Thursday, December 27, 2007
Wishes for the future often accompany the celebrations that ring in the start of a new year. And for technology fans, there's plenty to put on the wish list.
For while 2007 was a big year for product rollouts, in some ways it was transitional: offering us mere glimpses of the better things that might come. Here are a few.
--- An iPhone for the rest of us
Apple's iPhone was clearly a hot item in 2007, but there was just one problem: only those with deep pockets could justify the splurge. In addition to paying around 500 dollars for this stylish, versatile device, some had to switch cell carriers, since Apple did not have agreements in place with most network providers.
Could we actually see a cheaper iPhone in 2008? Some think it's inevitable if Apple hopes to achieve wider market penetration. The company does, after all, have a history of making a hot product more affordable. The iPod MP3 player was followed-up by the less expensive Nano and other models. Why not an iPhone Nano?
--- A better Vista
Here's to hoping 2008 is a "do over" year for Windows Vista. Although Microsoft's biggest product offering of 2007 is selling well, that's mostly because computer makers are delivering it by default on most new PCs and notebooks. Sales of Vista at the retail level and to corporations have been relatively weak. The reason: Vista just doesn't offer enough compelling features to warrant an upgrade from Windows XP.
To make matters worse, Vista's interface overhaul means that users need to put in some significant time relearning things that were second nature in XP. Performance and compatibility have also been widely criticised.
But Microsoft has a chance to make things better with Service Pack 1 of Vista, available now in a beta (pre-release) version. The final Service Pack 1 of Vista is due early next year and will reportedly address concerns about sluggishness and compatibility.
--- Faster wireless
The 802.11n wireless networking protocol has not yet been ratified, but it's close. 2008 is expected to be the year that 802.11n - which provides wireless networking speeds that easily rival those of today's common wired networks - is finally made official and interoperable products start appearing.
The advantages of 802.11n are significant. With ultra-fast wireless connections, users will not only be able to stream video and music from hotspots around the world, but worthwhile in-house networks can be formed that allow all computers to share files and be backed up safely and quickly. Current 802.11g wireless connections are good for checking e-mail and surfing the Internet, but not much more. May 2008 be the year that 802.11n truly frees networked computer users from wires.
--- An end to the high-def wars
Blu-ray versus HD DVD: the war over a high-definition video standard has been raging for years now, and there's no apparent end in sight. The real victims are consumers with high-definition television sets but no affordable way of playing high-def DVDs on them. Buying a Blu-ray or HD DVD player means two things: locking yourself into one standard over the other and paying a big price premium for the privilege. A typical Blu-ray DVD player costs between 600 and 1,000 dollars, compared to your average DVD player of just around 100 dollars.
It's true that hybrid Blu-ray/HD DVD players are starting to appear - but again at a price premium. Some pundits predict that the movie studios will pressure the players on either side of the standards war to come up with a single format in 2008, since no one believes that wide consumer adoption of players will occur until there's a unified standard. Here's to hoping those pundits are right.
--- Ubiquitous Internet
Thanks to wireless hot spots, it's getting easier to be online no matter where you are, but we're still not there yet. Existing wireless hot spots needs to be upgraded to 802.11n as soon as it's available, since it offers not only faster wireless speed but also much wider coverage. And public venues such as airports and coffee shops need not only to offer wireless but also to do so at no cost to the user. Quite simply, people will prefer locations that offer free, fast wireless, and there's an obvious commercial advantage in attracting people. Here's to hoping that venues come to understand that in 2008.
--- A surge for open source
There's good reason to hope that 2008 is a watershed in open source software, a period when computer users learn that there are realistic alternatives to fee-based software. Open source products such as OpenOffice.org (http://www.openoffice.org) have proven that free software can be not only as powerful as the big-name products from Microsoft, Corel, and others, but they can be entirely compatible with those products as well. Today, a computer user can outfit a machine with virtually any productivity application at no cost whatsoever. Open source can put the power of computing in more hands than ever before.
--- A pause for thankfulness
Personal computer technology has advanced at a rate unimaginable when the first PCs were introduced to the public. A little over 20 years ago, a typical computer user was sitting next to a large, expensive 8088-based PC with 256k of RAM and two floppy drives, staring at a green or amber monochrome screen on which flickered a text-based application, probably a word processor or spreadsheet.
The goal was usually the same: printing out work on roll paper using a loud, slow, dot-matrix printer. The computer and printer would have lightened a person's wallet by some 5,000 dollars, and the next year would have brought newer technology that all but made the current machine obsolete.
Now your typical computer user sits in front of a large, thin flat-panel monitor, multitasking, communicating with people around the world, shopping, or talking for free over the Internet. And all of this capability is powered by a machine that not long ago would have made a rocket scientist green with envy. The total cost is typically less than half that of the old green screen, box, and printer.
So while a new year is for wishing and more gadgets are typically what gets a tech fan's attention, it's helpful to take some time out to reflect upon how far we've come. It's not that difficult, after all, to be thankful that technology has given us the ability to do things that a generation ago would have been unthinkable: sending e-mail, accessing the world's store of knowledge online, crunching numbers, compiling mounds of music and video digitally, working "virtually," and much more. Without the technology we have, the world would be a much less flexible place. And for that there's cause to give thanks.