Tech Innovations You Haven't Heard of Yet


Forget global warming, a tech freeze-out is under way.

If these first few weeks of tight credit is any indication, small businesses grappling with deploying new technologies face a new challenge: finding out what's going on with new business tools. Gobs of important tech news have floated out over the past few weeks, but with all the noise over the credit crunch, most of it was either drowned out or completely ignored. Credit woes have taken another casualty, it seems: the future.

X-ray cell phone

Tokyo-based KDDI released an early version of a mobile phone that mixes multiple data sources from maps, cell-phone telemetry, satellite data and more to render real-time location information for multiple nearby objects -- even those behind walls! In other words -- get ready for it -- the company released an actual X-ray cell phone that would let you track who's where in real time. Check out this video link -- see those little dots moving on the phone screen? That's your staff. No, you cannot see through their clothing, but you can see where they are relative to you, even in another room, live! Just think about the implications.

Battery breakthrough

And here's another overlooked news item: a major step in battery technology. Toshiba announced a deal for its new SCiB Ion batteries. These power sources will go into an electric bicycle, branded under the Schwinn name, called the Tailwind. The battery is made by a division of the Cannondale Sports Group, a unit of Dorel Industries.

The new SCiB Ion battery will throw off a hefty 4.2 amps, running at 2.4 volts, or enough to help you and the bike get up that hill to the office with just a little pedaling help. It will recharge to 90% capacity in just five minutes, Toshiba says. The SCiB battery is game-changing stuff for all the things without power cords. For example it's perfectly suited for tools, forklifts and other industrial applications where internal combustion engines are not suitable.

Solid-state hard drives

Significant changes also are coming to basic business tools. So-called solid-state hard drives are creeping into mainstream laptops and other business computers. These drives replace traditional spinning magnetic disk drives with solid blocks of memory, similar to random access memory or USB flash drives. Know how when you pick up your laptop, something is humming and vibrating inside? That's the magnetic drive, spinning away as it reads and writes your files. Magnetic drives in computers are fine. But they are fragile, have limits to how fast they can read and write information, and are heavy. Solid-state drives solve all that. SSDs (yes, another acronym we have to master) are essentially indestructible in normal usage, have no moving parts to fail or slow down and are marvelously light.

That is not to say solid-state drives are perfect. SSDs are still brutally expensive when compared with magnetic storage, up to four times the cost. And their quick response time for reading and writing data comes at the expense of battery life. I have found laptops with solid-state drives have something awful like a quarter the battery life, if not less, of a standard magnetic drive unit.

I have spent the past month or so testing a Lenovo ThinkPad (starting at $1,825), which is an early solid-state drive computer.

The ThinkPad is a small-business workhorse. The shape and design was originally created by IBM back in the day: no-nonsense flat black; a 13-inch screen; nearly full-size keyboard; basic touch-pad; and center mouse controller. It has enough expansion slots, USB connectors and other modules to connect, dock and transmit whatever you need to connect, dock and transmit.

It is clear what a step forward a solid-state drive is for this machine. First, this ThinkPad is blissfully light. ThinkPads are notorious back-killing beasts that can weigh close to 10 pounds with accessories. My test machine, by contrast, with cords and everything, was well under 3 pounds. And there is no performance hit. The unit is a fully powered two-core, 1.2 Ghz processor with 2 GB of RAM, perfectly capable of running most applications in Windows XP.

And this ThinkPad is definitely more durable: The solid-state drive was quiet, and I was less worried doing the road warrior thing as I dragged the laptop through airports, conference centers and hotel rooms. But true to form, the major ding here is battery life. I was lucky to get two hours of usage out of the machine, even in full battery-save mode.

My verdict? SSD laptops are probably too pricey and finicky for the average small-business user. Nearly $2,000 for a ThinkPad with only a few hours of battery life is probably too far to go for most. But, clearly, these issues are just bumps in the road. Give SSDs some time, and costs will drop and battery life will jump -- as new technologies like the batteries from Toshiba come on line.

Mark it down: Mid-2009 and the small-business world will be ready for this generation of lighter, faster, more durable solid-state PCs.

But for now, anyway, you'd hardly know it. In these panicky days, we seem to have no time for the future.

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