Tech trends of 2008 gave a peek at the future


In 2008, did you:

• Get an iPhone, a Blackberry Storm or a Windows Mobile phone?

• Download a song from iTunes or Amazon.com?

• Get on-demand video on your computer or a set-top box?

• Pick up a netbook-style laptop computer for a grandchild?

• Replace your desktop computer with a full-featured laptop model?

• Twitter with your friends and family?

• Post a photo to your Facebook page?

• Buy a digital photo frame?

• Use a GPS unit to navigate to grandma’s for Thanksgiving?

• Break down and upgrade to an HDTV, or your DVD player to Blu-ray?

• Use your government coupons to buy a DTV converter box?

• Put a TV in your kitchen?

• Watch a video in your car?

• Add a wireless network at home?

• Get a Bluetooth headset for your phone or music player?

• Pick up a Wii, PS3 or Xbox gaming console? A Nintendo DS?

If you did any of these things, you invested some time and/or money into trends that give a glimpse into the future of technology for at least the next year or so. In many cases, these trends are only the tip of the iceberg for our near future – and maybe a far-off one as well.

So, here’s a glimpse what may be part of that future:

• Smartphones come to dominate the market and the Internet.

There’s no question but that the trend in the cellular phone market in the last several years has leaned strongly toward smartphones.

All of the major cell phone carriers have dramatically increased the number of do-everything smartphone options they offer and have also trended toward offering upgraded “dumbphones” that serve as music players or feature full QWERTY keyboards for text messaging and e-mail.

Smartphones can not only access a mobile version of the Internet, as many high-end phones have done for years, but now offer full-featured Web browsing through mobile browser software and thus access to most popular Web sites, including YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and the wide variety of video-enabled news Web sites and blogs.

The biggest breakthrough in recent years has been new mobile browser technology that better replicates Web pages as they’re seen on a desktop browser.

Windows Mobile’s Pocket Internet Explorer has offered single-column, downsized and full desktop-style views for years, admittedly with some hitches. And the people behind the Opera browser have also been gaining in popularity for their Opera Mini browser, designed for devices with small screens, limited memory and button-only operation.

But it has been the iPhone’s mobile version of Apple’s Safari browser that has made the biggest dent in this arena, quickly becoming the dominant mobile browser and even tripling its own use in the last several months.

The touchscreen iPhone browser – with its finger-swiping scrolling, page-zooming pinches and standard data connection – finally reached a level of instinctive operation and content handling that made the mobile browsing experience seem as easy as pulling out your phone and typing in a Web address.

At the same time, browsing on other smartphones has improved, with Opera Mobile recently seeing an upgrade that comes much closer to the desktop browsing experience and the new Skyfire browser offering quick mobile access even to Web pages that use Flash and video, thanks to its server-side handling of page content.

Faster 3G data systems now make all but the most intensive content readily available on mobile devices, and upcoming 4G systems will only serve to improve that availability and mobile browsing’s ubiquity.

Such has been the growth of mobile browsing that a study released this month by the Pew Internet & American Life Project predicted mobile devices will be the primary connection tool to the Internet for most people in the world in 2020. I can support that conclusion on a personal level, having made do with my Windows Mobile smartphone for personal Internet access for several months last year while my computer was incapacitated.

Also supporting the move to smartphone technology is another conclusion of the survey: that touch-screen technology and voice-recognition will be well accepted by 2020. Gone may be the days of pushing a lot of buttons to make that call or send that text message.

Already, Microsoft’s Voice Command offers voice-based operation of many of the functions of Windows Mobile phones, without the need to record or “train” specific triggers. Add in a Bluetooth headset, and you can pretty much operate your phone without ever touching it. This speaks not only to the improvement of voice command on phones but also to overall improvement of voice recognition and wireless technology in the wider world.

And already, on-screen keyboards for touchscreen devices have shown themselves to be a strong trend, with devices such as the iPhone, HTC Touch and Blackberry Storm eschewing keyboards – or much in the way of buttons at all – in favor of touch-only interfaces.

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but as touch-based keyboards improve with features like multi-touch on capacitive screens (such as on the iPhone) and haptic feedback (the click or vibration to signal the recognition of a button press, as seen on the Storm), using on-screen keyboards will only become more intuitive and popular.

The bevy of available applications for use on smartphones is also an element of this trend, with tens of thousands of inexpensive applications available for iPhones, Windows Mobile-based phones, Blackberries and Palm devices. Nearly every function that has been dreamed of for these devices has already been coded into an application by someone, to the point where they are, essentially, becoming mini-computers.

Windows Mobile phones have always offered mobile versions of Microsoft’s Office desktop suite, so you can write a paper or a letter, view a PowerPoint presentation or access an Excel spreadsheet while – literally – on the road (but, hopefully, not while driving). Those applications are now moving to the iPhone as well.

All of these smartphones can now access “push” e-mail services, so your e-mail is just as up-to-date as if you were sitting at your desktop computer at work or home. And new interfaces are putting some of these applications right on the phones’ home screens, such as with the new Sony Ericsson Xperia X1, which features interchangeable, interactive panels for basic features such as calendar and calling status, for its media player and even for Facebook.

The result is the ability to customize many of these phones as much as you would your home computer, reflecting not only your style but your needs and usage, all at a moment’s notice.

As a counterpoint, there has also been a growing niche market for simplified phones that aim to be senior-friendly, or kid-friendly – large screens, big buttons, limited calling options and emergency calling buttons. So don’t fear that the smartphone trend will leave you in the dust. The market for simple, basic phones is likely to exist for a while to come.

• Touchscreens move beyond the mobile phone and service kiosk.

As the Pew survey suggested, touchscreens are seeing increasing use – not just in mobile phones but also in portable computers and even on the desktop.

What was cutting-edge technology years ago for full-size service kiosks at tourist destinations is now found commonly in tiny smartphones, offering more intuitive operation of any number of systems, from automated teller machines to portable computers and even consumer-grade desktop computers and laptops.

This year has seen an expansion of multi-touch touchscreen devices, ranging from the pocket-sized iPhone to Microsoft’s Surface coffee-table-sized device (intended, at least for now, for use in retail and hospitality environments). This technology created a big buzz when Microsoft showcased the Surface – until the anticipated $5,000 price tag was mentioned for the device’s massive size and extended functions. If only multi-touch was available on a consumer-priced device, many lamented…

Now, HP is offering multi-touch capability in its consumer computers, via the TouchSmart line. For about $1,200 you can get an all-in-one-style desktop computer with multi-touch capability, so you can tap, drag, pinch and twirl your computer objects – photos and more – with intuitive ease, right at home.

The technology is also finding its way into laptop computers – at a premium price of $1,850 from Dell in the Latitude XT and a more consumer-friendly one at $1,150 from HP in the TouchSmart TX2. HP already has a strong line of consumer-grade touchscreen convertible tablet laptops, including my own Pavilion TX2000, which offer not only single-finger touchscreen control but also the ability to write directly on the screen with a finger or stylus – a great feature for students.

• Computers get smaller and cheaper.

Touchscreen technology has already become popular for sub-notebook computers, with screen sizes ranging from around 4 inches to as big as 10 inches and designations like ultra-mobile PC (UMPC) and mobile Internet device (MID). Since many of the devices eschew a keyboard in favor of smaller size and greater portability, a touchscreen function that’s either finger-friendly or works with a stylus has been an obvious choice.

But that choice has traditionally come with a price, since touchscreen components have generally been very expensive.

Instead, those seeking primarily to build a smaller, cheaper computer have generally favored keyboards and touchpads and have stripped production costs by using open-source operating systems instead of Windows or its Apple rival. Smaller hard drives, less memory and slower processors have also been cost savers for these so-called “netbooks.”

They’ve gotten their name from the fact that their stripped-down systems don’t favor computing on the computer desktop but rather on connecting to the Internet to access so-called “cloud computing” applications. Documents are created and stored online. Information is accessed via the World Wide Web. Projects are handled via online Web applications.

This all makes for a perfect computing environment for the Third World, so long as you can provide minimal power for the netbook to operate. Add a human-powered crank, or a solar panel, and the result is a device like the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), which again this year offered its “Give One Get One” program in which consumers could donate an OLPC to a child in the Third World and get one for themselves (or a child or grandchild), all for $400.

The OLPC’s original goal was to produce such a device for $100. At twice the price, it’s still a workable program, especially with benefactors willing to pay $400 to get an OLPC for themselves as well.

But the OLPC also inspired competitors such as Asus’ EEE PC and, in turn, an entire industry aiming to produce inexpensive portable computers that are suitable for children and anyone who can’t afford to spend upward of $1,000 for such a device.

Thanks to them, portable computers are finally competitive in price with desktop computers. They now also come in flavors that run Microsoft Windows, as well as the open-source Linux OS, with solid-state hard drives that are less susceptible to damage and failure – and, yes, even with touchscreens.

In fact, 2008 marked the year when laptop computers finally outsold desktop models, thanks in large part to the increasing capability and appeal of the portable computers. Most everything a desktop computer can do, a laptop computer can now do, portably, and at not much of a price premium.

Between the desktop-replacement laptops, netbooks, UMPCs, MIDs and increasingly capable smartphones, there’s no question but that the near future of computing is small and mobile.

• Computing – and life – heads to the clouds.

The netbook is an obvious indication that much of what we do on computers these days can be done on the Internet alone, so long as we have some kind of interface to reach it. That trend is likely to expand significantly in the year to come, as more and more “cloud”-based applications become available and existing ones advance.

If you or your family members don’t already have a space online where you post photos and/or commentary on life, it’s likely that you, or they, will have one in the next few years.

There’s two aspects to this trend: (1) the ease of sharing information and photos online, replacing the cumbersome and time-delayed task of printing, writing on paper and sending things through the mail – it’s all available now, whenever your correspondent wants it, instantly; and (2) the somewhat natural attempt for humans to stay connected to each other (or try to reconnect) in a world where we’re increasingly dealing with each other through computers and not face-to-face.

With this power comes risk, however, and anyone venturing into the world of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and online photo albums can be tempted to commit one of the greatest sins of the Internet age: the overshare.

Your friends may think it’s cute that you posted a photo of yourself after one champagne toast too many on New Year’s Eve, but your parents, your potential future employer (and likely your present one) and any number of other people would rather not be privy to that sight.

It’s also likely they don’t need to be told via Twitter that you’re eating a taco and watching “American Idol” right now. Or that you’re heading to the bathroom 10 minutes later. Be careful who you “friend,” what you share, how much you share and where you share it. It could easily come back to haunt you.

Still, there’s no question that having much of our lives and life stories available online can have its benefits. Certainly, it will make collecting information about us much easier for our descendents. And, for now, there’s no question that an instant, photo-laden update on Christmas morning’s festivities is priceless to a distant grandparent.

In fact, those photos could load themselves directly onto Grandma’s digital photo frame, thanks to a number of wireless-enabled frames now on the market, such as the eStarling. Many of these frames come with their own e-mail addresses to which photos can be sent, or they can also be set to automatically download images from “feeds” put out by photo services or individuals. Grandma need never again go online to get the latest photos of her darling.

Additionally, no longer is it necessary to run to the video store to rent a movie or to head to the music shop to pick up that new album.

Video-on-demand – through cable television providers, online providers such as Netflix, traditional rental businesses such as Blockbuster and even television networks – is now widely available and will only become more so in the coming years. Netflix offers downloading on your computer or a set-top box. Blockbuster is offering its own set-top box, and most cable television companies offer programs on demand through their existing boxes.

Amazon.com offers on-demand through a partnership with TiVo, which already has a strong presence in the market for watching your favorite videos whenever the fancy strikes you (and leaving networks and advertisers scrambling for a future-proof business model).

Further, Amazon has set itself up as a direct competitor to Apple’s iTunes for music downloads, offering downloads free of restrictions on how many devices you can load the music on, in the same price range as iTunes’ iPod-only format.

Apple, on the other hand, has gone even further with the cloud-download model, offering direct-to-iPhone (and iPod Touch) purchasing and downloads. Over-the-air purchases are also becoming increasingly available on other devices. And Amazon’s Kindle offers the same sort of over-the-air purchase service for electronic books. It’s also available to iPhone/iPod Touch users and Windows Mobile phone users via eBook seller eReader.

Thanks to wireless Internet and data, it appears that even hooking up your devices to a wired connection of any sort may have its days numbered.

• Video goes upward and onward.

Who hasn’t by now seen a car with a DVD player built in? The wish fulfillment of many a parent with a long road-trip ahead of them, these devices manage to keep the passenger entertained while providing little, if any, distraction for the driver (who can now listen to high-definition radio).

For the real road warrior, satellite companies now offer stand-alone portable satellite systems, so you can watch most any television show live while on the road. And smartphones offer the ability to view video from YouTube, broadcasters’ Web services and cell service providers, too, without taking along a device that won’t fit in your pocket.

(Oh, and while you’re on the road, are you being directed with a GPS system? Now running as low as $50 to $100 for basic models – as well as being included in many smartphones – GPS is increasingly ubiquitous and all but does away with the need to buy a map or consult MapQuest for directions.)

While some will need to invest in a new rooftop antenna, as well as a converter box, to pick up digital television signals in this area, there’s no question that those receiving the new signals once the digital television transition is complete this February will be enjoying a range of new programming and better sound and video, without necessarily needing to pay monthly for programming or upgrade their television.

But the prices on high-definition TVs have gotten so low now that a modest investment can pay off – especially if you’re also looking to upgrade your DVD to the high-definition Blu-ray format.

If you haven’t already, visit the home of a friend who has an HDTV and a Blu-ray player, or who is now receiving HD content over-the-air or from a cable or satellite provider, and you’ll get a quick idea of how much improved the viewing experience can be.

And if you’re considering picking up a new television so you can watch the news while you prepare dinner, consider the new Pandigital Kitchen HDTV/Digital Cookbook/Digital Photo Frame. Yes, all those things built into one under-the-counter box designed for the kitchen.

The spill-resistant screen offers not only the ability to show your favorite cooking programs in HD but also your precious photos, as well as a built-in digital cookbook to offer some tips on making that dinner. If you were tempted by a refrigerator with a computer in the door, consider this as well, to complete that digital kitchen.

• Gaming for the masses.

There’s no question but that the trend in video games in 2008 was toward so-called “generations gaming.” Video game creators and console manufacturers have been pushing games and devices that were designed to appeal to everyone – from the youngest child to the senior. Witness the astounding success of the Nintendo Wii.

Everything from bowling and cooking to dancing and fitness was tackled in video games in 2008, with complaints about the development choices lingering among hardcore gamers, who have felt left out of the Wii game genre, though they still had plenty to entertain them on more traditional consoles, such as the Xbox 360 and PS3.

Generations gaming also went portable on the Nintendo DS, with “brain games” being a big seller aimed at an aging population, kid-friendly titles opening up the market to those even below the recommended age of 7 for the system and women-friendly titles such as the Zenses puzzle collection aiming to corner that market.

That inclusiveness is an overall trend for technology in the future, as gadgets, devices and functions once undreamt of become a reality for the everyday man, woman and child. From tech toys to by-your-side gadgets and wireless home integration, it’s likely that technology will be increasingly seen as a basic part of our lives in the years to come, starting with some of the very trends we saw in 2008.