Computers

Future could hold an Apple TV or in-space manufacturing

December 30, 2012 

Make no mistake: It is the business of the future to surprise us. I expect to be surprised in 2013 as much as anyone, but making predictions is a tradition in this space, so here goes.

• Can Apple bring the iTunes model to its own brand of television in 2013? Steve Jobs once talked about what he called an “integrated” television that would boast Apple’s proverbial ease of use with an ability to sync to all your other devices. Expect just such a device by year’s end as Apple tries for the same kind of breakthrough with TV that it made with tablets, but keep an eye on price. Televisions are low-margin products and Apple is accustomed to fat profits. Will the allure of a device-encompassing set loosen up consumer dollars in a big way?

• Applications like DropBox and Google Apps have switched more and more users onto cloud computing, where both program and data reside on someone else’s servers. Watch Microsoft 365, the online version of the company’s powerhouse office suite, get major traction in this space in 2013, as users who’ve been tempted by the mass appeal of Google Docs consider alternatives. The use of personal data in the cloud should skyrocket in the coming year.

• The downside of the cloud is its possible use by hackers who realize a vast infrastructure is available to enlist in everything from credit card fraud to spreading malware. Georgia Tech researchers see botnets being constructed with the help of “virtual attack systems” in the cloud, many aimed at the increasingly tempting mobile device sector. 2013 may be the year when the smartphone emerges as a primary target for swiping a user’s personal information.

• Mobile app downloads should exceed 80 billion in 2013, according to research firm Gartner, a sign that mobile devices will increasingly attract new models of advertising as marketers try to find the formula that works. A major problem: More than any other device, the smartphone is perceived as personal, an expression of a user’s identity. The challenge will be to find new modes of advertising that deliver content without seeming as intrusive as they actually are.

• Be aware of trends operating behind the scenes that are transforming everything. Cisco predicts that by the year 2020, a $1,000 personal computer will have the raw processing power of a human brain. Storage, too, is growing at an astounding clip. By 2029, 11 petabytes should cost $100. That’s enough space for 600 years of continuous 24-hour DVD-quality video. Philosophical questions abound: When does computing hardware become “conscious”?

• 3D printing raises questions that may be more political and economic than philosophical. Progress in materials research is producing composites that may one day be used to “print out” devices at home that we currently buy in malls and through mail order. On a broader level, companies that engage with their customers can customize the experience to include features adapted to a single user’s home or workplace. Costs still need to fall before this trend gains traction, but 2013 will see an awakening to the possibilities of 3D printing among consumers.

• On the more practical side, expect Wi-Fi to start getting better at events like conferences, where ultrabooks and tablets are burning up more bandwidth than ever and event infrastructures can become overwhelmed. A company called Xirrus offers Wi-Fi arrays that can handle huge numbers of simultaneous users from one access point. Consider this one more hurdle that is being overcome as we adapt to the era of the ‘always on’ mobile Internet.

• Seattle-based SpaceX, a private company that contracts with NASA to transport cargo to the International Space Station, will launch its first Falcon Heavy this year. Able to deliver payloads of over 50 tons to Earth orbit (twice the capacity of the Space Shuttle), the new rocket is a further step in the direction of the commercialization of space. Watch this trend carefully: New industries will be spawned by everything from in-space manufacturing to asteroid mining, offering smart companies access to a wave of innovation as profound as the PC revolution.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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