Observations on miniaturization

Posted in Tech at 10 pm

Most electronic devices shrink until they reach one of two minimum sizes. 1) The size of the removable medium they play or 2) the size of the necessary physical interface.

Example #1: the Mac mini from Apple. The dimensions of the physical box are largely the size of a cigar box, squared-off. The width and depth of the device are largely dictated by the minimum size necessary to contain a CD/DVD removable optical disc. The height seems to be the minimum necessary to stack all of the ports and connections on the face opposite the slot-loading drive. The Nintendo Wii also is hardly larger than optical disc drive.

Example #2: the Apple iPhone and its clones is largely a screen with a phone, web browser, music player stuck behind it. The physical dimensions are largely dictated by the size of the screen. There’s a bit of room at the top and the bottom that’s not screen that could be removed, but there’s no room left to right. The depth of the phone is seriously minimal, but even that could be reduced—as Apple recognized when they brought out the second generation model where the only physical dimension that was changed way the average depth of the device.

Example #3: Televisions are largely the size of the display area. Some of them add more for speakers and control buttons, but they are nothing like the old ‘console televisions’ that have been gone a long time now. The vast majority of the human interface for these devices has been transferred to the remote controls (which are like a plague of locusts in our living room).

Example #4: The portability of a medium has been a factor in terms of it’s length of adoption. This is mostly driven home by the movement of 12″ vinyl records and LaserDiscs out of the mainstream formats, replaced by the hand-sized optical disc. But going back even further we can look at hard drives (which started as 24-inch platters in the IBM 350) or floppy disks (starting at 8 inches). Even removable Flash RAM started out at at PCMCIA/PC Card size which is just larger than a credit card and are currently available as MicroSD cards the size of the fingernail on my pinkie finger. I don’t see a need for SD to get much smaller since after a certain point, it becomes too difficult to grasp onto, much less manipulate such a small piece of plastic into a slot.

William Gibson talked about ‘microsofts’ in his early fiction, which were essentially memory storage in the form factor of a toothpick. The smallest-volume item that is made for consumers that I can think of are Tic-Tacs. Can you think of something smaller?

For media, there is no minimum requirement for the size since the physical interaction is with the device that used the media, not the media itself.

So what does this tell us about upcoming electronics? What are the ways around this miniaturization limit? I’ll talk about that in my next entry.

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