The new hotness: Personal tech in 2007

If you're a gadget freak, fasten your seat belt and hang on - it's going to be one hell of a year
  • Mike Elgan (Computerworld (US))
  • 03 January, 2007 10:00

As Moore's Law, or something like it, continues to drive down the cost and size of electronics, increasingly sophisticated technology will find its way this year into consumer electronics products of all kinds. If you're a gadget freak, fasten your seat belt and hang on. It's going to be one hell of a year.

The year of gadget Wi-Fi

Home PC users have become extremely comfortable with Wi-Fi in the last five years. Connecting at home through a Wi-Fi connection is old hat. The new game in town is Wi-Fi for gadgets, especially media players, cameras and TVs. Consumers will increasingly demand Wi-Fi in gadgets for the convenience, power and flexibility of being able to zap media around without hassles and without adding to cable bloat.

If nothing else, Microsoft's new Zune media player will drive demand for Wi-Fi in handheld gadgets. People already share music, videos and pictures, so why not do it in math class or at Starbucks rather than waiting until you get home? It's only a matter of time before the first Wi-Fi-enabled iPod hits. When that happens, Wi-Fi will become a must-have feature of media players for many users. New media players this year will not only connect peer-to-peer, as the Zune does, but also link to the Internet directly, like a PC.

Right now, only an exotic minority of digital cameras sport Wi-Fi connectivity, including the Nikon S7c, Nikon Coolpix P1 and P2, Nikon D2H, Kodak EasyShare One, Canon PowerShot SD430, Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and others. Look for these cameras to become more popular and new cameras to emerge with Wi-Fi capability. Wi-Fi lets you offload pictures to a nearby PC -- or upload them to the Internet -- without hunting for a USB cable or risking the loss of your tiny media card by removing it from the camera.

Wi-Fi in media players and cameras? Absolutely. But TVs?

Three years ago, a smattering of Japanese companies came out with what they called "wireless TVs" -- small LCD displays that received their content from a base station connected to cable. Those products never went anywhere. At press time, however, Samsung planned to release its new HP-TS064 Plasma TV, which features Wi-Fi, at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

The Samsung uses Wi-Fi in a totally different way from the old "wireless TVs." It doesn't get its regular TV signal over wireless, but it can connect to your PC over Wi-Fi, so you can watch YouTube videos or other Internet- or PC-based content, such as photo slideshows, on the TV.

The year of the mobile trackball

This year, the trackball will become the hot input device for mobile gadgets, especially smart phones. For a decade now, mobile devices have employed rocker dials, scroll wheels, thumbwheels and other input technologies for navigating menus, moving cursors and controlling various features.

Suddenly, however, two of the hottest brand-new devices -- the T-Mobile Sidekick 3 and the RIM BlackBerry Pearl -- are taking older devices to school with their super-fast mini-trackballs. The smart phones use them for everything from camera zoom to ripping through icons and menus.

In 2007, the trackballs on these gadgets will influence the entire industry. Look for trackballs to show up on a lot more phones, as well as media players and other devices.

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The year of the media cell phone

Will Apple announce a media-playing cell phone in 2007? If so, will it be called the iPhone? And will it be popular?

Our predictions: Yes, no and sort of.

The Apple phone may be announced at Macworld, and may ship in 2007, but it won't be called the iPhone. That trademark train has already left the station. (More likely branding: the iPod Phone.)

We're predicting that it will not be a runaway hit like the original iPod was, mainly because it's not 2001 (when the original iPod shipped), and it's not the media player market, which was easy for Apple to dominate. The mobile phone market is mature and jam-packed with awesome devices that have in many cases built strong loyalty among users. Still, Apple is Apple, and the phone will do pretty well.

More importantly, the move will make the world safer for media-playing cell phones.

Most of the better phones these days play music, but consumers are slow to change their behavior for several reasons, including iPod brand loyalty, weird pricing and downloading schemes promoted by the wireless carriers -- and habit. But Apple's entry in this space will accelerate the pace of adoption across the industry and give those who have invested heavily in iTunes media a phone to play their files on.

The year of face recognition

Face-recognition technology will be red-hot this year, and will show up in a growing number of consumer products and services, including digital cameras, online photo search engines and biometric security devices.

One of the most exciting new features in an increasing number of consumer digital cameras this year will be face recognition -- or, more accurately, face detection. Artificial intelligence software onboard these cameras knows the difference between a human face and other objects in the shot. When you press the "face recognition" button, the camera favours faces for focusing and auto-exposure. Face detection is currently available in the Canon PowerShot SD900 Digital ELPH, Fujifilm Finepix cameras and others. It's a great trick, and superior for casual users.

We currently search photos online based on keywords and tags; in other words, based on words rather than images. But face recognition can help us find photos of people -- "show me more pictures of this guy, whoever he is" -- from the massive quantities of photos online. The free Polar Rose browser plug-in employs the kind of face-recognition technology used by law enforcement agencies. But Polar Rose is a consumer search engine that combines tagging with face recognition to help you find pictures you'd never find otherwise. The technology will take off this year, and will go mainstream when Google and Flickr embrace it.

And, finally, face recognition will come into its own this year as the hottest new form of biometric security for PCs and laptops. The technology has been around for a decade, but new improvements in quality will boost its usability for consumers this year. Lenovo's Y300 and Y500 notebooks, for example, have cameras and face-recognition software that prevents people it doesn't recognize from gaining access to the system.

The year of the professional camera for amateurs

The longtime trend of ever-lower prices for ever-better digital cameras will continue unabated this year. A significant percentage of amateur but enthusiastic photographers will abandon "prosumer" cameras and start buying up full professional digital cameras.

We're going to witness this year the spectacle of parents buying a 12.8-megapixel SLR digital camera with continuous drive capabilities of over four frames-per-second and professional-quality lenses to take pictures of their kids playing little league. And by the end of the year, they'll pay as little as US$1,500 for these extreme cameras formerly reserved for the exclusive use of professionals and formerly costing over $10,000.

Likewise, the point-and-click snapshots crowd will move from amateur to prosumer cameras, with the amateur cameras reserved for children and cheapskates.

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The year of the safe laptop battery

If 2006 was "The Year of the Exploding Laptop Battery," 2007 will be "The Year of the Safety Battery."

Sony received a massive public relations black eye when it was revealed that some of the Dell laptops catching fire and exploding in videos widely downloaded on YouTube and other video services were destroyed by faulty Sony batteries.

While Sony has still failed to restore its reputation, other companies are sensing a massive opportunity, and stepping forward to introduce safer, heat-insulated, spark-resistant batteries, including Panasonic. And the IEEE Standards Association has convened a task force to develop and promote a new Li-Ion battery standard. The group, which is co-chaired by representatives from Sony and Dell, should publish its recommendations by the end of 2007.

Companies are likely to implement its findings well before the official publication of the new standards. Also look for notebook vendors to heavily promote the safety of their batteries as selling points this year.

The year of high-def

Huge high-definition (HD) plasma and LCD TVs were sold in unprecedented numbers during the 2006 holiday season, but what about HD media? Now that the dust is settling and viewers are getting used to their new and massive HD-capable TVs, they're starting to look around for content. And they don't like what they see.

TV networks, movie studios and rental stores are all dragging their feet and failing to keep up with consumer demand. HD-DVD and Blu-ray players are still way too expensive (right now the cheapest Blu-ray device is a Sony PlayStation 3 game console).

This year, anything that can be used with those giant TVs will be hot: HD camcorders, game consoles, content, players, burners -- you name it. The ability of content providers and player makers to supply the demand for HD content will determine who wins and loses in the market this year. The mainstreaming of HD will come about as content providers realize that their survival depends on it.

Meanwhile, HD radio is going nowhere, because consumer awareness isn't there yet and because they don't see the need to buy special radios. HD radio advocates are facing an uphill battle, as neither chicken (hardware) nor egg (content) has yet gained any traction or sparked any demand with consumers. Satellite radio, on the other hand, will see a big year, and possibly a high-visibility merger between XM and Sirius.

The year of browser-based computing

Various companies -- especially the anti-Microsoft crowd, including Google, Sun and others -- have been pushing browser-based computing for years. But this year, three factors will finally push growing numbers of users to use browser-based computing for personal stuff:

- The rising cost of desktop software

- The growing improvement in the quality of online applications

- The rise of the smart phone

The biggest factor is cost. Microsoft wants consumers to shell out between $140 and $600 for Office and between $155 and $380 for Windows Vista. The anti-malware companies are bleeding consumers dry with pricing for Internet security suite subscriptions. All this software is super expensive, and requires ever-more expensive hardware.

It doesn't take a rocket surgeon to figure out that you can just buy a cheap PC and run apps online -- and save your money for new mobile gadgets and other consumer electronics hardware. Plus, online applications enable you to access all your personal stuff from work.

That wasn't really feasible a few years ago, but now the selection and quality of browser-based applications make it possible to do everything online. Google's offerings alone are sufficient to replace Outlook for most consumers: Calendar, Docs & Spreadsheets, Gmail and Picasa provide most of the basic functionality of Office. We'll also see this year a host of innovative browser-based apps from start-ups, such as the highly anticipated Scrybe calendar and task manager.

And finally, the growing use of smart phones will drive online applications for personal use. The first thing to go is Outlook. Why use Outlook, when Gmail gives you a superior mobile e-mail experience and superior antivirus protection for both desktop and cell phone and, unlike Outlook and the extra antivirus protection needed when you use it, it's free?

The idea of storing personal documents online and using online applications is especially appealing to users with smart phones, especially when the same applications can be used on both PC and phone.

It's going to be an amazing year for personal technology. Call 2007 "The Year of the Super Toy."

Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows Magazine. He can be reached at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, therawfeed.com.