This week, semiconductor powerhouse Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) announced an important breakthrough for the optical computers of the future. Let's be clear. Scientists (like esteemed Simpsons character Professor Frink, perhaps) have been working on optical computers for a while. They promise benefits in scalability and reduced heat generation and power needs. But until now, researchers have been butting their heads against some important technical barriers.

The abstracted research from Intel, published in the scientific journal Nature, describes the issue thusly: "One of the key limitations for using silicon as a photonic material has been the relatively low speed of silicon optical modulators compared to those fabricated from III-V semiconductor compounds and/or electro-optic materials such as lithium niobate."

For those of you who need a translation from that Frinkese, the problem has been that the components that relay the Morse-code-like light pulses carrying the "digitized" optical information have not been fast enough to measure up to current microchip standards. And some of them have relied on more exotic semiconductor materials than the ubiquitous silicon.

The speeds of the silicon optical modulator created by Intel's research group exceed the fastest previous device by a factor of 50. Further speed increases are sure to follow. That could open up a whole new world of possibilities for the computer industry someday.

But what will it mean for the bottom line in the near future? That's a lot harder to say. The press coverage of the advance is buzzing about some nifty applications, like the ability to watch live TV from a Matrix-like roving aerial viewpoint.

That strangely frivolous example belies one of the key challenges of the current computer scene. Today's superfast CPUs, like the new 64-bit offerings from Intel, rival AMD (NYSE:AMD), and those tucked inside Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) G5s already offer more computing muscle than all but the nerdiest gamers and video editors can use. The chips are ahead of the software industry and even the operating systems -- Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) 64-bit Windows XP is still in trial release. As always, it's not the technology, but the implementation, that will drive future commercial success.

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Seth Jayson is a Motley Fool contributor, and is hard at work on a smaller, faster debigulator. He owns no shares of the companies mentioned above.