Flash: It’s Not Just For Naked People Anymore

I opened the business section of the local newspaper this morning to find something quite interesting. It seems that Hewlett-Packard announced laptops with flash memory instead of hard drives. This announcement, along with Palm’s Foleo announcement, is very interesting. It is the opening salvo in the battle for the next generation of mobile computers.

I am going to take a crack at explaining this whole memory thing to you. Memory is your desk and bookshelf. You can keep lots of books on your bookshelf but in order to use one, you have to take it off the shelf and open it on your desk. This is exactly how your hard drive and RAM work on your computer. The hard drive is the number of books (i.e., applications, files, pictures, videos, etc.) you can store at any one time, the same as your bookshelf. RAM is the number of books you can have open on the desk at any one time. Run out of space on your desktop and things move slow — you have to move books around to see them. Same on your computer. Close a book to put it back on the shelf, gaining desktop space, and you lose your place. Same as closing a running application on your computer.

The closest analogy I can make for flash memory is bookmarks. When you use a bookmark, you can close the book and then quickly and easily open to the same place you were before, whether it is on your desk or on the shelf. Flash memory does this also, keeping markers for which applications are running and where you were in them, whether the computer is on or off. You may already use flash memory. Those little cards you stick in your handheld computer, smartphone, and camera are all flash memory.

So why is flash memory in mobile computers important? Four adjectives sum it up: faster, smaller, lighter and rugged.

  • Its faster: it takes no time to start using it so you don’t have the lag time between hitting the on button and seeing the screen. It also doesn’t close down your applications but suspends them instead. Its like turning off the screen instead of shutting down the machine.
  • It smaller: flash memory is smaller than a postage stamp and barely thicker meaning that computers can be as small or as big as we need them to be without restriction.
  • Its lighter: a big chunk of the laptops weight is the screen and hard drive. With the hard drive gone and screens about to get really light, we could be looking at laptops that weigh as little as your cell phone.
  • Its rugged: hard drives have moving parts that damage easy; flash memory doesn’t.

Why should you care? Because your next-generation laptop could have the best qualities of your cell phone combined with the best qualities of your laptop: instant on, fast response, rugged enough to take a beating, large enough to do real work, and light enough to carry without needing a chiropractor.