Here is the Mercury News annual look into a crystal ball for technology trends in 2006. Never mind that the smartest people in tech wouldn’t dare make serious predictions about what innovations will catch fire next year. They make a humble try anyway.
Video — in the form of your favorite TV dramas or Hollywood hit movies — will come to the big screen in your living room and to the small screen on your cell phone. Whenever you want it. No need to mess around with time-shifting TV devices or mail-order flicks.
Video comes to blogs to begat vlogs. For anybody who’s getting tired of reading all those wordy blogs (short for Weblogs) posted on the Internet on every conceivable niche topic, video comes to the rescue. If a picture is worth a thousand words, video might be worth even more. Now anyone can subscribe to vlogs and have the latest installments automatically delivered to the computer desktop (and transferred to a portable player, such as the video iPod).
Meanwhile, Internet phone calls will become more common now that major Web companies Yahoo, Google and Microsoft are making it easier to call from your desktop computer.
For those of us who occasionally depart the virtual world for the real one, defending ourselves from all kinds of biological threats — real or potential — becomes a growth industry in 2006. Biotech companies step up to fight what could be the biggest threat of all, from nature itself — bird flu. Other companies work to find a better, faster way to make vaccines for the wintertime flu that kills many thousands every year.
Wireless networks, already common, will spread so rapidly in 2006 that it will blanket entire cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia. Although WiFi will still dominate as the most common way to connect your laptop computer to the Internet, WiMax will emerge. Already being tested extensively in the United States and abroad, WiMax can carry Internet signals across miles, rather than hundreds of feet as with WiFi.Some predict we’ll live in a world served by a global WiMax network that connects us all 24/7.
First there were WiFi hotspots, then hot zones. Now entire cities such as Philadelphia and San Francisco are working to offer free or cheap WiFi to all their residents in 2006.
WiFi is a network that provides wireless connections to the Internet, so that people can use their laptops or mobile Web phones almost anywhere. The cities’ ambitious WiFi initiatives have some wondering whether WiFi will become akin to a public utility, and whether it’s the government’s role to administer it.
But Politics aside, WiFi coverage areas are expected to grow in 2006, especially in urban areas. Already, some are eyeing WiMax technology as the next step. WiMax networks, which are being tested in the United States and abroad, can carry Internet signals across miles, rather than hundreds of feet as with WiFi.
Most WiFi networks consist of thousands of transmitters installed on city streetlights. The transmitters pass data to one another and then out to the Internet using invisible, silent radio waves, in a system known as “mesh networking.” A mesh network is analogous to a fisherman’s net laid over a city, where each knot is a transmitter. Anyone within a 250- to 500-foot radius of a transmitter can get on the Internet, provided their computer can send and receive WiFi signals.
WiFi’s rapid expansion can be found right here in Silicon Valley, where Santa Clara, Cupertino and Sunnyvale have all been provided with WiFi by MetroFi, a mesh networking company based in Mountain View. Internet search giant Google has agreed to provide Mountain View’s citizens with WiFi. Pretty soon a person won’t need wires to get online from one end of Silicon Valley to the next.
2. Cell phones do everything
It used to be that only the high-end, tons-of-buttons smart-phones could handle any cell phone functions besides voice calls. But now, even much less expensive phones have cameras, Web access, instant messaging and e-mail.
The list of new features that $150-and-under mobile phones have or will have in a matter of months sounds a bit like the Ginsu knives commercial of old: It slices! It dices! Phones these days can play music, show television clips, swipe credit cards, scan product labels, act as debit cards, locate a person on a map, wire money to bank accounts and send video voice mail. Heck, They can even show full-length movies — that’s if anyone will want to stare at their phone for that long.
And as wireless Internet, or WiFi, networks expand in 2006, expect mobile phones to get on the WiFi train, too. Mobile device makers are already selling “dual-mode” phones that can work on cellular or WiFi networks, though such devices cost more than $600. Dual-mode phones would solve the problem of signals dropping or weakening when a caller walks inside a building. The idea is that you’d be able to start a phone call over a cell network outside, walk inside and continue that call over an indoor WiFi network.
3. Internet phone calls zoom become more popular now that major Web companies are making it easier.
Over the past year, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have all added voice chatting to their instant messaging software, allowing “buddies” to make calls from one personal computer to another.
Yahoo announced earlier this month it planned to match the features pioneered by Internet phone-calling software Skype so that people could also make PC-to-phone calls in addition to PC-to-PC calls — for prices cheaper than Skype’s. Yahoo’s actions will probably persuade even more non-geeks to make cheap Internet calls from their PCs. Voice chatting over the Internet has been around for years, but it’s never been such a priority for well-known Web companies. Price wars — such as Yahoo’s — as well as the increasing number of people who are ditching their traditional wired phone lines will push Internet telephony even further to the fore in 2006.
4. The office moves to the Web Documents, e-mail and spreadsheets move off your desktop computer to the Web.
A host of companies big and small are building new ways to transfer the computer desktop experience onto the Web, and we expect that trend to accelerate in 2006.
On the small side, companies such as Writely, Jotspot and Silveroffice are demonstrating that creating word processing documents and spreadsheets can happen just as easily on the Web as on the desktop. And having the documents on the Web makes it easier for people to collaborate.
No more e-mail attachments. Taking the concept further, a company called Transmedia has fused together music, photo, video, e-mail, calendar and documents software all into one Web-based service that is accessible through an Internet browser.
Large Internet companies are making noise here, too. Google will work with Sun Microsystems on the open-source OpenOffice project, leading many to believe that the Internet giant is eyeing some Web-based office productivity software. And Microsoft is rolling out a service that will enable workers to collaborate on documents using the Web.
5. Stem-cell research advances despite legal challenges
Biotechnology companies will line up to harness the curative potential of stem cells in 2006.
California’s $3 billion stem-cell research institute is expected to remain tied up in legal battles well into the spring from lawsuits. But if the lawsuits are thrown out and California’s stem-cell money starts flowing in 2006, watch out. It is expected to trigger a stampede of scientists and businesses seeking a piece of the action.
Many people believe stem cells — the building blocks for every tissue in the body — can be manipulated to provide cures for Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, spinal cord injuries and many other ailments. Major advances in understanding and using the cells were announced this year and more are expected in 2006, with so many researchers flocking to the field.
Despite recent announcements that South Korean researchers have faked their stem-cell data, most people think others will make progress in using stem cells to develop treatments.
6. Biotechs target flu vaccines
Companies will be working hard in 2006 to produce vaccines to thwart a possible worldwide bird-flu epidemic. They’ll also look at better, faster ways to produce vaccines for winter flu.
Chiron of Emeryville won a $62.5 million federal contract in October to begin making a vaccine against the most virulent strain of bird flu, dubbed H5N1. And under President Bush’s recently announced plan to spend $7.1 billion on bird-flu preparedness, an additional $3.6 billion would be allocated to develop vaccines and other treatments.
In addition, the federal government wants Chiron and other companies to make more vaccine to combat the common winter flu.
Health authorities are encouraging more Americans to get annual flu vaccinations. The government’s goal is to get 150 million people vaccinated in 2010, nearly twice the number expected this year.
7. Even small start-ups go global
Three major forces are driving the rise of the mini-multinational — start-ups that are launched from the get-go as global operations.
First, there’s the promise of lucrative foreign markets, which are growing more quickly than in the United States. Some overseas opportunities are now even bigger than here, such as cell-phone sales in China.
Second, U.S. companies can lower their costs and boost profits more quickly by outsourcing work to places like China and India, where labor is cheaper.
Finally, the Silicon Valley model of nurturing start-ups has spread to other regions around the world. Venture capitalists are opening offices in those countries and are getting more comfortable with helping to nurture companies in those foreign markets.
Many companies, seeded by Silicon Valley venture capital firms, set up headquarters in the valley, where they employ high-end engineers, marketing professionals and senior management.
But they have major operations in Bangalore, India, or Shanghai, China, and increasingly elsewhere.
8. Video comes to the blog
Amanda Congdon is the irreverent face of one of the hot tech trends for the coming year: the vlog (that’s a video Weblog, for you English speakers).
Congdon’s send-up of television newscasts, Rocketboom, makes light of such broadcast staples as the local weather forecast. The “whether” man appears, in one recent episode, clad only in underwear and necktie, delivering the day’s forecast hostage style.
He peels successive layers of surgical tape off his mouth to report the temperature (17 degrees), wind-chill (feels like 5 degrees) and comedy punch-line (“I’m not sure where I am”).
It has already achieved a level of Internet cult status.
Like podcasts, which exploded in popularity in the past year, anyone can subscribe to vlogs to have the latest installments automatically delivered to the computer desktop (and transferred to a portable player, such as the video iPod).
Sites such as Break.com bring together collections of amateur, short-form videos (mostly aimed at guys who never tire of seeing scantily clad women and videos that would qualify as outtakes from the movie “Jackass”). Blinkx, meanwhile, lets you search through more than 1 million hours of mainstream newscasts from Bloomberg or Fox News.
We don’t think this will replace television anytime soon. But it will clearly find an audience, either on portable devices like the iPod or on cellular phones.
9. On-demand video everywhere
From the big screen in your living room to the grab-your-bifocals-small screen on your cell phone, you’ll be awash in video that you can watch, whenever you want it.
Cable television giant HBO has introduced HBO on Demand, which lets some digital cable subscribers summon episodes of original shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” older movies, such as “I, Robot” or special programs like Bill Maher’s comedy special, “Victory Begins at Home,” with the touch of the remote control.
Meanwhile, a growing number of more popular and classic television shows are available for Internet download through Apple’s online iTunes store for the video iPod.
And more Internet video services are in the works to bring movies to a growing array of portable video players, including Sony’s PlayStation Portable.
Suddenly, TiVo and other time-shifting devices look as tired as the VCR.
10. Clean technologies
We’ll see a continued push to invest in clean technologies in 2006.
The growing evidence of global warming, the stubbornly high price of oil and environmental disasters such as the chemical spill this month in China’s southern Guangdong province are all forces driving demand for cleaner energy, better monitoring of energy and other chemical use, and easier ways to clean water.
It helps that some of the best-performing initial public offerings this year have been for solar companies, such as China’s Suntech Power and Silicon Valley’s SunPower.
Lately, Silicon Valley venture capital firms have stepped up the pace of their investments in the sector, including fuel cell, battery and solar technologies.
VC firms poured a record $425 million in investments into clean-tech start-ups during this year’s third quarter, according to the Cleantech Venture Network.
Most venture capitalists expect the clean-tech investment wave to continue into 2006, in part because oil prices have stayed high long enough for many investors to consider this a long-term trend — not just a passing fad.