The pace of everyday living may be hectic, but the pace of innovation is downright frenetic. Technologies barely imagined a few years ago are now poised to change the face of computing, as digital devices continue to burrow into every aspect of daily life.
The world of science fiction is rapidly becoming fact, from tabletops that charge your laptop wirelessly to wall-mounted PCs that recognize your face and gestures. Thanks to breakthroughs in miniaturization, you'll be able to tuck products into your pocket that wouldn't have fit into your briefcase a few years ago, such as projectors and photo printers. The next generation of Internet technology will change everything from TV to Coke machines. And standard computer building blocks are growing ever more powerful, as processor makers squeeze more cores onto each chip and drive makers pack more bits into each platter--guaranteeing that even ordinary PCs of the future will be anything but ordinary.
In the pages that follow, we spotlight a dozen major innovations, from ones right around the corner to a few that won't show up until at least 2012. On multiple fronts, the future you've been waiting for has almost arrived. Here's what you need to know to prepare for it.
Kiss Your Power Cord Good-Bye
You hardly think twice about connecting your wireless laptop to the Internet, but you still have to fumble for a power cord when your battery runs out. How quaint. Soon all those cumbersome power bricks will be just a footnote in your grandchildren's history books, as wireless charging comes to market.
What is it? Currently two ways to accomplish wireless charging exist. Inductive charging works by matching the resonance of the charging pad's electromagnetic field to that of the battery, allowing the battery to charge over a small physical gap. In contrast, conductive charging passes electricity directly between two surfaces in contact. Which method will win out is not yet clear, but in either case you'll be able to simply place your laptop, phone, and music player onto a universal wireless charging pad that will immediately begin juicing them up.
When is it coming? Next year both inductive and conductive charging technologies will emerge onto the market, but most devices will require a $30 adapter to work with them. WildCharge expects to roll out its first conductive-charging notebook product (paired with a compatible notebook) in time for 2008's back-to-school season, while eCoupled is pushing to get its inductive technology into cars, countertops, and desk surfaces by 2009. Look for wireless charging to become commonplace in 2010, after major phone and laptop vendors sign on to support it.
Print From Anywhere (and Anything)
Forget about running home to print out your photos or--gasp!--ordering prints online. The next generation of mobile devices will come with their own built-in printers.
What is it? Zink (short for "Zero Ink") Imaging, a spin-off of Polaroid, has been working on a new way of making photo paper. Zink paper has a crystal substrate sandwiched between its layers that colorizes as it passes through a slim-profile printer. The printers themselves are so small that you can slip one in your pocket, and they can easily be built into cameras, laptops, or other devices.
When is it coming? In 2008, Zink will partner with a major camera vendor (name not announced) to release the first pocket-size digital camera with a built-in printer. This early model will produce 2-by-3-inch photos. At the same time, the company will begin selling a tiny handheld printer (probably for about $99) for camera phones; it'll print adhesive-backed photos that will likely grace the school binders of many eighth-graders. Two or three years after that, the technology may be integrated into laptops and other mobile devices.
Great Graphics Inside
"Integrated graphics" has long been synonymous with "sluggish graphics." But soon the phrase will have a whole new meaning, thanks to new CPUs with powerful graphics hardware built in.
What is it? AMD's acquisition of ATI brought the company's rivalry with Intel--which already made its own basic graphics chips--to a new level. Since then the two competitors each have been working to bridge the gap between CPUs and graphics processors. Building graphics-processing functionality directly into a CPU eliminates the delay you'd otherwise experience as data passes between the CPU and GPU across the system bus. Such combined CPU/GPUs will feature DirectX 10 support and acceleration for Blu-ray and HD-DVD while consuming substantially less power, requiring less space on the motherboard, and performing significantly better than most of today's discrete graphics cards do.
When is it coming? Intel plans to put its graphics-integrated Nehalem processors into production in 2008, beginning with a line of server chips. AMD intends to release its integrated Puma notebook platform about the same time. In 2009, Intel will bring its graphics-integrated chips to desktops and notebooks, while AMD's Puma will likely reach desktops in 2010.
Screens Get the Bends
The smaller and more powerful devices become, the harder they are to use. Tiny screens just don't cut it when you want to do real work. But if your phone or PDA came with a large roll-out display, you could work in comfort without sacrificing portability. That's where flexible polymers will come in.
What is it? Display manufacturers make traditional LCD screens by sandwiching liquid crystals between layers of glass and then zapping them with electricity. Replacing that glass with plastic makes things a little more malleable. Initially developed by E Ink and Philips, so-called electronic paper compresses organic light-emitting diode (OLED) crystals between very thin layers of polymer, allowing for tremendous flexibility. Unlike conventional LCD screens, such ultrathin displays are completely shatterproof, and can even be rolled up into tight spools. The result is a wide-screen monitor that you can carry in your pocket and use anywhere. Better still, such screens will be cheaper and easier to manufacture than today's flat panels--they'll simply be printed directly onto sheets of plastic.
When is it coming? First-generation flexible displays are already here--they're just not that flexible yet. E Ink's electronic paper can be found in such nonflexible products as the $300 Sony Reader and the $130 Motorola Motofone F3. The first actually rollable displays, created by the labs of Philips's Holland-based spin-off Polymer Vision, will reach the market in 2008: A cell phone from Telecom Italia will carry the world's first Polymer Vision roll-up display. Currently under wraps, the phone (pricing not yet available) is expected to offer a 5-inch, 320-by-240-pixel, monochrome rollable display. By 2010, Polymer Vision expects to market larger color displays with much higher resolution.
The First Real Net Phones
Simple wireless calling satisfied users during the first generation of cell phones, but the second generation (2G) made things more interesting with the introduction of SMS messaging and WAP Internet browsing. 2.5G added pictures and video, but at speeds that feel more like dial-up than broadband. (That's the main problem with the iPhone's data service.) With 3G, higher-bandwidth connections have made 2.5G's multimedia capabilities palatable. 4G will be a whole lot cooler.
What is it? The fundamental difference between 4G and 3G is the way in which the networks will be switched. Until now, most phone networks (except for VoIP) have been circuit switched, meaning a dedicated circuit is activated between the callers. This outdated method puts voice calls in a category all their own, distinct from data connections, and prevents cell phones from transmitting voice calls and data simultaneously. 4G networks will be IP switched, just like all the traffic on the Internet. That not only means that you'll be able to talk and text at the same time, but also that your 4G device will be able to do far more on the network than it can today. IP-switched cellular networks will work more as ISPs do, allowing for greater flexibility in running data applications. Just about any device--from a phone to a laptop to a Coke machine--will be able to connect to the network, and you'll be able to do just about anything with it. Another result of this flexibility: Wireless carriers will likely be forced to loosen their iron grip on the services customers can use over their networks, giving everyone more freedom to communicate from the road.
When is it coming? The four major U.S. wireless carriers are just scratching the surface of what their 3G networks can do, and most consumers seem uninterested in more-advanced data streaming. But the underlying technology for 4G networks, WiMax, exists now and is slowly growing in large enterprise networks and telecom companies. WiMax itself is not a cellular technology, however, and before a fourth-gen cellular network can evolve, the industry will need to find a new telecommunications protocol to base it on. As business users increase their demand for high-end wireless data services, cellular carriers will begin to deploy networks and devices that deliver 4G service. We expect the first handsets and data cards to hit the market in 2011.
Enter the Octagon CPU
Regardless of what Moore's Law has to say, there's not much point in increasing processor speeds or doubling the bit paths in a CPU if the system bus can't carry the traffic anyway. Since problems with transistors leaking current also worsen as clock speeds increase and CPUs shrink, both AMD and Intel have decided to focus on increasing the number of processor cores on a chip instead of increasing processor speeds.
What is it? The centerpiece of any given CPU is the processor core, which is responsible for the actual calculations that make all of your software run. Placing multiple cores on a single chip dramatically increases the number of calculations that can be performed, without having to raise the clock speed of the chip itself. By keeping clock speeds relatively low while increasing the number of calculations performed simultaneously, chip makers overcome the inevitable overheating problems associated with faster clock speeds. And the more cores a manufacturer crams onto a single chip, the faster the CPU can go. The performance boost isn't one-to-one, however: Intel's four-core 2.66-GHz Core 2 Quad Q6700 performs just 26 percent faster than its same-speed, two-core Core 2 Duo E6700 on certain applications, according to the company (see the results of PC World tests). So while you will see improvement with eight-core CPUs, the speedup won't be as dramatic as it might sound.
When is it coming? Before AMD can start selling eight-core chips for the desktop, it needs to get its quad-core Phenom chips to market in 2008. Intel has been selling quad-core desktop processors for about a year now, and it has announced eight-core chips for servers in 2008. Expect OctoCore--or whatever the company ends up calling it--to come to desktops in 2010.
Put Your TV Anywhere
Despite the wireless revolution happening all around your home, your high-def television remains shamefully hard-wired in place. Wouldn't it be great if you could put your TV anywhere you wanted, without worrying about where the cable jack was, and still get top-notch video quality? Soon you'll be able to do just that.
What is it? Wireless High-Definition Interface (WHDI) is a cable-free replacement for HDMI that uses a 5-GHz radio transmitter to send an uncompressed 1080p, 30-fps high-def video signal from a WHDI-equipped DVD player, game console, or set-top box, for example, to a WHDI-equipped TV across a distance of up to 100 feet. Because the WHDI signal is compatible with HDMI, you'll be able to buy HDMI wireless modems for your existing entertainment gear--and that means you can finally rearrange your furniture the way you'd really like it, without having to run additional cables through your walls.
When is it coming? Amimon, which manufactures the WHDI chip set, released the technology to electronics makers at the end of August. Now the race is on to bring WHDI to market. TV makers have already begun demoing new wireless-equipped HDTV models at trade shows, and fans of bleeding-edge tech should be able to get their hands on hardware by the start of the new year. WHDI is expected to add about $200 to the cost of a new TV, so expect to pay a premium for the technology in 2008. WHDI modems for your existing hardware will likely cost $300 to $400 for a pair of adapters (you need at least two--a receiver for the TV and a transmitter for your set-top box, for example--to get started). In a few years, says Amimon vice president of marketing Noam Geri, costs should drop to about $10 for inclusion in a TV and $60 for the adapters.
Five Terabytes per Drive
Even if you're not a digital pack rat, you probably still manage to cram a lot of data onto your hard drive. Digital photos, movies, music, and overflowing e-mail folders can pile on the gigabytes before you know it. But don't worry: Way bigger hard drives are on the horizon.
What is it? Heat-Assisted Magnetic Recording, or HAMR (and a nearly identical technology called Thermally Assisted Magnetic Recording), uses lasers to heat the surface of a drive's platters, making it possible to pack a terabyte of data onto a single square inch of drive surface, roughly twice the current limit. As the drive's read/write head goes about its business, it briefly fires its laser at the surface, destabilizing the iron-platinum particles for reading and writing. With the platter heated, the read/write head can manipulate the surface on a very fine scale--in just tens of nanometers--letting it cram enormous amounts of information into a small space. A few nanoseconds after the work is done, the surface cools for long-term stability. The way data is organized on a disc will change, as well: Rather than having arbitrarily arranged disk sectors, HAMR drives will work with the natural grain of the disk surface, organizing data into self-arranging magnetic arrays that allow the creation of a single bit of data on every grain of the platter's surface.
When is it coming? HAMR is still very much a research project, but it should be coming to market in the next several years. Seagate expects to introduce 5TB HAMR hard drives by 2011, with capacities of up to 37.5TB to follow a few years after that.
A Better Internet
TCP/IP, the technology on which the entire Internet is based, is no spring chicken. The current version of the Internet protocol, IPv4, has been around for more than 25 years. The old technology suffers from some serious limitations--including a shortage of addresses for all the computers that use it. Internet Protocol version 6 will change all that.
What is it? Unlike IPv4, which uses 32-bit addresses like 126.96.36.199, IPv6 uses 128-bit addresses like 2001:0ba0:01e0:d001:0000:0000:d0f0:0010. This small, simple change permits every person in the world--and even every computer in the world--to have a unique IP address. In addition, IPv6 features network-layer encryption and authentication, enabling secure communications between parties.
When is it coming? IPv6 is here right now, and has been for several years, but almost nobody is using it yet because the hardware needed for it remains more expensive than that for IPv4, and few network administrators are trained to manage it. However, the United States government has declared that it will move all of its networks to IPv6 by the summer of 2008, which even at government speeds means the technology should arrive in time to pick up the slack when the pool of available addresses runs out around March 2011. The depletion of addresses should also induce your ISP to update its network before long.
A PC in Every Surface
Though it seems second nature to us now, the idea of manipulating images on a screen by moving around an input device--a mouse--on the desk was revolutionary when Douglas Engelbart introduced it in 1964. But as well as it works, the mouse is still a surrogate for a far more natural human interface, the fingertip. Over the next few years, a new category of PCs will put your fingers in control.
What is it? Tabletop computing (aka surface computing) gets back to basics by letting you gather around a table with some friends for some good old-fashioned interactivity. Accepting a variety of input types simultaneously, tabletop PCs allow multiple users to work with data projected onto the surface of the table by touching on-screen objects with their fingertips. Many companies are working on tabletop computing technologies, but two of the leading efforts are Microsoft's camera-driven Surface PC and Mitsubishi Electronics Research Labs' RF-driven DiamondTouch. Surface PCs use rear projection to present an image on the surface of the table from inside, while five infrared cameras in the table track finger movements on the screen. DiamondTouch projects the image from above the table and uses capacitive coupling (like that employed in laptop touchpads) to follow your fingertips--with this design, though, you create shadows when you touch it.
When is it coming? MERL's DiamondTouch is still predominantly a research project, but Microsoft's Surface PC will arrive this year at a hotel, casino, or cellular store near you. First-generation Surface PCs will be strictly for showcasing in public locations, but Microsoft expects to offer a conference-room version for businesses by 2010. Home users will get them three to five years from now. Eventually, says Microsoft, you can expect to have Surface PCs built into countertops, mirrors, or just about any other flat spot in your home.
Put Your Data in the Fast Lane
As CPUs grow more powerful and graphics cards rocket toward ever higher levels of realism and detail, a significant bottleneck in your PC's data flow remains: the system bus. When data travels through your PC, it's the system bus--not the processor--that limits overall performance. What you need is a faster bus.
What is it? PCI Express (PCIe) is the leading system bus architecture for high-end hardware such as graphics cards. The current specification, version 2.3, offers a data transfer rate of 5.2 gigabits per second. The next generation, PCI 3.0, will offer a data rate of 8 gbps. In addition to supporting much higher GPU performance, a key benefit of PCIe 3.0 may be the ability to power graphics cards directly from the system bus, rather than requiring a line into the power supply. But there's a catch: In order to support the higher data rates, the architecture will no longer work with the older 5-volt hardware used on PCIe versions 1.1 and 2.0. Whereas PCIe 2.3 supports both 5V and 3.3V cards, PCIe 3.0 will be 3.3V only. That means most current 5V hardware will be obsolete when PCIe 3.0 debuts.
When is it coming? PCI-SIG, the group that oversees PCI architecture specifications, expects to release the final PCIe 3.0 spec in 2009. PCIe 3.0 graphics cards should hit the market in 2010.
Watching video on a cell phone is a pain. Even if you find the content you want, the tiny screen makes enjoying the program difficult. Before long, however, you'll be seeing shows right-sized again, thanks to your projector-equipped cell phone.
What is it? Microvision Pico projectors employ light scanning technology to generate a complete, full-color image from a beam of light. Within the device it's embedded in, a single red, green, or blue laser bounces off a tiny scanning mirror that oscillates vertically and horizontally to render the image pixel by pixel, producing a larger picture that projects onto a wall or other surface (as large as 120 inches, from 12 feet away in a darkened room). Controlling the scanner, the light source, and the optics is the PicoP engine, which coordinates the various components to control the intensity of each beam of light to create thousands of colors. By using a single beam of light rather than three beams, Microvision is able to make the projectors small enough to fit into cell phones without appreciably increasing the size of the phones. And the company even expects the integrated projectors to play a feature-length movie on just one cell phone charge.
When is it coming? Microvision has partnered with Motorola to build Pico projectors into mobile phones, and the first projector-equipped model is expected to debut in 2009. Meanwhile, the company is designing a projector accessory for PCs and game consoles that should be available by the end of 2008. Built-in projectors can be expected to add as much as $150 to the price of a phone, while accessory projectors will likely cost around $200, says Avi Greengart, principal analyst for mobile devices at Current Analysis and editor of the Home Theater View blog.
Tech Beyond 2010
Gigabit Internet (2012): Dogged by the speed of your home broadband service? With a gigabit Internet connection over a fiber-optic line, you'll be able to download the latest movies in less than a minute at speeds up to 1 gbps.
Mobile fuel cells (2013): Now in development, hydrogen fuel cells will power your laptop for a week at a time using store-bought fuel cartridges.
Smart homes (2014): We've heard for years about the smart home--a house chock-full of computer-driven appliances that cater to your every need. As homes with built-in ethernet wiring become more common in several years, central home PCs will control everything from the thermostat to the lighting to the security system.
Probe storage (2015): Code-named Millipede, the probe storage system being developed by IBM will use atomic force microscopy (think itsy-bitsy dots) to store more than a terabyte of data per square inch on a polymer surface. An array of thousands of little probes will be able to read and write large amounts of that data far more quickly than today's drives can.
Nano lightning systems (2015): It has "lightning" right in the name, so you know it's cool, but it's really about cooling off your hardware. Microscopic nanotubes will use an electrical charge to generate tiny wind currents on the surface of your chips to cool them down without the aid of fans.
Impatient for the future? These items are due in the next few months.
Microsoft Windows Vista SP1: Early in 2008, Microsoft is expected to release its first service pack for Windows Vista. The update will likely include fixes for everything from User Account Control to DirectX 10 performance, as well as a few interface tweaks.
Apple Mac OS X Leopard: It's been a long time coming, but Apple's latest revision of OS X, version 10.5 ($129), may be available by the time you read this. It includes an enhanced interface with a transparent menu bar, stackable menus, dynamic workspaces, and the Time Machine file-restoration tool.
HP MediaSmart Server: Based on Microsoft's Windows Home Server platform, MediaSmart Server--starting at $599 and due out late this fall--will deliver pictures, music, and movies to devices around the home.
Super Talent 32GB SSD 2.5-inch SATA: The 32GB Super Talent drive is one of the first flash-based drives. But early adopters beware: The $500 price tag is likely to drop, particularly after 128GB drives from mainstream makers hit the market next year.
Electronic Arts Crysis: Hitting shelves November 16, the $59 sequel to Far Cry looks to be the most visually stunning PC game ever. Developer Crytek has taken full advantage of DirectX 10 graphics technology, offering realism and detail unlike anything we've seen.
Battles to Watch
Here are the top technology fights to follow in the coming years.
AMD vs. Intel: Though Intel currently has the performance edge with its Core 2 line and its quad processor, AMD will soon counter with the release of its own quad-core Phenom chips. Expect things to heat up in a big way with the release of consumer graphics-integrated CPUs in 2009.
DRM vs. unrestricted access: Will user outrage prompt entertainment resellers to come up with a sensible copy-protection scheme, or will corporations overrun fair-use rights with pay-per-play media services? We're putting our money on a compromise between the two, as some labels have already begun offering DRM-free music through iTunes and other services in response to consumer demand for more flexible formats.
Windows vs. Mac vs. Linux: IDC estimates Apple's market share at roughly 5 percent in the United States, while Linux is gaining popularity around the world, particularly with governments and educational institutions. Most estimates still peg Linux desktop users at around 1 percent of the market, but the numbers appear to be climbing. This year, Dell and Lenovo gave Linux desktop users a boost by adding to their product lines systems with Linux preinstalled.
Microsoft vs. Google: Microsoft's long-standing dominance in the office-productivity software arena is facing new threats from the likes of Google, which offers its own productivity suite--Google Docs--online. While Docs has yet to make significant inroads against Microsoft Office, Microsoft's efforts to beat Google at its own game with Live.com have yet to bear fruit. CEO Steve Ballmer's July announcement that Microsoft will begin shifting to a "Web-enabled desktop" in the coming years suggests that the company takes Google's threat seriously.
Here are three allgedly hot topics we're tired of hearing about.
Microblogging: What are you doing right now? If the answer is "Washing my poodle in the kitchen sink," we'd rather not know. With short attention spans becoming the norm, services like Twitter and Pownce probably aren't going away anytime soon--but they're not very useful, either.
UMPCs: In 2005, Microsoft announced a bold new standard for mobile devices known as the Ultra-Mobile PC. Armed with touch screens, GPS, and Wi-Fi, these not-quite-tablet PCs were supposed to revolutionize how and where people compute. But by delivering a platform that's too small for true productivity and too large for genuine mobility, Microsoft ensured that the UMPC was pretty much dead on arrival, and new designs have done little to arouse consumer interest--Palm recently scrapped plans for the Foleo, a device with similar dimensions.
Kitchen PCs: For a while now, certain trade shows have been annual love-ins for companies hyping a future full of household appliances with built-in computers. In all these years, however, the best thing we've seen is LG's LSC27990, a $4000 icebox with a 15-inch LCD screen crammed into the door. It's mildly interesting to be able to watch a ballgame or get birthday reminders and weather reports while you're standing in front of the fridge (assuming you have a cable outlet tucked behind your appliance nook); but these overpriced, barely functional computers amount to little more than amusing proof-of-concept novelties. They're a far cry from the true smart appliances of the future.
After years of waiting for these promising technologies, we think they're still far from mainstream.
WiMax: Back in 2003, WiMax was heralded as the ultimate solution to the world's connectivity problems, capable of covering an entire city with ubiquitous broadband. WiMax today, however, is little more than an IT backbone for long-distance line-of-sight wide-area networks, largely because it's not very effective for the kinds of mobile devices that most people use for wireless Internet service. The basic technology of WiMax may yet evolve as part of future 4G cellular networks, but that's still a long way off.
IPTV: Oh, how we've hungered for the video nirvana that IPTV has been promising. But while Verizon's FiOS TV and AT&T's U-Verse are finally rolling out, they've yet to produce the amazing lineup of HD channels, on-demand shows, integrated gaming, and digital voice calling the companies claimed would come, and they're still anything but ubiquitous. Meanwhile, digital cable has evolved enough to take some of the wind out of IPTV's sails.
RFID: If early predictions were to be believed, today you would be walking through the grocery store filling up your cart as tiny radio frequency identification (RFID) tags announced the contents of the cart and an RFID-enabled credit card automatically paid the bill. Ummm, nope. The biggest holdup has come from the very companies attempting to roll out the technology, with industry infighting over standardization keeping RFID on the shelf.
Virtual reality: Second Life boasts a 3D space in which users can buy and sell property, create objects, and socialize, but its relatively crude graphics still feel more virtual than real. Virtual reality as folks imagined it in the 1990s isn't likely to emerge until someone invents a wearable display that people will actually wear. At least we have World of Warcraft.