Re-Designing The Computer

The Birth of the Modular Computer

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Whether we're describing home-, desktop-, portable-, laptop-, notebook-, netbook-computers or otherwise, it's hard to imagine a more transformative technology than the personal computer.

Since the first complete computers were shipped by Commodore and Apple Computer in 1977, unit sales have continued to climb around the globe until there are now more than 1 billion PCs in use today worldwide (Wikipedia & Gartner). And this figure does not include the pervasive use of cellular and smart phones, each a computer in its own right.

Truly, personal computers have changed just about every aspect of our lives - from work to play and from security to entertainment. Computers are now used in our homes, at school, at work, in the military, on vacation, inside of automobiles and other forms of transportation, and as mentioned above, even inside our phones.

In spite of their pervasive and widespread use in today's society, the objective observer will also recognize that personal computers (and the personal computing industry) are not without their challenges. In fact, it is the premise of this White Paper that if the computer engineers and designers of 20 and 30 years ago had access at the time to crystal balls and could have foreseen the fulfillment of Moore's Law (include citation) and the advancements/developments of the microelectronics and consumer electronics industries, we would likely have computers that look, work and function much differently than those in use today.

With this premise in mind, one is forced to ask

  • "Are there clues we can gain from the past to help us re-imagine the computer for the next 20 to 30 years?
  • And if so, what would this computer look like?
  • How would it function?
  • How would it be different from the computers of today?"


It is these questions and more that this paper will seek to address as we contemplate the challenge of Re-Designing the Computer.
A Look Back - What is a Computer and What Does it Really Need?

Com-pu-ter, noun [kuhm-pyoo-ter]:
An electric device designed to accept data, perform prescribed mathematical and logical operations at high speed, and display the results of these operations. (Dictionary.com)

Although this definition only includes electrical devices, the truth is that one can actually consider the abacus of ancient China as one of the earliest forms of a computer. In more recent times, mechanical devices such as the Jacquard Loom, Difference Engine, Analytical Engine and the Moniac (include references/hotlinks) all performed computer-like functions for their users.

In the modern era, the first personal computers were actually shipped as kits that required assembly and skills as a programmer. The first all-inclusive personal computer, however, was likely the Commodore PET which was introduced in early 1977, followed closely behind by the Apple II computer.

Of course PCs of today are technological marvels, often crammed to the proverbial brims with storage, memory and peripherals, connected to a myriad of external devices (and to the Internet and/or other computers), and loaded with any type of software application one can imagine.

But what is a computer? And what does it really need to do?

As per the definition above, a computer is

  • an electrical machine
  • designed to perform work,
  • by allowing data input,
  • data storage,
  • data manipulation, and
  • the display of data.

Everything else included within or attached to a computer is designed to make computers faster, smaller, more powerful, easier to use, etc., etc., etc.

The Barest Essentials of a Computer

At its most basic elements, each computer only needs three things:

  • Brains,
  • Memory/storage, and
  • Input/Output.

That's it.

  •  Microprocessors.  The brains of most computers today are what are known as Integrated Circuits (ICs) generally called microprocessors. In truth, ICs powering computers can also be microcontrollers, ASICs (Application Specific Integrated Circuits), FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays), and other specialty ICs.


  • Memory/Storage.  When it comes to data, computers have both short- and long-term memory/storage needs. For short-term memory, most computers use some form of Random Access and Read-Only Memory (known respectively as RAM and ROM), which have typically been deployed as memory chips. In the long-term storage arena, computer designers often use hard drives, whether as spinning magnetic platters or as solid-state storage devices. Additionally, magnetic tape, Compact Discs (CDs) and Digital Video Discs (DVDs) are often used today for long-term storage.
  • Input/Output. Naturally, a computer is of no use if one cannot get data into or out of it.


On the input side of the table, most computers include some type of keyboard at a minimum. Other forms of input devices include

  • Computer mice,
  • Trackballs,
  • Touchpads,
  • Internet connections,
  • Network connections,
  • External storage devices,
  • Microphones,
  • Still cameras,
  • Video cameras,
  • And more.

On the output side of the equation, most computers include some type of screen and/or the ability to display data on a monitor. Other forms of output devices include

  • Data ports,
  • Video ports,
  • Audio ports,
  • Communication ports,
  • Status lights,
  • And more.

In other words, at the most basic level, there is actually very little that MUST be included within a computer.

Additionally, given today's microelectronics world, we also suggest that until new inventions are created that negate their use (and the use of electricity), we believe most of the computers of the future will be made as they are today with components comprised of

  • silicon,
  • copper (and/or other precious metals) and
  • solder.

Versatile & Flexible - Requirements for Future Computers

One of the challenges of the manner in which personal computer design has evolved during the past three decades is its ad hoc nature. By ad hoc we refer to the fact that anyone who could invent a new thing for a computer - device, peripheral, application, etc. - has been able to do so. If the invention worked and it made the computing experience better in any way, then it was added to the list of "approved" devices or inventions. Some such advancements were short-lived; others (such as the computer mouse) have become ubiquitous.

Unfortunately, one result of the ongoing tide of new inventions is the fact that designers seem to want to force every new advancement inside their computers. That's why we now have motherboards with slots for daughterboards and peripheral cards, and a growing plethora of data and communication ports on each new computer.

But what happens when a computer no longer has any empty slots for adding in a new card? Or if all the ports are "taken?" Or, perish the thought, what if a NEW invention is introduced, something that only works if it's installed on the motherboard? Are users then out of luck until they buy their next generation computer?

That's the rub, isn't it? The race to upgrade and overcoming built-in obsolescence.

We don't begrudge inventors and manufacturers wanting to sell more products or even wanting to sell new products to existing customers.

However, we propose that the ideal computer design of the future will simply and easily accept any new invention or advancement that comes along. This means that if a component needs to be installed at the motherboard level for maximum results, upgrading or replacing the motherboard should be so fast and simple that anyone can do it after two- to three-minutes of instruction.

Upgrading the computer of the future should be fast and simple too. This includes increasing the speed, power, memory, storage and/or input/output capabilities and functionality.

The computer of the future should also be capable of installation as a so-called embedded computer or as an application-specific computing device. This means the core computer needs to be relatively small so it can be installed inside another device or system (such as a car, an x-ray machine or a freezer).

Such flexibility and versatility is not enough, however, as there are other challenges with today's computers. One such difficulty is heat.

Overcoming Heat - Bane of Today's Computers

In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore noted in a research paper that the number of transistors in Integrated Circuits had roughly doubled every two years since ICs were first introduced in 1958.

What is now known as Moore's Law posits that
Every two years, the number of transistors in an IC will double while the price for ICs is cut in half.

Moore's Law has since been found to have applications in a number of technological fields, including computer memory, processing speed and pixel density/size, to name a few.

One of the unfortunate byproducts of Moore's Law is the reality that as microprocessors shrink in size while becoming more powerful and consuming more energy in the process, they also generate more heat. And heat is one of the biggest challenges faced in today's computers as it's anathema to microelectronics. In fact, it's one of the reason for the cliche, "I fried my computer."

Hence, the ideal computer architecture of the future will take the role of increased energy consumption and the increased byproduct of heat from microprocessors and other microelectronics components within a computer. Wise computer designers in the future will also consider the role of thermodynamics and how heat is created and dissipated from an energy source.

For example, when examining the heat bloom of a microprocessor one will notice that it does not spread along flat or linear planes but rather in a nearly round/circular manner. At the same time, cramming multiple ICs or other components into close proximity within a computer casing makes the risk of heat contamination even greater, as well as the likelihood such components will have an increased rate of failure.

To combat the heat problem within computers designers have turned to two main tools:

  • Heatsinks, and
  • Fans.

And in both instances, the rule of thumb has been bigger is better, as both heatsinks and fans have increased in size to match the heat output of ICs and other components inside today's computers. Unfortunately, bigger also means less real estate within the computer enclosure, which cuts down on airflow within the casing. Bigger fans also mean increased energy consumption.

As a result, the computers of the future will require more efficient and effective means for cooling their internal components, including increased heat dissipation within each computer enclosure.

Enclosure Requirements for Tomorrow's Computers

Although some individuals will consider the computer enclosure as the least important aspect of future computer design, if we are truly Re-Designing the Computer, it makes sense to examine the computer from all viewpoints.
Viewed objectively, we suggest that the ideal computer casing of the future will meet seven primary objectives.

  • Strength.  Clearly the casing needs to protect the internal components from external damage, whether from crushing or G forces.


  • Adaptable to multiple uses.  Ideally, the computer enclosure of the future will be small enough and reasonably shaped to allow it to fit into a myriad of embedded solutions, as well as support use in standard applications: home, work, data center, etc.  It will also have a simplified mounting solution that is strong enough for most any type of load-bearing demand.
  • Support heat dissipation.  Since heat is such a huge issue for computers, doesn't it make sense that the ideal computer case in the future will help fight this issue? We think so too.


  • Inexpensively mass-producible.  It makes no sense to design the perfect computer enclosure only to learn that they need to be manufactured by hand, one case at a time. Ergo, the ideal computer enclosure of the future will be something that can be mass-produced relatively inexpensively. In an ideal world of automated production, this would lead to the ability to manufacture the computer of the future on the same continent where it is used, including North American-manufactured computers being purchased and used in North America.
  • Easy to repair/upgrade.  Getting inside the computer case of the future needs to be as easy and fast as possible (while also supporting the previous four items noted above).


  • Aesthetically pleasing.  Hopefully, the computer enclosure of the future also looks good. That would be nice, right?
  • Easily Disposed.  Additionally, the computer of the future need to take into account the enormous problem the world is now facing from E-Waste.  The computer of the future needs to be built with a minimal amount of materials and be easily recyclable.


Introducing the Xi3 Computer Architecture & the Modular Computer

After years of contemplating and researching the ideal computer of the future, we believe we have created just that with the Xi3 Computer Architecture and the new Modular Computer from Xi3 Corporation.
Modular Computer Pic 4.pngXi3 Logo.pdf

In an Xi3 architecture, we began by subdividing the classic motherboard into three separate boards:

  • The Xi3 Processor Control Circuit Board, consisting of processor and memory options,
  • Two (2) I/O cards to handle all connectivity and Input/Output requirements.

Modular Computer Assembly 1.png
As a result, each Xi3-based computer contains the bare minimums of processor, memory/storage and I/O. The Xi3 architecture also supports virtually any operating system.

The Xi3 Modular Computer takes this three-board, Xi3 architectural design approach and then houses it within a strong yet lightweight metal cube made from extruded aluminum. At less than 4-inches per side, the Xi3 Modular Computer is small enough for almost any embedded solution, while also being easy to repair and upgrade and aesthetically pleasing. Additionally, the aluminum casing serves itself as a type of heatsink, while the flow-through design of the Modular Computer and the placement of the processor on the Xi3 backplane combine to help mitigate and dissipate heat blooms inside the enclosure itself.  Three of the external sides of the aluminum casing also host separate universal mounting slides, making it simple to mount an Xi3 Modular Computer to almost anything, anywhere.

Slated for launch in the Fall of 2010, the Modular Computer is initially designed for select vertical market solutions. It is further designed to be flexible, adaptable, versatile, compact, strong, lightweight, inexpensive to manufacture, and easy to use, repair, upgrade and recycle.

The split motherboard design of the Xi3 architecture will also allow for longer lifecycles as the system can be adapted to new technologies as they are introduced to the market. 

In fact, we are confident in saying that with the unveiling of the Xi3 Computer Architecture and the Modular Computer from Xi3 Corporation, we believe we have been successful in
Re-Designing The Computer.

# # #


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