Predicting Technological Change

In the last few days I’ve helped many people set up their new iPhones with the campus Exchange server and wireless registration.  I can’t even count how many people I know now that have an iPhone, but they tend to be young, but not always.  I don’t own an iPhone myself, but I do have an iPod touch.  I’m too cheap to own a smart phone, even though I would love to own an iPhone, I won’t allow myself to pay another big monthly communication’s bill. 

I’ve been working with computers since 1971, and have always been gadget crazy, but I’ve yet to join the craze over expensive cell phones.  That will change when I see the right netbook.

When people come to me for help with their iPhone, they like to show off all their favorite iPhone apps, and there are an amazing variety of these little programs.  Some apps, like games, are built on concepts that developed on the desktop computer.  Other apps, like those that help find restaurants or tell you what song is playing have evolved from needs of people on-the-go.

I used to tell people that the way to predict technological innovation was to forecast tech growth in gadgets that were jettison components with moving parts.  For example, the floppy disk.  It’s been replaced by the flash drive.  Soon the CD/DVD optical drive will disappear because of high speed networking.  And finally the hard drive will disappear because of solid state devices.  Looking at the phenomenon of netbooks shows off this trend.  They don’t have optical drives.  And many users try to ditch their spinning hard drives for SSD drives.

I should have taken my own advice, and not bought a Blu-Ray player because I have only played one Blu-Ray disc so far, and instead watched 14-15 downloads from Netflix.  The no moving parts of the Netflix feature on the LD BD390 is far more appealing than the Blu-Ray player with moving parts.

Now, besides telling people to watch for gadgets that have no moving parts, I tell friends, to keep an eye out for tech with programming geared for on-the-go tech users.  That’s part of what I was getting at with my last post “My Life on a Hard Drive.”  It appears that netbooks should kindle the same excitement as iPhones.

I was watching Brink, a show on the Science Channel the other night, and they were showing off a wearable video projector that allowed people to use their hands to interact and play with computer screens  projected onto almost any kind of surface.  This gadget has no moving parts, and it’s designed for on-the-go computing.  I can easily imagine future netbooks or iPhones with a built in video projector.

One class of apps that my young iPhone acquaintances are showing me are those that help find places to eat.  None of the people I hang out with have an iPhone, we’re all too old and cheap, but one of us needs to get one, because we always argue so much about where to eat that’s new and not boring.  The idea of every nearby eatery and their menu popping up on a screen based on location is just too cool, even for us old farts.

Now think about where tech wizards could take this concept.  Last weekend I wanted a copy of The Kings of Leon’s latest album, and the only nearby place I could think to shop was Target.  I drove over only to be disappointed.  What if I had an app that told me ahead of time all the places that were selling the CD and its price.  Won’t this trump Amazon.com?   Or what if I was in my local Borders and wanted to know where a book was shelved, so instead of asking a clerk, my phone could just tell me.  I’m sure you can think of several good apps now, related to being somewhere and wanting instant information.

Of course, this leads to another prediction.  Future tech seems to put people out of work.  I’m getting very close to not wanting to buy music CDs, DVDs, Blu-Ray discs, magazines or books because of technological alternatives.  If I can listen to music, watch movies, read books and magazine articles all on a netbook or iPhone, why would I want to acquire all the physical crap required to store media I can get easier via the net?

Notice something?  My habits are changing and they just invalidated the suggested ideas I had for new on-the-go apps.  Any shopping app I predict shouldn’t involve buying things like CDs, DVDs, and other physical storage tech that’s being outdated by digital tech.  We’ll want apps not to buy stuff, but to get services like food, movies, plays, tourist sites, concerts, etc.  Again, on-the-go over the impulse to acquire.

Some stuff, like clothes, I don’t think will be replaced by tech.  Who really wants to wear a computer?  Unless the fabric design is computerized.  But I predict we’ll want smaller wardrobes because of our rolling stone natures. 

But the same predictions about computer tech can be applied to automobile tech.  Electric cars have fewer parts.  They promote on-the-go lifestyles.  The goal is to get to a point where you don’t buy physical fuel.  By the same token, mass transit does away with owning something with moving parts. 

Look at computer games.  The trend is away from buying discs to getting games off the net, and to carry around devices where you can play games anywhere.  Also, the trend is to combine devices.  Why have a phone and a portable game unit when you can have an iPhone?  Why have a GPS and travel books, when an iPhone can replace them?  Why have a camera and voice recorder when you can have an iPhone?

The question becomes:  Will the iPhone become the super gadget, or will it be the netbook?  The flip phone was too small, and the laptop too big.  What will meet in the middle?

As a society become more mobile, all of us get tired of carry around so much junk.  Every time I moved in my life, I always had more junk than the previous move, more boxes of books, LPs, CDs and other stuff.  The next time I move, I’m going to have less.  I’ve already gotten rid of my LPs.  I’m thinning out CDs.  I’m switching from buying DVDs to Netflix.  I’ve stopped buying CDs because of Rhapsody, Zune, Lala and Pandora.  I keep my photos on my computer.  And my dream retirement would be to travel light and live in a different city every six months.  See the trends?  You don’t need a crystal ball and a turban on your head to play tech swami.

But here’s a prediction that might not be so obvious.  I think programming should be nearing a breakthrough where educational computing makes a comeback.  Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, personal computing and educational software were all the rage.  People felt obligated to buy their kids computers.  Everyone talked about computer literacy.  But programs that taught never panned out.  

Online courses and degrees are a huge growth industry in the education business.  Notice the connection to on-the-go people.  Eventually the market for apps that help us get more services will saturate.  Sooner or later, I think we’ll see iPhone and netbook apps that help us learn and study.  We have portable music, portable TV shows, and portable audio books, why not portable lectures?  It’s like having a school without teachers.   The Teaching Company’s Great Courses would be fantastic on the netbook screen.  And see, this educational angle may turn the tide against the iPhone to the netbook as the on-the-go device of just the right size.

JWH – 7/1/9  

One thought on “Predicting Technological Change”

  1. Pretty cool post. I just came by your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your posts.

    Any way I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon!

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