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Ever since the Internet boom became an Internet bust a few years ago, the world of technology has looked a bit pallid. Amid an overall slow economy, tech spending is down, and tech innovation has scaled back. But that doesn't mean it's dead. We spoke with several entrepreneurs and experts to see where the bright lights in technology are shining. And right now, the spotlight looks like it's reserved for Wireless with a capital "W."
David Arfin, co-founder and CEO of GLOOLABS, a wireless networking software start-up in Palo Alto, California, says: "Wireless will play a substantial role. Wireless and uses of wireless will drive a lot of innovation." The two bright areas in this space are mobile phone technologies and Wi-Fi.
According to Isaac Ro, senior wireless analyst for research firm Aberdeen Group, the mobile phone handset market is staying fairly healthy. We won't, however, see the effects of the much-hyped 3G rollouts for another couple of years.
That leaves Wi-Fi as the big mover and shaker of the moment. Will the popularity of Wi-Fi help bring about a larger technology revival? "Wi-Fi is something that will really enable a lot of other IT spending," says Sandeep Singhal, co-founder and CTO of Fort Lee, New Jersey-based ReefEdge Inc., a wireless LAN systems builder. Some interesting developments surrounding Wi-Fi include voice over IP applications, which are starting to catch on with growing businesses, and new mobile technologies that let mobile phones roam from cellular networks to Wi-Fi networks.
With Wi-Fi growing as a backbone technology, it can potentially drag a variety of hardware sales along with it. "Even throughout the economic slump, Wi-Fi has represented one of the bright, shining lights of spending," says Singhal. Wireless printers, wireless projectors and wireless adapters for just about any piece of business hardware are working their way out into the marketplace. And the introduction of faster and more secure standards like 802.11g is continuing to drive growth.
With large-scale research and development projects cooling off at the enterprise level, entrepreneurs will be a driving force behind new technology innovations. Arfin also sees the open-source software development community contributing in a big way. So innovation isn't necessarily floundering; it's just become more small-scale and is cloaked in more practical packaging when it does reach the market.
As an example, ReefEdge puts out all-in-one "boxes" that allow businesses to deploy and manage secure Wi-Fi solutions easily, from the small-business to the enterprise level. GLOOLABS is developing a way for consumers to send multimedia from computers to home electronics systems using Wi-Fi. While these projects may not have the glitz of an Internet IPO or the hype of the Segway scooter, they have practical appeal and are designed to solve real-world problems.
Trying to predict the next big thing in technology is as hard as it would have been to predict in 1989 what today's incarnation of the Internet would look like and how far it would reach. "We're at a point in wireless where the next big thing is still unknown," says Ro. Whatever happens, a tech revival won't look at all like the boom of the late '90s. "We're not going to return to the growth we had in 1998 and 1999. But it's not going to be dismal, and wireless is certainly going to be one of the tent poles," says Ro.
Innovation hasn't gone away, and the role of technology in our businesses and our lives has not diminished. It's just gotten a little harder to recognize its face. The tech revival won't look like a jampacked dotcom launch party; it will look more like the GLOOLABS office-several guys with laptops, discount store tables and an Internet connection in the middle of a cavernous 20,000-square-foot space in Silicon Valley.