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Three bits of recent news got me thinking:

• First, Apple announces that it’s going to start using Intel chips in its computers. The primary reason appears to be that Intel’s better than IBM and AMD at designing chips that don’t consume a lot of power.

• Second: Apple introduces the iPod nano, which uses flash memory ( reportedly supplied by Samsung at a hefty discount).

• Third, Samsung announces the first 16Gb flash memory chips, which will make it feasible to start using flash memory instead of hard drives for data storage.

That’s the news. Here’s my speculation about what they could mean.

We’re already seing what happens to design when you substitute flash memory for hard drives. The flash-based iPod nano is something like 60 percent smaller than the mini, in large part because its storage chips take up so much less room than even the tiniest micro drive. While today’s laptop drives are smaller than ever, switching to flash memory for laptop storage could mean significant size savings.

Or, rather, it could if the CPU didn’t need cooling. Keeping chips the right temperature takes space—for fans, heat sinks, air-flow, liquid-cooling, whatever. But power-smart chips from Intel don’t need as much space for cooling.

Those chips, combined with tiny storage chips, make it possible to radically miniaturize the laptop. I can imagine an Apple laptop that bears the same resemblance to today’s iBooks and PowerBooks as the latest iMac does to its chunkier predecessors: A portable computer that’s not much thicker than its display, either in a traditional keyboard-and-screen configuration or in the form of the rumored Apple tablet. I can also imagine a gadget the size of a PDA with the power of a full-sized computer. And I can start to imagine some interesting home-entertainment devices that don’t look like computers at all.

What those new gadgets won’t be is cheap. Flash memory will continue to cost more per gigabyte than a hard drive: You can currently buy a 250GB FireWire drive for less than $1 per gigabyte, while flash memory cards run $50 or more per gig.

But flash prices will likely fall quickly over the next couple of years. And as they do, and as Intel perfects the design of low-power, high-speed CPUs, Apple’s going to have ample opportunity to do what it does best: out-innovate the rest of the computer industry.

Much of the above is fantasy and speculation on my part, but Apple’s now got the real-world partnerships to make it all happen for real. From my keyboard to Steve’s ears…

Editor's Note: This item was reposted to update a previously published blog entry.

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