Users Direct the Next Big Thing

Users are shaping tomorrow's technology, as they find new ways to use gadgets and services that sometimes even the vendors didn't envision.

"People are in fact a kind of killer app," Tim O'Reilly said in his "O'Reilly Radar" keynote address at the recent Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego. He cites the recent blossoming of so-called social networks as one of the latest examples of user influence on applications.

Online Tribes Emerge

Many people have found both personal and professional use for online networking services such as Friendster, Orkut, and other Web sites designed to help people connect with friends and friends of friends. But the concept of social software goes beyond connecting birds of a feather, O'Reilly says.

He points to Amazon.com's Listmania, which lets people create lists of their favorite books and resources on various subjects, as a practical--and successful--example of the phenomenon.

"User contributions are critical to a product's success," O'Reilly said.

While Friendster and other networking sites have had no trouble attracting participants and investors, many analysts wonder how the services will make money.

Some social networking sites plan to add fee-based premium services. Whether the service is for business or pleasure, succeeding with subscription programs will be tricky, according to observers. Others question the security of such services and warn people away from them for privacy reasons.

New Network Security

It could simply be that new forms of socializing require new rules. Robert Kaye, who runs the MusicBrainz.org music-sharing site, proposes an acceptance system whereby "tribal elders" decide who is safe to allow onto the network, and who isn't.

Kaye proposes a two-tiered system. A server component would simply validate members without knowing the purpose of the network, and a client component would handle searching and trading for files. An open question about such a system is how to balance accessibility and security: The looser the network's policies, the less secure it is; but the more secure the network, the more restrictions are placed on its members, according to Kaye.

Still, the popularity of the services indicates the providers have incentive to tackle these and other challenges in maintaining and expanding the online networking.

Doing the Dirty Jobs

While the Emerging Technology Conference focused on the people side of technology, the keynote address by iRobot Cofounder and President Helen Greiner took a decidedly different approach.

IRobot's products are designed to do the jobs that humans don't want. Greiner said U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan quickly became accustomed to having the company's PackBots inspect caves abandoned by the enemy before sending in troops.

Several Japanese companies are also exploring such industrial uses of robots.

Closer to home, iRobot's Roomba automatic floor vacuum is one of the more practical applications of the company's robotics technology. Roomba's laser-guidance system detects walls and surface edges in order to keep the unit from damaging itself. Greiner says the device needs to remain affordable enough to compete with conventional vacuum cleaners.

IRobot is working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on several more specialized robots. However, Greiner expects much of the work will have civilian applications, particularly in the area of assistance for elderly and disabled people. It may not be long until you can have a version of the Jetsons' Rosie for your very own.

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