Monday, November 27, 2006

When MIPS are free

by alec on November 27, 2006

What would you do with thousands of “free” MIPS?  In The Rise of “Freeconomics”, Chris Anderson notes that for about $200, you can buy an Intel Core Duo processor, capable of executing 20,000 MIPS.  To put that in perspective:

  • In 1977, Digital Equipment’s Vax 11/780 was a 1 MIPS minicomputer, and the Cray-1 supercomputer delivered blindingly fast execution at 150 MIPS.
  • By 1982, 5 years later, a 6 Mhz 286 had about the same equivalent processing power as the Vax. 
  • Sometime in the mid 1990′s, Cray’s benchmark was finally passed on PowerPC processors, as PowerMac’s emerged benchmarked at 150 to 300 MIPS.
  • A 1999 era Pentium III/500 delivered 800 MIPS of processing power.
  • A year later, in 2000, the Playstation 2 pumped out an astounding 6000 MIPS.
  • My 2002 vintage Athlon XP clocks in at 4200 MIPS.
  • And today, for about $200, you can buy a 20,000 MIPS processor. 

Current embedded processors (like the PXA900 in my Blackberry Pearl, or the ARM 1136 in the Nokia N93 I wrote about) are capable of 2000 era desktop processor speeds — in the range of 1000 MIPS, depending on battery consumption. These devices take photographs, play music, perform reasonable quality speech recognition and much more. 

Our office runs a year 2000 vintage 700Mhz Pentium III with 256M of memory and Asterisk for our PBX. We can accomodate perhaps 6 or 8 phone calls simultaneously (there’s just 12 of us, so that’s really all we need).  In theory, my current cellphone, and my current PC-based PBX, have roughly the same processing power.  It should be possible to power an office PBX on a PDA. 

It’s 2006 now.  If the current trend holds true, and we can each carry 20,000 MIPS of processing power in the palms of our hands by 2012, what will we do with that power? Will my phone be a peer to peer media player, with advanced 3D graphics, and high definition video? The processor in my router is a 266Mhz part from Broadcom.  What will the world look like when thousands of MIPS of processing power are available at the edge of my home? Does my router become my home web page, PBX, mail server, and… who knows? PC’s will be valuable for their keyboards, but most of the interaction you have with computers will be via portable and embedded devices.

One of the biggest impacts will be on network architecture.  Isenberg’s The Rise of the Stupid Network posits that all intelligence will move to the edge.  In a world where MIPS are free, it’s simply more cost effective to distribute the decision making to the edge of the network rather than centralize it.  The implication for network service providers (especially telecommunications companies) is that the centralized applications they relied on for revenue in the past are going away.  You can already see this happening.  Why, for instance, would I ever type *69 into my handset to ask the network who the last person who called me was when my handset keeps track of the last 50 callers, and lets me punch a button to redial any of them.  When *69 was conceived of, telephone terminals were dumb.  Today, they’re not.

Only resources which must be centralized will remain so. Directories will likely remain central assets, because decentralized directories are hard to manage, as Skype has shown repeatedly.  How often have you picked up a real phone, and called a Skyper to ask if they were online, because they didn’t show up in your buddy list?  The value of a social networking application is in the relationships it represents.  Centralized servers will be required to manage these applications.  There will be tremendous value in a few key centralized services, and everything else will be decentralized. 

One thing is for certain.  When everything is connected, and processing power is “free”, today’s communications networks will seem as antiquated as steam locomotives must have been after the introduction of the automobile.  That day isn’t that far away. We will see it within the five years.

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Congratulations to my friend Wendy Kennedy. Her manual for entrepreneurs, So What? Who Cares? Why You? has just been adopted by Penn State University Innovation Park. Private labelled and delivered as part of Innovation Park’s “cool blue” for innovation initiative, So What? Who Cares? Why You? is the process they use to evaluate ideas and startup company concepts. 

When Wendy told me about this, I had no idea that Penn State was such a hot-bed of entrepreneurial activity.  With 5,500 faculty and 80,000 students, it’s ranked 9th among US universities in R&D expenditures, with a particular focus on nanotechnology, biomaterials, materials research and life science. 

And if you haven’t checked out Wendy’s book previously, it’s recommended reading.

More details at Wendy’s blog.

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