creation of services that are faster, more responsive and easier to use while serving ever more users around the world.





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