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Shannon’s Eleven

Top tech trends to watch in 2007.
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My 70-something-year-old mother (she’d ground me if I printed her exact age) said something over lunch recently that nearly made me spit my drink out. As her cell phone rang for the third time during our first half-hour together, after she pressed the green button yet before she addressed the caller, she looked at me and said "What did I do before my cell phone?" Quick flashback to only two years earlier, when our family had gift-wrapped the fourth attempt—at last successful—of a mobile phone and prepaid card to coax her onto the cell phone bandwagon. So why did that particular phone escape the other phones’ destinies of being relegated to paperweights and kindle her love affair with mobile communication? My mom soon realized her real estate business deals just couldn’t wait until she reached a rotary phone attached to her kitchen wall.

Such an anecdote seems fitting with this onset of January, the month to pledge to go to the gym more faithfully, stop eating foods preserved with chemicals of more than four syllables, and try to stop writing the wrong year on checks and forms. I am hopeful that technologies that once seemed destined to remain in a lab or stuck in hyperbole in the marketing department will take a step further toward being indispensable to someone soon.

The world is not short on promising technologies that couldn’t translate from lab to market, or just never grabbed the fancy of the consumer. Take robotics, for instance. While the mass media’s September reports of an injured U.S. Marine being fitted with a bionic arm underscored the miraculous real-life applications that technologies can have, at least one professor at a major university says there has been little advancement at all in the robotics field in general regardless of its perceived potential. And remember the promise of the video phone? While videoconferencing is used in businesses and the application makes sense in certain home applications, the video phone as AT&T envisioned in the 1960s and again in the 1990s has failed to live up to expectations. And the `it’ invention that was to be used by every citizen and change the whole world? Well, last fall there was a major recall of 23,500 Segway PTs, which represents all the personal transporters the company has sold as of mid-September, 2006, according to the company.

I might be encouraging a deluge of `What were you thinking’ messages likely to swamp my email inbox a year from now or before, but here are my predictions for those technologies or movements that will garner the most interest in 2007.

The world is not short on promising technologies that couldn’t translate from lab to market, or just never grabbed the fancy of the consumer.

1. Digital Home Fires. It’s been written in technology publications for more than a decade, and featured in science fiction movies long before that, but industry experts see 2007 as a growth year for equipment enabling the digital home. While there are still hurdles to clear in distributing content throughout the home, like hammering out an industry standard on digital rights management, two factors will contribute to the boost in the digital home: consumers replacing older residential equipment and prices on gear are coming down, say reports. Meanwhile, organizations like the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA), are linking up mobile, landline, broadband, and entertainment interests to help gain multi-vendor interoperability, a feature the DLNA says is critical. "This interoperability enables a broader range of devices at multiple price points to be offered to consumers and give these consumers the confidence that they can buy their way into the digital home progressively and not be locked into a single vendor solution that may not meet their longer-term needs," says Bob Taylor, a member of DLNA’s board of directors and senior architect at HP’s Imaging and Printing Group and Office of Strategy and Technology. Taylor is optimistic about 2007 for the digital home, with more than 50 DLNA-certified products on the market today.

2. Courting the Content. Having devices more able to communicate with each other in the home will be futile if the content provided through those pipes isn’t enticing. More media companies will pair with more communication companies for exclusive deals on content. Such compelling content, adds Taylor, will help drive the digital home, and vice versa. Which leads to…

3. Social Online Networks the New Reality. First it was blogs and vblogs. Anyone could provide their own take on their immediate surroundings in text or in images. Then came the Web sites MySpace.com and Facebook.com and soon the observer and the observed blurred roles. The U.S. Congress was asked to evaluate them, protect the people participating in them, and conditionally ban them. During 2006, these sites that allow everyday people to post homemade videos and personal bulletin boards have infiltrated modern culture. Digital devices that make for better images and editing techniques will only heighten the so-called reality of these Web pages. This year promises to see more commercialization of such sites, where corporations can hone their marketing messages to the audience and get their R&D and product feedback inexpensively (see 2. Courting the Content). The sites know their value: YouTube.com, which dished out approximately 100,000 videos per day last year, was purchased in mid-October by Google for $1.65 billion in stock compensation. While copyright issues might cause some difficulties, social online networks are likely to keep attracting the big media companies in 2007.

4. Dynamo Devices. Yes, mobile devices are phones, computers, cameras, game consoles, and music machines. But as more content becomes available, folks will want to access more information away from home and office. Better keyboards, clearer images on the screens, smaller size, longer battery life, and more capabilities are some of the improvements today’s mobile devices will experience over the next year.

5. Take a Message. Voice mail from work, answering machine at home, mobile devices that keep text and voice messages. Consumer and business users need a unified message repository, regardless of the device the call was made from. Much like wide neckties that are said to be back in fashion again, unified messaging (UM) is experiencing a rebirth. The messaging technology, which hit near-nirvana status in the mid- to late-1990s followed by a collective yawn years later, is receiving renewed interest as research houses are plugging the systems. Although I don’t have the same degree of optimism about UM that In-Stat does—the market researcher says equipment providers’ support of UM and UM-capable gear will continue to grow and displace traditional voice-mail systems by the end of 2009—I do agree that cohesive UM systems will see progress and more demand this year. Who knows? The UM-capable equipment might see end-user revenues climbing from $506.4 million in 2005 to $628.6 million by the decade’s end, as the research house predicts. But I’d settle for a simplified and efficient way to check all my messages with one attempt.

6. Ubiquity of WiFi. More portable devices chasing more content will further increase the demand for external wireless networks. Municipalities, an early proponent of wireless network investment, are continuing to pour money into network buildouts. This past fall, Silicon Valley Metro Connect, a group supported by IBM, Cisco Systems, and Azulstar Networks, was hired to build a wireless network in Silicon Valley that could serve up to 2.4 million customers, according to the organization, and similar projects are planned around the country. According to muniwireless, as of September 2006, in the U.S. there were approximately 306 cities and counties with active networks, ongoing deployments, RFPs or RFIs, and serious plans to offer wireless service. That’s up from 264 reported back in June. Little wonder that WiFi and WiMax-based networks are predicted to continue to experience steady growth in 2007 as business and consumer users rely more on their mobile devices for communication and communities are willing to devote funds for the infrastructure in order to satisfy them.

7. Triple and Quad Play for the Game. Service providers know they must offer voice, video, and data to stay competitive. Research houses are saying wireless is a must-have addendum to that menu. Innovative operators have already paired up to offer such packages. In late September, Telewest and Virgin Mobile teamed up on the Quadplay package, comprising home phone service, digital TV including voice on demand, broadband, and wireless service for approximately £40 per month. Separate, smaller providers will have a difficult time competing with that price point for `a la carte offerings.

8. More Telecom Tussles. First it was the long distance and local operators brawling over rights of way and the customer. Now that local companies remain as kings of the mountain, the cable TV companies are stepping in with more, newer services, says Jeff Kagan, industry analyst. "Telecom is in the middle of a major 20–30-year transformation," he says. "The industry is reinventing itself." Service providers will be fighting more voraciously than ever to win the customer, who will be paying for more services to his selected provider. The trend in 2007: with such battles going on, certain markets will see their customers get better deals on the bundled package offerings.

9. Security Issues Inch Higher Up on the `To Do’ List. Businesses have already seen the vulnerabilities they expose themselves to because of technology and communication. Whether it’s the dam-breaking barrage of spam and spyware mucking up a personal computer or a vulnerable corporate network that couldn’t fend off hackers, solving security concerns is a top priority for users. According to Santa Clara, CA-based McAfee, a security solution provider, the prevalence of adware and spyware is increasing rapidly, with some 450 adware families existing that boast more than 4,000 variants. The company also found in a survey that 97% of Internet users were vulnerable to downloading potentially problematic programs because they couldn’t differentiate safe sites from unsafe sites.

10. RFID Revs Up. Radio frequency identification got its name in the spotlight from Wal-Mart’s insistence that suppliers start replacing bar codes with the wireless sensors. But even with the behemoth marketer supporting the short-range wireless technology, the past two years have seen a lot of hype for RFID, which proponents say can be used for everything from not only keeping track of the path products travel as they snake through the supply chain from the manufacturer to the store shelves, but other applications such as tagging mad cow disease in bovines, keeping track of illegal immigrants, and even housing personal information like medical history and being implanted in humans. In September 2006, RFID tag and wireless equipment manufacturer Symbol was purchased by Motorola for $3.9 billion, boosting the technology’s viability for use in cellular phones by consumers, morphing the mobile phone into a conduit for applications like commerce. While consumer applications using RFID might be a few years away and obstacles such as standards and vendor agreements remain, 2007 is likely to see progress and more smart money propelling the technology.

With all the progress in technology slated to occur this year, consumers will have more communication choices and platforms available to them.

11. Easy Target. With all of these movements accelerating this year, one common theme is that businesses and service providers will continue to try and refine their approach to the customer, trying harder to target particular individuals with content of particular interest to that person. "There will be a movement away from people having to look for things," explains Kristian J. Hammond, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northwestern University. There will be more "niche content that’s enabled by broad deployment infrastructures." Hammond envisions a world in which people can walk into restaurants with their laptops and connect via WiFi to a personalized network where they can peruse content targeted to their likes and interests, above a home or aggregated page. The business can offer an exclusive entertainment snippet, or even a serial show, to entice customers to return. "It’s like a Happy Meal for adults," Hammond says.

With all the progress in technology slated to occur this year, consumers will have more communication choices and platforms available to them. Just wait until Mom hears about this.

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