Game-Changers: 10 Potentially Huge Technologies

They start as a mild tremor at first: rumors of an Apple Phone and rumblings about Web 2.0, whispers about touch interfaces and flash storage. Then, in what seems like an instant, there is a tectonic shift that shakes up an entire product category -- or even the industry as a whole.

When the iPhone was released in 2007, everyone knew it would be an important milestone as a touch device. Few predicted that it would be a game-changer in terms of defining the entire category of touch-based phones -- or that it would sell 50 million units and garner just over 1% of the worldwide smartphone market in a relatively short time.

There are other products out there that have the potential to be as (or more) significant as the iPhone. Here are 10 emerging technologies that are already causing a tremor and could ultimately become just as important.

1. Sensor technology

Sensor technology is a game-changer because it means any physical object -- a bridge, the loading dock at a warehouse, the clothes you wear or even your own skin -- can communicate with a network.

"Part of understanding the world is being able to instrument and measure it," says Rob Enderle, a consumer analyst. "Often we do things that we believe will help but may ultimately do more damage than good. For instance, the energy used by a hybrid car, and its environmental impact, may actually be worse than an efficient gas car if all factors are taken into account."

Hewlett-Packard is developing an early prototype called CeNSE (Central Nervous System for the Earth), which uses microscopic sensors to communicate situational awareness about a city ecosystem. For example, a sensor on a bridge could report unusual vibrations back to a central command and first responders. Sensors in a home could report high levels of mercury, lead or pesticides.

"I believe that sensing is the next Internet in terms of driving demand for computing and services," says Stan Williams, inventor of CeNSE and an HP senior fellow. "Very-low-cost and high-performance sensors are now becoming available. They will make possible real-time monitoring of our infrastructure to both optimize operations and prevent catastrophic failures, saving money and lives."

Qualcomm is also developing sensors as part of its Smart Services initiative, while a company called Kovio is developing wireless chips with circuits that can be "printed" like newspapers. The tags are about the size of a penny but can work with a mobile phone to interact with other objects, such as a movie poster on the wall of your teenager's room. The phone could give you information about the movie's schedule, for instance.

2. Smarter Web

Some call it the Semantic Web; others call it the Smarter Web. The idea is to more easily share complex knowledge you get from the Internet.

IBM Research has developed a Mozilla Firefox extension called CoScripter that is essentially a macro-recorder for the Web. For example, if you figure out how to upload, edit and share a photo, you can record those actions, reuse them and share them with other users. The scripts use common language formatting so they are easy to understand by nonprogrammers.

There have been applets that recorded a mouse's movements for years now. The difference is that CoScripter turns the movements into code that can be understood and edited by consumers. You can even share scripts -- called microformats -- on Facebook and other social networks.

Today, scripts relate to actions you perform on the Web, but they could be expanded to support video and audio. For example, a set of instructions could be embedded with a video that shows how to pitch a curve ball, or a script could include an audio commentary.

CoScripter is smart enough to understand changes that occur on the Web. If you capture a process such as signing up for a conference, CoScripter can store your name, address and other data. When you sign up for the same conference next year and find that the fields have changed, CoScripter can use the data it already has, and you can fill in just the new fields, saving time and easing frustration.

"The number of nodes on the Internet is exploding -- there are 4 billion cell phone subscribers, and the number of people accessing the Web is exploding," says Stefan Nusser, an IBM researcher. "We enable collaboration and capture of Web information and make it reusable."

Other companies working in this area include Yahoo and Google.

3. Network virtualization

Server virtualization is one of the most important game-changers of the past decade. The idea -- using one physical server for multiple instances or even types of an operating system -- has saved millions of dollars and has streamlined data center operations across the globe. Next up: network virtualization.

As an application makes a request, the network would be smart enough to meet that request with an appropriate level of storage and connectivity. Services could be housed and transmitted to and from any endpoint, not just on servers or client devices. Networks could support multiple transmission types, including corporate data, cellular traffic, voice over IP, video, audio and unified communication/telepresence. And the network would be smart enough to optimize traffic in real time.

The benefits are the same as with server virtualization: Network utilization would be much higher, because the application would determine the network speed and other specs. Service levels would be higher, and networks would be more scalable -- expanded to meet higher demands and scaling back during periods of low usage.

Markus Hoffman, a Alcatel Lucent lab director, is developing algorithms that would make network virtualization possible. "The goal of our work is to create a solution that enables more efficient utilization of computing resources," Hoffmann says. "Our work extends grid and cloud computing models to support not only transaction-oriented computing needs, but also interactive, session-oriented, interpersonal services."

4. Fuzzy searches

As long as you know the right search term, it's easy to find hundreds or even thousands of links on almost any given topic. However, search engines are not as powerful when it comes to so-called fuzzy searches -- finding information when you only have a vague concept of what you want. For example, you might know that there was an important English poet in the 1950s, but you can't remember his name or what he wrote. Yahoo Correlator allows you to type in vague terms such as "English poet 1950s" and correlate information. You can click on a tab for to find data such as names, places and events, and eventually hone it down and find out that there was a poet named Lou Barker.

Google Suggest is another example -- it tries to guess your query as you type.

The game-changer here is that it will be easier to find information than before. Fuzzy searches could even replace more-common search syntax, providing more accurate results faster. Natural-language searches will help bring search querying out of the realm of computing and into the real world: searches using your voice or touch interfaces, from the car or your kitchen, without ever typing.

"People have become accustomed to searching the Web for 'pages' and almost gave up searching for 'information,'" says Hugo Zaragoza, a Yahoo researcher. "As an alternative, people talk about building intelligent engines for understanding natural language and doing deep inference. Correlator shows that there is a middle ground: powerful search technology that can be used to exploit simple semantics to provide new ways of searching."

Part of the trick, Zaragoza says, is in the design of the right user interfaces, ones that allow users to specify their intent in a natural, seamless way. "Another important ingredient is to build algorithms that are resistant to errors, because automatic taggers make many mistakes," he says.

5. Social network integration

Social networking services such as Twitter and Facebook do not share data as easily as they might -- even if stopgap measures such as Twitterfeed.com, a service that feeds your status from one social network to another, do help. Open standards such as Y!OS and OpenSocial are paving the way for data sharing between services.

One combination that promises to be a game-changer -- at least in terms of unifying social network and Web services -- is the Palm Pre and the WebOS, which will make it easier to log in once for multiple services. It's unclear how the WebOS will accomplish the goal -- since Palm has not released specifics yet -- but the idea is to only need to log in on one screen on the mobile device, which then logs into all of the other social networks and e-mail systems you use.

"Social networks are not only increasingly interconnected but tie into other devices like cell phones and activities like online shopping, travel planning and entertainment," says Enderle, explaining that there is a need to unify the many social networks we use so they are easier to access with a single sign-on.

6. Netbooks in the enterprise

DisplaySearch, a market research firm in Austin, estimates that sales of netbooks will blossom this year with a 65% sales increase, compared with just a 3% increase for standard notebooks. One reason that netbooks are game-changing has to do with the economic crisis; most models cost about $500 or less. They use less power, last longer than performance-oriented laptops, weigh less and work well for the most common computing tasks including word processing, e-mail and Web surfing. They may also become the new "thin client" as more companies move to cloud computing.

"Netbooks may eventually represent one of the best values for the forward-looking enterprise, which has hosted most of their applications," says Enderle. "While they don't yet fully embrace the manageability and security requirements of many shops -- there is no trusted platform module, for instance -- once they do, they may become the preferred choice for PC purchasers in business."

"The true potential of netbooks lies in their connected nature, their ability to tap the power of the cloud," adds Jeffrey Breen, an analyst at Yankee Group Research. "But in the short term, it is their familiarity which will attract corporate IT departments who are understandably drawn to $500 replacements for $1,500 laptops."

7. Smart grid

The smart grid is coming -- and local utility companies are racing to build it. Sensors located in HVAC and metering equipment connect to networks and can show consumers and companies how power is being used in real-time. Xcel Energy has already piloted a program in Boulder, Colo., and Des Moines, Iowa, has a proof-of-concept smart grid running at the State Capitol. In the future, appliances could be outfitted with sensors and displays that instruct consumers how to save energy based on usage.

The issue: Consumers have scant information about power usage. Google PowerMeter, currently in private beta only with Google employees, runs on a Web site and reports usage for electrical components in the home.

"Today, it is nearly impossible for most of us to know how much electricity we're using in our home at any given moment," says Ed Lu, the lead engineer on Google PowerMeter. "Near-real-time access to data on energy use leads to a 5% to 15% reduction in consumption. If half of American households cut their energy demand by just 10%, it would be the environmental equivalent of taking 8 million cars off the road."

The smart grid will be game-changing, but there is some debate about whether information alone will prompt action. "People need to feel tangible benefits in order to change their consumption behavior," says Breen. "I am optimistic about enterprise-focused smart-grid companies like EnerNOC and Comverge, who send checks to their customers who agree to reduce their consumption during times of peak demand."

Some suggest making the information visible in a public way. Lorie Wigle, the general manager for eco-technology at Intel, suggests an opt-in program for home owners where usage is reported on a public Web site.

8. SSD RAID

Solid-state drives are already an attractive option in the PC market. In enterprise computing, a solid-state drive RAID array -- made up of several linked SSD drives -- represents a major shift in cost and performance.

Normally, to achieve high performance for a storage-area network, enterprises buy hundreds of magnetic hard disks and use only the outer portion of the drive for the fastest speeds. With a solid-state drive in a RAID configuration, the entire disk is used for performance. This lowers the costs, because an enterprise needs to buy fewer drives and use all of the space on each drive. One example of this is the Super Talent RAIDDrive, which will be available later this year. The company promises an enterprise version that will wind up costing less than a magnetic-disk array, because each SSD will be used to full capacity. (Super Talent has not released exact pricing yet.)

"You are able to take advantage of the performance benefits of the SSD and roll up to the RAID level, in particular the IOPS," says Jeremy Werner, a product expert at Super Talent. (Input/output operations per second, or IOPS, are a measurement of overall storage speed.) "Most servers have random traffic patterns to the IO storage array," he says. "For the workstations to get good performance, they need to have high IOPs, or how many transactions they can do per second."

SSD should be less expensive on an IOPS basis than Fibre Channel, Warner says, but will likely work out to be more from a per-gigabyte basis. "It depends on if people size their system for performance or capacity," he says.

"If you have an application or a database which needs a speed boost, why fiddle with expensive and complicated FibreChannel, InfiBand or iSCSI SAN solutions?" Yankee's Breen asks, noting that the SSD option is easier to manage and will cost less than existing enterprise storage products.

9. Speech-to-text and e-mail integration

Voice mail transcription is an up and comer because it shows how communication technologies are unifying -- you can listen to voice mail on the Web, forward the text of a message, hold an audioconference and record messages.

Enterprise users have enjoyed speech-to-text services in Microsoft Exchange and Cisco Unified Communication for years. The current version of Microsoft Exchange Unified Messaging can send you an e-mail with a voice mail attached so you can hear it. But the 2010 beta -- released just a few weeks ago -- includes a feature that transcribes the voice mail and sends it as an e-mail.

"As an IT buyer, I can receive 10 to 20 voice mails in a day, mostly cold calls from vendors. While my UC system delivers my voice mail via my e-mail, I still have to listen to the message and follow up accordingly," says Breen. "Speech to text would save me time each day" because it is easier and faster to read e-mail than to listen to an entire voice mail, he says.

There are other unified communications features coming out, too. These days, you're probably juggling a lot of different phone numbers. For example, you might have a personal cell phone, a desk phone, a home phone and a business smartphone. Google Voice is a phone-number aggregator that automatically dials whichever phone number you want. The free service's most-impressive feature, though, is voice-mail transcription.

10. Open PC cases

BMW designed a case for the ThermalTake PC as a prototype called Level 10 and came up with an open architecture that makes it easy to swap components. The design reduces heat buildup and just looks cool. The Antec Skeleton has a similar open design with layered trays for easy access, a massive 250mm top-mounted fan and -- at about 20 pounds fully loaded -- at least a degree of portability for LAN parties, in which gamers get together in a home or office to play games over a network.

The open design means fewer headaches when it comes to upgrades, and there is very little dust accumulation. Moving away from the standard ATX enclosure size (the beige box of yesteryear) means computer cases may finally transmogrify into any shape -- not just as a custom case made by home enthusiasts, but as mass-produced models that look as great in the living room as they do in the office.

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