January 23, 2012, 7:00 PM PST
Takeaway: If you think the past two decades have been amazing for tech, wait until you see what’s next. See the five hottest technologies that are on the way.
“The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” William Gibson
One of the best things about my job covering the latest technologies is getting early information about some of the amazing things coming down the pipeline in the years ahead. But, the flip side of that is that I often learn about some really cool stuff that won’t be available to the general public at a reasonable cost for a long time, which often leads to a case of “Isn’t that here yet?” that can last for years.
With that mind, here are my current top five picks for “Isn’t that here yet?” These are the technologies that I’m seriously impatient to see show up in the real world.
1. Wireless docking of mobile devicesI’ve recently talked a lot about the utopian convergence of PC and mobile devices. I see this as the next big game-changer in the technology industry, and that’s why I’ve pinpointed it as Microsoft’s next big opportunity (and explained why they could miss it). However, the number one factor that’s needed to make this happen isn’t a super-fast CPU or a miniature SSD drive with lots of storage, it’s a common standard for wireless docking. That’s what will enable us to take a smartphone or tablet and set it on desk or on a charging station like the Palm Touchstone and then have it wirelessly connect to a keyboard, mouse, and large screen monitor. We need something easier and more robust than Bluetooth. A technology like Wireless USB could be the answer. The most important thing is that it will need to be a universal standard integrated into every phone and tablet so that we no longer need proprietary docking solutions like the ones for the Motorola Atrix. Timeframe: 3 years
2. Inexpensive mobile broadband everywhereThe arrival of true 4G wireless broadband is just beginning to hit critical mass in the U.S. in 2011 with the continuing rollout of Verizon’s LTE service (I don’t count the 3.5G of T-Mobile and AT&T as 4G). And, while LTE offers impressive speed and performance, it still has wrinkles that need to be ironed out (handoff between 3G and 4G often gets goofy). But, the biggest thing LTE needs — from a user standpoint — is a little more competition to drive the price down and force the telecom companies to fight tooth-and-nail for business by deploying 4G everywhere. It’s a shame WiMAX is floundering in the U.S. because it was a legitimate 4G competitor and was aimed at delivered low-cost, high-speed mobile broadband everywhere — and then just turning phone calls into VoIP calls (like Skype) since people are using their phones less and less for voice and much more for data. Still, 4G is going to happen because people want high-speed Internet everywhere and are willing to pay for it. There might even be creative companies that will give it away or offer a reduced rate for ad-supported access. Timeframe: 2 years
3. Three dimensional printingOne of the coolest and most futuristic things in the works has got to be 3D printing. No, I’m not talking about making a printout and using 3D glasses to create a silly illusion (that would be even dumber than 3D movies and 3D TV sets). The three dimensional printing that I’m talking about is where you make a three dimensional design on a computer and then send it to a special device to “print” a 3D model. There are already some expensive (over $15,000) models available in the real world and used by companies that need to make rapid prototypes of products. However, there will eventually be models available for average consumers and lots of templates of different things to create, which means it will someday be cheaper and easier to create certain things than to go out and buy them. In other words, this will likely be the first step toward the replicator in Star Trek. Timeframe: 5-10 years
4. HTML5 to make the web an appThere are a lot of things that HTML5 will bring to the web — and some of these elements are beginning to show up in a few sites today — but the biggest thing HTML5 is going to do is take the training wheels off the web and unleash it to compete with traditional software. The two things that I’m most excited about are that HTML5 is going to turn the web into app and it’s going to eliminate the need for most of the plugins that slow down browsers and introduce extra security risks. With HTML5, constantly refreshing pages will become a relic of the old web as pages become far more dynamic and interactive, automatically loading the latest content and changing the page based on user clicks, mouse-overs, and multi-touch gestures. And, of course, multimedia will be integrated into the experience and plugins for Flash, Shockwave, Silverlight, and other helper technologies will become unnecessary. Timeframe: 2 years
5. Flexible OLED displaysAnother technology that has been promised for years but still needs several breakthroughs before it’s ready for the mainstream is OLED displays. We’ve seen some high-priced prototypes from Sony that feature ridiculously thin TV screens in small sizes (under 30 inches), but that only scratches the surface of what OLED will be able to do in the future — at least theoretically. These ultra-low-power displays will be able to be almost as thin as plastic wrap and will be completely flexible (even when in use). The result will be screens that can be integrated directly into walls and be virtually invisible when turned off. You’ll also see smartphones that can be folded in half and put into a pocket or a wallet, or even rolled into a bracelet. We could even see the re-emergence of the broadsheet as a way to read and consume news, but instead of unfolding a newspaper you’ll unfold an OLED display that is tied to a subscription to The New York Times, for example (here’s an example of how the Times is already envisioning this). Timeframe: 4-5 years
And you?What future technologies are you dying to get your hands on? Post in the discussion below and include your prediction for how long it will take to hit the mainstream.