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Personal Tech 2008: Top 10 trends

Personal Tech 2008: Top 10 trends

With each passing year, personal technology -- phones, gadgets, media electronics, and more -- gets better, smaller and cheaper. With the introduction of the Apple iPhone and other milestones, 2007 was an incredible year.

But fasten your seat belts: 2008 is going to be even better. Here are the trends that will fuel the best year in personal tech ever.

1. The year of flash-based superportables

As 2007 came to a close, the leaders in the PC, notebook and cell phone markets were clear. But the space between cell phones and laptops remained up for grabs. While hundreds of products, from Ultra Mobile PCs to superportables to tablet PCs, came out last year, none really captured the attention of the mainstream gadget-buying public. The whole category has been a wasteland of failed products and confused consumers, high prices and obscure vendors.

In 2008, all this will change. A tiny Linux laptop line called the Asus Eee PC -- which costs as little as $300, has a keyboard, screen, Wi-Fi and clamshell design, and was released late in 2007 -- will upset the ultramobile apple cart and transform expectations about price and portability.

Once you've recovered from reverse sticker shock induced by the Asus Eee PC's mind-blowing price, you'll notice that the device is totally silent. Part of the reason for that is that it uses an efficient 900MHz Intel Celeron processor, which doesn't require a big cooling fan. But the other reason is that it has no hard drive. The Eee PC uses the same kind of storage as an iPod Shuffle -- solid state flash storage.

2008 will usher in a new era of very thin, very light, very quiet flash storage mini-laptops. With no moving parts, flash devices are also more rugged because they don't have delicate mechanics in the hard drive that can be easily damaged with minor shock.

The only downside to the Eee PC is that most consumers have never heard of Asus. So the other massive shift we'll see in the market is that the biggest of the big players -- namely Apple and Dell -- will come out with category-busting flash-based superportable devices that will turn heads and re-invent the category.

2. The year of free Internet access

Amazon clobbered Sony in holiday e-book reader sales with its Amazon Kindle gadget. They both offered the exact same screen technology, but Amazon had at least one thing Sony didn't: free, unlimited mobile broadband access baked right in. You never get a bill, and it never stops working for the life of the device (unless you flip the switch to turn it off).

Amazon can do this because the device is optimized for giving money to Amazon. The main use for the wireless is to buy electronic books, newspaper, and magazine subscriptions, and other content from Amazon. Still, the e-reader's supreme ease of use is a killer feature. Any gadget maker that can pull it off -- most likely in partnership with carriers, who can sell things to gadget owners -- might similarly clobber their own competition.

Meanwhile, we're likely to see new models for offering free Wi-Fi. From airports to airlines (for in-flight access) to McDonalds to Starbucks -- Wi-Fi is going to get freer and freer. Why? As major companies increasingly figure out how to justify access (usually either advertiser-supported, or as a lure to buy other things, like coffee), users will increasingly point and laugh at any company that tries to charge for it as they log in to the free alternatives. By the end of 2008, there will be greater access to free Wi-Fi connections than there will be for hotspots that want to charge you for it.

3. The year of the home robot

We've all grown up watching visions of home robots on TV -- from "Lost In Space" to "The Jetsons" to "Gigantor." Admit it. You've always wanted a robot wandering around, making conversation and doing your chores.

Although a few home robot products have emerged over the last two decades, they've all been either too dumb or too expensive for broad consumer use. Most robots available today are either niche products for hard-core enthusiasts and programmers, or simple children's toys that everyone loses interest in after a few days of play.

But 2008 will be the year when very intelligent and very affordable home robots go mainstream, thanks to a brilliant new idea: Connect the robot to a home PC via Wi-Fi, and let the PC serve as the robot's brains. This innovation means that home robots can cost a few hundred dollars, instead of a couple thousand.

One robot that could come out by late 2008 or 2009 is Hanson Robotics' Zeno. When finished, Zeno will be able to walk, talk, express "emotions," make eye contact with you, learn your name and what you look like, and greet you by name when you walk into the room.

Sony is rumored to be planning the resurrection of its AIBO robot dog, but with one very major difference: Instead of carrying around a robot brain internally, AIBO will connect via Wi-Fi to a nearby Sony PlayStation. The robotic pooch will also have a Webcam on its forehead. According to the rumor, the new AIBO PS will respond to voice commands, and also guard your home, e-mailing you photos of any unauthorized intruders.

Whether these two products actually ship -- and whether they ship in 2008 -- remains to be seen. But the idea of using a home PC as the brains of a robot via Wi-Fi is obviously superior to trying to sell $2,000 home robots. Look for Wi-Fi-based robots emerging from small companies this year, too.

4. The year of hyperconnectivity

People want all their devices connected to the Internet -- not just PCs and cell phones, but also MP3 players, e-book readers, digital cameras, wristwatches, cars and more. And in 2008, they're going to get it. The trend toward "hyperconnectivity" started in 2007, when new products like the iPod Touch and Amazon Kindle dominated the competition in large part because of their built-in Internet connectivity.

One of the most talked-about consumer products available right now is the Eye-Fi card, which fits into a digital camera's SD slot and gives it Wi-Fi access for auto-uploading pictures to the Internet. Look for dozens of new Internet-connected digital cameras to come out in 2008, and a wide range of other devices with easy access to the Web.

5. The year of multi-touch

The Apple iPhone made the world safe for a once-obscure user interface idea called "multi-touch" -- the ability to accept simultaneous input from more than one point on a screen. Multi-touch, combined with on-screen "physics" (on-screen objects that move as if they have weight, mass and momentum) and "gestures" (shapes drawn on screen that send commands to the system) will in a few years' time radically transform the experience of using a computer.

But in 2008, we'll be able to buy at least two new multi-touch products. The next-generation iPhone, which we think will ship in summer, will probably have even better multi-touch features than the current version. And special software developed and already demonstrated by Dell will transform its brand-new Latitude XT tablet computer into an innovative multi-touch PC -- we just don't know exactly when.

Apple is also rumored to be working on a multi-touch tablet -- basically a giant iPhone.

Microsoft is also planning multi-touch support for the eventual successor to Vista, called Windows 7. In the meantime, the company may be tempted to boost lagging Vista and Windows Mobile sales by offering downloadable multi-touch support in 2008.

6. The year of location, location, location

Don't look now, but GPS has gotten small and cheap. Meanwhile, alternatives to GPS, including cell tower triangulation (already available on Google Maps Mobile) and other "indoor GPS" solutions, will increasingly inform phones and other devices of your location on the face of the Earth.

In 2008, carriers, Web 2.0 startups. and gadget makers will start getting creative about what to do with this location awareness. Social networking will spill out into the real world, with your phone alerting you to friends nearby, while messages from friends, relatives and even strangers will be associated with physical locations like invisible graffiti.

And everyone will be tracking not just themselves and other people, but also pets and cars. The drop in GPS pricing means a new category of stick-on, strap-on, clip-on GPS gadgets will let you track just about anything.

7. The year of reading on-screen

Books, newspapers and magazines will take a huge leap toward electronic "consumption" this year. Several trends are conspiring to bring this about. The first is the growing size and quality of cell phone screens. Thanks in large part to the Apple iPhone, cell phone screens are becoming so good that reading Web-based versions of newspaper and magazine articles and even e-books on a cell phone is becoming not only possible, but pleasurable.

Amazon's Kindle e-book reader will for the first time ever drive e-books into the mainstream. This move is helped by new advances in e-ink screen technology. Tablet PCs and superportables will drive the trend toward screen-reading as well.

Meanwhile, the Internet's assault on the traditional print magazine and newspaper business model will continue thanks, in part to Craig and his list, the growth of Internet advertising in general and the rejection by young readers of print-based media. High gas prices, concern about global warming, and other factors will make print publications more expensive to distribute.

Like the paperless office and paperless bathroom, we'll never see the paperless book, magazine, and newspaper industries. Print publications will be with us forever. But electronic reading will get a big boost in 2008.

8. The year of social everything

No longer a hangout for teenagers with bad taste, social networks and social sites of all kinds will explode in 2008. Google's OpenSocial initiative will start chipping away at the walls that separate different social networking sites.

Social networking will become so ubiquitous and mainstream that people will be participating in it without even thinking of it as social networking. Business colleagues will stay in touch. Public relations will be transformed. Hobbyists, bloggers, journalists, vacationers, families, politicians, and others will all boost the quality of their interaction through social networking tools.

Life-streaming -- bloglike, real-time lists that keep you updated with the activities of friends, family members and colleagues -- will first become useful, then necessary.

Random services will be increasingly transformed through social participation. GPS turn-by-turn directions, restaurant and movie reviews, and all kinds of other opinion-based information will be improved by the collective wisdom of strangers.

9. The year of haptic feedback

When playing console video games, your handheld game controller shakes and rumbles to coincide with on-screen explosions, crashes, gunshots and grenade detonations. Motion conveys subtle information to the user. That "force feedback" is called haptics.

Haptics will show up with shocking frequency this year in cell phones and other mobile devices. In some cases, haptics will help compensate for the disappearance of buttons in cell phones. A little vibration will tell your fingers when you've successfully pressed an on-screen button as a substitute for the tactile feedback from a real button that actually moves. But haptics will also return to its roots by improving game play on cell phones.

At the start of this year, there were only two cell phones with haptics available from major U.S. carriers -- the Motorola RAZR2 V8 and the LG Voyager. By the end of the year, there will be dozens. The feature may even show up in a new iPhone this year. (Apple patents indicate a great deal of interest in haptics by the company.)

One way or the other, haptics will shake up the gadget industry in 2008.

10. The year of cell phone TV

Watching TV on a cell phone will go mainstream in 2008, even as watching TV on a TV continues to plummet. Blame Apple, which both created the video-friendly iPhone and sells TV shows via its iTunes store. You can also blame the coming wave of Internet advertising, which will make streaming TV shows worthwhile for networks. And, finally, lay some blame on the traditional greed of cell phone carriers, which will look for creative ways to drive up data usage.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.


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