A Disturbance In The Force

Forget the food in the freezer. What people really want to know now when the power goes out is whether the Internet is still up–and for very important reasons.

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By Cary Chin

Driving in to work a few weeks ago in uncharacteristic fog, I noticed a streetlight was out. A little strange that there were no signs around, but I did the obligatory 4-way stop, and continued on my way. When I arrived in my office, my wife called, and said that the power was off in our neighborhood. Not a big deal, as it was only a little after eight in the morning, but I started poking around online at the office and through the magic of our modern communications infrastructure the picture began to emerge. First through Twitter, then blogs, then news stories: fog, plane crash, fire, transmission tower, you know the rest. Interestingly, my wife could have gotten all of this at home, as well, on her iPhone, but the networks were jammed with Palo Alto residents trying to get information.

I remember years ago when the power went out, the biggest concern was, “I hope the stuff in the freezer doesn’t thaw out.” Today, everyone’s first reaction is, “is the Internet still up?” We are addicted to getting our information in real-time, as it happens, from multiple sources – including live tweets and cell-phone-cam footage, as well as traditional media (who seem slow in comparison). And while that brings up some real questions about the future role of the media, our ability to communicate with each other and the world in real time is truly revolutionary. Mobile Internet devices are removing the last remaining tether preventing the information superhighway from taking flight: the power cord. Upcoming generations of devices will continue to improve functionality and power efficiency, and the sky’s the limit.

But all is not well in our low-power engineering community. The pilot of that small plane that crashed in the fog in Palo Alto three weeks ago was Doug Bourn, senior electrical engineer at Tesla Motors, who worked on the main power module of the Tesla Roadster. Prior to Tesla, Doug worked for many years at a small product design and development company called IDEO Product Development. And one of his close colleagues at IDEO was my wife. We are bummed.

–Cary Chin is director of technical marketing for low-power solutions at Synopsys.


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