Friday, December 15, 2006

Key technology trends for 2007

Writer and management guru Peter F. Drucker once said that attempting to predict the future is "like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window". A touch hyperbolic perhaps but the litany of wildly inaccurate past predictions, particularly in the field of technology, is testament to the difficulty of anticipating future trends.

Will that stop me from attempting to forecast next year's key technology trends? Hell no. But before I get on to the folly of future predictions, here's a quick round up of some of the key technologies that 'tipped' in 2006.

Key technology trends for 2006

Web 2.0
Whilst no-one can agree on exactly what it means (the best definition I've read is Paul Graham's which boils it down to Ajax, democracy and not maltreating users), there can be little doubt that Web 2.0 encompasses some of the defining technology trends of the past year. Whilst the term itself and many of the sites it describes have been around for a couple of years now, 2006 has been the year that the sites which most epitomise Web 2.0 really went mainstream as the below chart from Alexa illustrates.



Online video sharing
YouTube was the runaway online success story of 2006. Founded in February 2005 (but only officially launched last December), modest growth quickly gave way to an avalanche of traffic which culminated in its sale to Google in November 2006 for a cool $1.65bn. Dozens of pretenders to the YouTube throne have now entered the market (see earlier post) although the big YT still commands a whopping 64% of the UK online video market.

Betas
Not so long ago, beta referred to the final stage of software development where applications were made available to a closed group of testers for a limited period so any bugs could be identified and ironed out before the public (gold) release. Not any more. The web is now awash with sites labelled beta with seemingly very little correlation to their state of development. Of course it was Google who pioneered the perpetual beta with the likes of Google Catalogs (in beta since 2001), Froogle (since 2002) and Gmail (since 2004) to name but three. However it wasn't until 2006 that betamania really took hold (check out the 2000+ betas listed at The Museum of Modern Betas). Whilst in part this is a legitimate reflection of a shift away from release-based development towards more on-going iterative development, the beta label has also become both a universal disclaimer and a strange Web 2.0 badge of honour. Flickr (another pioneer of the perpetual beta) is only too aware of this and has playfully re-edited its logo to indicate that the site is now in 'gamma'...

VoIP
With UK broadband connections passing the 11 million mark in 2006, Voice over IP was a technology whose time had come. Sure enough, the introduction of mass-market VoIP services mushroomed in 2006. Skype led the way, signing up 100 million users by April 2006 and joining Google in the elite club of online services that have become so synonymous with an activity as to become verbs (e.g. skype me at...). A range of increasingly attractive handsets followed as did services from the major UK Telcos.

Wikis
The wiki is another web technology which has been around for a while (WikiWikiWeb, the first ever wiki, went live in March 1995) but which really came of age in 2006. Whilst the daddy of the wikis, Wikipedia, passed 1.5 million English-language articles last month and trebled its traffic over the course of the year (see above graph from Alexa), the real breakthrough was the explosion in grass-roots wikis (WikiIndex now lists 3,638) and the emergence of WYSIWYG wiki creation sites like PBwiki, Wetpaint and JotSpot (acquired by Google in October) which significantly lower the barriers to entry by taking the technical know-how out of setting up a wiki. Special mention must go to Lostpedia - a Lost themed replica of Wikipedia - which has clocked up over 40 million page impressions since it launched last September.

Multi-core processors
It's six years since IBM launched the first dual-core module processor (the POWER4) but its only now that multi-core processing is starting to hit the mainstream, most notably in the guise of the XBox 360 (which has a triple-core CPU) and the PlayStation 3 (whose Cell processor has an 8 core design). The new range of Apple Macs are also furnished with multi-core processors (the Intel Core 2 Duo). Whilst its difficult to quantify the impact this has on the end user, multi-core processing will definitely mean more powerful processors in the future with as yet undreamt of applications. Intel has apparently developed an 80-core processor prototype, which it says will be released within the next five years.

Now it's time for some wild speculation...

Key technology trends for 2007

Widgets
As previously posted, widgets look destined to be big next year, not only on the desktop and on the web but also on mobile phones.

Virtual worlds/online avatars
Building on the burgeoning success of immersive online environments like World of Warcraft and Second Life (see earlier post), 2007 is likely to see a lot more of virtual worlds. I also anticipate that the two-dimensional rendering of MySpace pages will gradually make way for more 3D expressions of people's personalities and interests. One site which is ahead of the curve on this is IMVU which has the tagline "beyond instant messaging". The site invites you to create your own 3D avatar which you can then use to chat to your friends in 3D scenes (see below screengrab).



Personal Video Recorders
Despite the zealous evangelism of owners, the PVR has thus far stubbornly refused to go mainstream in the UK. TiVo launched in the UK way back in 2000 and Sky+ followed in October 2001 (TiVo has since withdrawn from the UK market) but subscriber numbers have remained relatively low. That all looks set to change as the drive towards analogue switch-off gathers momentum and DTT PVRs start tumbling in price, aided by the Freeview Playback initiative. The launch of BT Vision may also help espouse the joys of PVRs.

Wi-Fi
Like many of the above technologies, the IEEE 802.11 Wi-Fi standard has been around for years. However, it's been slow to take off in the UK. In May 2006, Strategy Analytics published a study suggesting that just 6.1% of Britains use wireless. So what will precipitate a change in 2007? The biggest factor is likely to be the integration of Wi-Fi into an increasingly broad range of devices, from mobile phones (enabling free calls over VoIP) to digital cameras, from HDTVs and PVRs to digital radios. Philip Solis, senior analyst at ABI Research, has said that they expect the number of Wi-Fi integrated circuits sold into consumer electronics to grow from 6.6 million units in 2004 to over 70 million units in 2007. All three of the seventh generation consoles support Wi-Fi (the PS3 and the Wii natively, the Xbox 360 by means of an adapter) and Windows Vista promises much better wireless support. The falling costs of laptops, which increasingly come with wireless as standard will also increase the number of Wi-Fi capable devices in the market.

The other side of the equation is access points, which look set to becoming increasingly ubiquitous as 2007 progresses. BT's Wireless City project aims to bring city-wide coverage to 12 UK cities and the success of free community networks in Bristol and Norfolk has prompted Manchester City Council to draw up plans for a similar network there. In addition, the number of local hotspots in cafes, airports and other public spaces looks set to rocket as businesses cotton on to Wi-Fi as a selling-point. Home networks will also become more commonplace as broadband packages increasingly come with Wi-Fi routers as standard and home media servers start dropping in price.

Finally, the adoption of the 802.11n standard (due for final approval in July 2007, but already supported ) will offer data transfer speeds of up to 540 Mbit/s and should make wireless sending high-definition video around a home network a reality.

RFID tags
RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) is another technology which has been around for donkeys years but is only just starting to hit its stride. Traditionally used for the secure identification of people, vehicles and animals, prices of passive RFID tags (which don't require a battery) have fallen dramatically in recent years opening up a whole new range of possibilities. Recent applications include Transport for London Oyster cards and the Nike+ iPod Sport Kit (which has raised some interesting privacy questions). Expect to see RFID appearing in increasingly bizarre and scary places like in your passport and mobile phone and even under your skin.

Music on mobiles
The quality gap between the once untouchable iPod and mobile music phones is narrowing all the time and after the disappointment of the Nokia N91 (the first mobile with a 4GB hard drive), its only a matter of time before one of the handset manufacturers puts out a truly desirable music phone. That assuming that Steve Jobs doesn't get there first, of course. Rumours of an Apple iPhone have been circulating for years although the smart money does now seem to be on a January announcement.

Remote storage
The concept of remote storage has gradually permeated the collective consciousness over the past few years. Most of us are now content that the majority of our written correspondence is stored on a remote email server and not saved locally or printed out and filed. A similar thing is starting to happen with music, film and photography although these media are still primarily stored locally. 2007 is likely to see a significant shift towards remote storage as we increasingly come to expect all of our digital stuff to be available regardless of our geographical location. One service which is prepared for this nascent demand is Box.net which offers 1GB of free storage. Another is Orb which is specifically geared towards media storage (see earlier post). Of course it's not just data which is becoming increasingly remote, applications are also making the move to 'the cloud' (e.g. Google Docs & Spreadsheets.). The final piece of the puzzle is the operating system which will one day also be stored remotely - something Microsoft is already giving quite a bit of thought to.

Digital home hubs
The converged digital media hub has been a 'next big thing' for a long time now, but it was never going to take off whilst it depended on people shelling out a grand on a dedicated media centre. In 2007, a growing number of consumers will purchase another item of consumer electronics (e.g. games console, computer, set-top box) and find that they've effectively got digital hub functionality bundled for free. A few products which are going to prove key in this process are Windows Vista, the PlayStation 3, Apple's iTV product and BT Vision. Whilst there's clearly a long way to go on the interoperability front thanks to the quagmire that is DRM, the converged digital home hub is finally started to become a reality.

Personal GPS/location aware applications
You can now buy a mini GPS receiver for under £100 which can communicate your geo-coordinates to your mobile phone via Bluetooth which can in turn be uploaded to the web. A whole crop of Web 2.0 apps are springing up to take advantage of this new data set (e.g. Plazes, Everytrail, Socialite). Even without GPS data there are location based services to suit, relying on other methods to ascertain your whereabouts, such as triangulating the mobile phone signal (e.g Dodgeball, ZoneTag). Location aware applications could just turn out to be the mobile internet's USP.

RSS
Really Simple Syndication is seemingly constantly on the brink of crossing over into mainstream. The signs are certainly all there for 2007, with IE7 integration taken care of, aggregators like Bloglines and Google Reader going great guns, podcast usage slowly catching up with the hype, and the ressurgence of the personalised homepage (see earlier post). I expect alot more people to be regularly accessing content via RSS next year whether they know they are or not.

TV on demand over IP
Sky Anytime, Channel 4 on Demand and BT Vision are all now live and the BBC iPlayer is expected to launch next year (pending the outcome of the Public Value Test). The $64,000 question is just how many people are ready to consume TV in this way and whether the technology can live up to their expectations.

Whilst I'm here, I may as well also take a punt on what some of the key tech trends are likely to be moving into 2008...

Key technology trends for 2008

Ultra-wideband - UWB could potentially sound the death-knell for all those messy USB cables around your computer and the SCART lead connecting your TVR to your PVR.

Wi-MAX - A strong contender for Ofcom's proposed spectrum auction, potentially joining the Wi-Fi dots and providing 'last mile' connectivity for those unable to get broadband via cable or ADSL.

Mobile TV - Whilst almost all the UK mobile operators have dipped their toes in the mobile TV water, there is unlikely to be a truly compelling consumer offering up and running before 2008 when flat-rate data tarifs may make streaming via 3G a viable option or one of the competing broadcast technologies (e.g. DVB-H, DAB-IP, DMB, MediaFLO) emerges as a clear winner.

HDTV - High Definition TV is a technology which is available in the UK today (from Sky or Telewest) but is likely to take a number of years to mature. Despite a successful trial this summer, capacity for high definition broadcasts on terrestrial television (Freeview) will be very limited until digital switchover.

Fuel cells - Some of Japan's leading consumer electronics companies have been working on developing DMFCs (direct methanol fuel cells) which are small enough to function as a mobile phone recharger.

5 comments:

Mark said...

Howdy, nice post! I am trying to get the volunteer web master to fix the WikiIndex links from .com to WikiIndex.org. If you could fix that in the post, that would be fab. Best, Mark

Anonymous said...

hyperbolical

Poincare said...

are you crazy ? .. The Nokia N91 is an awesome phone and the music quality is better than any iPod model. Well okay it did not sell that well but it is performs herculean tasks! At the end of the day of course, the auido quality is unparalleled.

Anonymous said...

I think nokia n91 is the best phone ever made.

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