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Saturday December 27 2008

Is it my imagination, or are these ...


... getting lighter?  I’m talking about the big white plug there, which in this case happens to be the one that plugs Jesus the Micro Laptop into the mains.  If so, kudos to the geeks for contriving this.  As Michael J has long been explaining to me, the issue with mobile gizmos is not really connectivity any more.  It’s power.  In a coffee bar what you want is not WiFi, because you bring your own, for you to use everywhere, not just in WiFi spots.  What you want is power.  But if the plug that gives you the power weighs getting on for as much as the gizmo itself, that rather spoils things, doesn’t it?

And, can these plugs now be even lighter, if you pay more?  Or will they be lighter soon, for the same money as we pay now?

They started to get a lot lighter a couple of years ago, when switched mode voltage conversion replaced transformers.

I think it’s a single step change - once you’ve got rid of the transformer there’s no further significant drop in weight to come (though small evolutionary changes may be significant over years).  Devices which draw little power (like mobile phones) will get lighter power converters before devices with higher power demand, like high-spec laptops.

Posted by Andrew McGuinness on 28 December 2008

I am in a McDonald’s in France right now. The reason is that in France connectivity is a problem. My 3G dongle will work, but roaming charges are such that I would be charged something like £3 a megabyte if I wanted to use it. (For domestic use, you pay £5 for a monthly allowance of a gigabytye, so the cost of using it in France is something like 600 times as much as using it at home). The fact that this happens when you cross a border is clearly a regulatory problem of some sort. (I would personally argue that the problem is that we have regulation, but that is just me). However, McDonald’s offer free WiFi, so I am here. They do not have power outlets, unfortunately, so I am going to have to sign off shortly. That connectivity is not a problem at home but becomes one when I travel (which is when I am most likely to want it) is annoying. There are a few countries (Ireland, Austria, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Hong Kong, Australia) where I am not charged extra, but not many. I am sure the list will grow, but for the moment having technology that works but that is too expensive for any person who is not Bill Gates to afford it is really frustrating. (I am not expecting the list of countries where it works to include France soon though. France has three mobile networks, all of which belong to French companies. No other European country has so few networks or such concentration of ownership. (Britain has five networks, only one of which belongs to a British company).

As for power, what we really want is laptops with batteries that last all day. At that point, power goes away as a problem the way connectivity has. Battery life until now has only improved in a very non Moore’s law way, but the problem is really the mindset of the people inventing gadgets. New, fancy, high end features have high power consumption by their nature, and the race has generally been to put as many features into devices as possible, which means poor battery life.

The whole netbook thing is an interesting trend, because consumers have been demonstrably willing to buy computers that are less than state of the art in terms of features in return for low cost and/or small size. However, they have not been optimised in terms of power yet. Although the Intel Atom CPU is very low power, the chipset (ie the rest of the electronics) is not, so battery life on these gadgets is still fairly poor. It may be better for the next generation. However, that is (quite literally) why I now have to stop.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 28 December 2008

Yes, I’m proud of myself for at least having seen this new market for small but above all cheap laptops coming, and to have cheered like hell as soon as it began to come into view.  I think the roar of approval that greeted the original Asus Eeee PC, which is what Jesus is (Asus = Jesus), has changed the world as far as all these issues are concerned.

Another thing I’ve found is that Jesus feels a lot less disruptive on a small coffee table than a regular big laptop would be.  You feel less like your whole life appears to be dominated by these things.

The key thing is price.  They are now advertising cheap and cheerful laptop computers, with hard discs and everything, for a mere £150.  The difference between £150 and nearer £400 is, for many people, me included, all the difference.

Just as the difference between a fiver a month and nearer twenty a month is all the difference.  Many thanks for fixing that, Michael J.

My next laptop computer is going to be absolutely brilliant, and not that expensive, now that I know exactly what I want from it.  Basically, slightly bigger keyboard, larger screen, but same weight.  If that makes me look slightly more dominated by these toys, well, I am, so what the hell.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 28 December 2008

The fact that this happens when you cross a border is clearly a regulatory problem of some sort.

said Michael.

Actually not so much in this case. It’s about two things, both of which I would see as economically rational behaviour by network operators and not something regulators impose on them. Quite the contrary in fact - the EU has been trying quite hard lately to clamp down on “roaming” charges for mobile phone usage.

The first reason is interconnect charges between networks. Carrying data traffic on one’s own network does obviously have a cost in terms of total capacity requirements, but given a network infrastructure in place is essentially free at the time of use. Other network operators are also all too happy to carry your customers’ traffic on their network - but they are also happy to charge you handsomely for the privilege of doing so.

Interconnect charges are a major source of net profit for operators of large networks - who therefore have perfectly rational economic, not regulatory, motives for maintaining them - and a correspondingly major net cost for operators of smaller networks.

Are large networks who are in a position to do this legal monopolies due to regulated spectrum allocation and so on, or are they a natural near-monopoly? Hm. Not sure, but there are certainly arguments for it being a natural monopoly situation to some degree. I’m not up on the technical issues about whether bandwidth really needs to be allocated and apportioned - I know there is a school of thought that believes with modern smart radios this is no longer the case. But - as with undersea cables and shipping lanes - the geography is the geography. There’s a huge first-mover advantage to having all the best sites for radio masts already sewn up. Not to mention the capital cost of having the network in places, which is never going to be small for anything with anything like ubiquitous seamless coverage. (See: abject failure to happen of the ubiquitous free Wifi that we all expected a few years ago)

Not many companies are in a position to carry data traffic in mutliple countries on their own networks. You have to own (or otherwise have vast amounts of relatively cheap capacity) not only the local networks in both countries but also the long haul backbone in between. Vodafone - so I read somewhere - does, and is taking advantage of it by offering decent multi-country data deals to heavy travellers. In other cases, even if multiple country networks and backhaul businesses belogn to the same group, they’re often parts of different divisions/operating companies, and interconnect charges still apply internally.

Second economically rational reason - there is a minority of poorly informed and/or price insensitive customers who still make use of services at these absurd prices, and they are a not insignificant source of revenue. Marketing departments are quite happy to make decent offers to the savvy customers and let sleeping fools pay.

So your operator who wants to charge you six hundred times the price in France than in the UK is (a) paying steep interconnect charges to France Telecom and (b) happy to derive a little bit of easy revenue from the fact that you can’t be bothered with the hassle of getting a French SIM card for your trip. Regulators are not forcing them to do either of these things.

(If you can be bothered to get a French SIM card, here’s the site that tells you which one you want)

Posted by Alan Little on 29 December 2008

This requires a long answer. My point is not that regulators set out to give us this situation (they didn’t) or that they don’t want to change it (they do), or that operators are not operating in an economically rational manner (they are). My point is that all these things result as a consequence of regulatory decisions of the past that were in many cases poor decisions and should have been seen so at the time.

However, I don’t have time for a detailed explanation now. I will write it when I do.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 30 December 2008

The reason the power “thingy” is lighter is that

(1) not only did they initially get rid of the largely metal transformer (but which is much safer if properly built) that gave you the power voltage needed, and then

(2) switched to what are called “switched mode” high-AC-to-low-DC converters, (less safe but getting better and a bit lighter still) but…

(3) in one of the latest ones I have disassembled recently, there is nothing much but a thing called a “thyristor”, two or three resistors, a “zener diode”, and a capaciitor.

The whole assembly is also meant to be undo-proof and fully insulated in case the thing goes pop or fries or something, which is fairly unlikely these days. As you can see, the heaviest part of this is probably the plastic case and the brass mains connectors.

There is little probability of this device getting any smaller or lighter I am afraid.

Posted by David Davis on 31 December 2008

Another advantage of these switched mode power supplies is that you can generally plug them into any domestic power outlet in the world and they will just work, whereas the transformer type was very fussy about input voltage, which was particularly a problem when travelling between Europe and the USA.

Posted by Rob Fisher on 06 January 2009
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