This year promises to be a big one for anniversaries. A hundred years ago, the Wright brothers flew and Harley Davidson began to rumble. In 1803, Lewis and Clark set out to explore the Louisiana Purchase. But 2003 will also hold momentous events of its own spelling challenges and opportunities for entrepreneurs:
- DVD Becomes Ubiquitous: DVD players crossed a threshold in 2002: They're now in 33 percent of U.S. homes. That's caused several movie studios to stop distributing films on VHS tape. But most DVD players lack VHS' prime benefit: recording.
DVD recordables are still $800-plus products, says Tara Dunion, director of the Consumer Electronics Association. That means there's a short-term opportunity providing a service to convert treasured tapes to DVD format (think wedding and baby videos).
Whenever a new device gains a wide following, says Dunion, an aftermarket is sure to follow. That can mean everything from DVD carrying cases (say, one with a licensed SpongeBob Squarepants design on the cover for the kids' minivan movies) to cigarette-lighter chargers for portable DVD players.
Already run a video store? Time to accelerate your DVD transition, and think about renting DVD players to accommodate VHS clients who desire DVD-only releases.
- HIPAA Regulations Take Effect: On April 14, the federal government institutes new health-care privacy regulations based on the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).
Entrepreneurial firms such as NaviMedix Inc. will profit from the deadline. NaviMedix provides a Web-based repository of medical offices' information. In addition to making it possible to check patients' eligibility under their health plans, the company also acts as a vault for records, customizing features to adhere to the privacy procedures of individual medical practices.
There's non-tech opportunity as well. "A lot of offices are still fairly paper-based," says Lynne Dunbrack, NaviMedix's director of HIPAA compliance. That means each practice's "gatekeeper" needs training in what information can be given to whom, and procedures such as verifying identities when accessing paper files.
The same training will go on at insurance companies and their partners, including software providers like NaviMedix itself. But doctors' offices are a golden opportunity because turnover is high, and regulations require existing staff to take refresher courses.
- Video on Demand Becomes Reality: Video-on-demand has been heralded as the next big thing for more than a decade. This time it's for real. Really. By midyear, cable companies will be running large-scale trials.
Still dubious? "The industry itself was skeptical," says Steve Fredrick of Novak Biddle Venture Partners. "There were a lot of things that needed to come together, but by all measures, we've met critical mass." (Translation: The cable companies have spent so much money that it has to succeed.)
Other than the cable, says Fredrick, almost every component in the video food chain is wide open. Among the areas ripe for activity: technologies to distribute multiple video streams over digital cable, new content providers and new advertising models.
One reason for optimism is the rocket-like takeoff of video recorders like TiVo. "Video-on-demand deploys that functionality, but the hardware is in the network," says Fredrick. "It will do for video and movies what the Web did for static text."
- Fuel-Cell Technology Takes Off: The media have fawned over fuel cells for years, but usually for cars. (Fuel cells convert fuel to electricity with minimal pollution.) But the initial consumer application of the technology may come in a smaller format: handheld computers.
MTI MicroFuel Cells Inc. of Albany, New York, completed three technology prototypes last year. This year, the company is launching product prototypes with an eye toward a 2004 rollout. Competitors are trying to beat it to the punch.
Fuel cells outlast lithium ion batteries, today's portable power champ. "Electronics are going to a 24/7 mode of operation," says Bill Acker, MicroFuel's president and CEO. Fuel cell PDAs and mobile phones won't conk out before your day ends. The extra juice is also enabling such combinations as digital cameras that link to mobile phones.
Applying fuel cells to other devices will also open new opportunities. Think of wireless speakers. Rather than substituting a dangling power cord for dangling speaker wire, build a fuel cell and wireless connection into the speakers-and, suddenly, they can be anywhere in a living room.
The most important event is unknown, however. Out there somewhere is a start-up whose launch will make us look back on 2003 as the beginning of a glorious epoch. Its product might even be as momentous as the one invented by two brothers toiling on North Carolina's Outer Banks.