2002 will be a banner year, primarily because it puts 2001 behind; a collective sigh of relief is heard throughout the IT industry. But while the economy is not yet on a firm footing and many businesses are hemorrhaging, there are a number of reasons for me to be optimistic about 2002. For starters, 2002 is the first palindromic year in over a decade, and will be the last for over a century. But of far greater importance, there will be a great shift to practical tangible products in the IT world as several significant technologies which have been in gestation for years mature and blossom.
Technology magazines and IT pundits have been hyping convergence over the past few years, telling us that this is the next big thing. Convergence literally means a “coming together.” Unfortunately, 2001 saw some of the wrong pieces come together.
We (and perhaps the people making convergence devices) were never quite certain what convergence really was supposed to be. For example, although perfectly logical in theory, computer manufacturers found out the hard way that their customers didn’t want to surf the Net on their TV, or make phone calls from their PC. (N.B. Some forms of convergence, such as watching a DVD on a laptop, do make sense; with my laptop’s 15″ screen, I am the envy of all aboard entire 777s during many trips. And more recently, various companies have started a mini-industry facilitating the delivery of Internet content to home hi-fi equipment.)
Now, convergence means that technologies are coming together to give users the power to access information and communicate, from wherever the user might be, with whatever form of device the user might have: instant information. Only in the past 18 months have handheld computers become capable of rivaling their larger laptop brethren as a desktop replacement. However, as small and light as these devices may have become, the actual interface to the device, i.e. fingers and hands, have remained the same. Perhaps typing is no longer the best interface to obtain instant information? Speech recognition is poised to go mainstream – and, in fact, is used by many who would never consider themselves computer users, as many airlines and financial services companies have implemented such systems over the past year. But pocket-sized devices – sans pocket-sized fingers – may be the technology that raises speech recognition out of semi-obscurity into everyday usage in 2002.
Another technology that should explode in 2002 is home networking, especially of the wireless Ethernet persuasion [e.g. WiFi, which is based on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) standard 802.11b]. Prices for WiFi cards have tumbled in recent months and more laptop users are roaming the globe with wireless networking cards. Around the world, community-minded folks are setting up shared WiFi networks. In Seattle, two nodes near bus stops allow residents to connect. A full-scale implementation would be a city-wide network giving users high-speed (and free) Net connections virtually anywhere. What’s significant about these networks is that anyone with broadband access can set one up (although many broadband agreements do prohibit retransmission).
Mobility is not just limited to voice anymore, and wireless companies such as AT&T, Cingular, Spring, Verizon and VoiceStream are setting up 2.5G General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) networks which offer data services at 40 to 60 kbps in major metropolitan areas. This pervasiveness of this service will also impact speech recognition; just ask anyone who has tried to type out a decent-sized word on a telephone keypad. Of course, GPRS is not limited to mobiles, and Bluetooth, the short-range wireless technology, will soon begin to seize market share through its strength is as a cable elimination system (e.g. between the laptop and the mobile), the very reason why it was developed. Just recently I started using a Bluetooth headset for my mobile, and can attest to the many benefits of being untethered whilst phoning.
This trend for mobility and wireless bodes well for a strong surge in broadband connectivity to the home. After all, what good is a wireless home network without high-speed connectivity. The failure of Excite@Home may have a silver lining; hopefully cable companies will give up on the idea of outsourcing this critical service and learn to run their own data networks. (Notably, during the Excite@Home debacle, little if any mention was made of the DSL provider failures earlier in the year.) But as the thirst for instant information, anywhere, anytime continues, users will expect always-on, high-speed connectivity both at the office as well as at home. (Eventually this will be de rigeur in cars and aeroplanes but the telematics needs a bit more time to get its act together.) It was only a few years ago when home PCs were more fully featured than those in the office (with speakers, CD ROM drives, multimedia capabilities) and users began to demand the capabilities of the home machines at work. Now users demand office speed connectivity in the living room.
Given all this progress, most users are still stuck in a mode requiring them to operate in a manner directed largely by the computer. Rather than ask a question, one must perform a search and get results, which may or may not provide the answer. When surveyed, 99 out of 100 human beings indicate “an answer” as the preferred reply to a question. 2001 did not bring with it a HAL or anything resembling the computing environment Arthur C. Clarke foresaw in his novel or the Stanley Kubrick film released in 1968. However, given the progress artificial intelligence has made in the past few years, we see 2002 as being seminal in the deployment of natural language query systems which allow human beings to ask computers questions and actually get answers.
Of course, one huge obstacle stands in the way of achieving nirvana: the two great network achievements of the past century, the telephone and the Internet, need to develop a common means of communicating so that Web information can be easily served up to a telephone set and Web pages can handle voice. A standards battle is looming between the World Wide Web Consortium (VoiceXML 2.0) and a rival standard called Speech Application Language Tags, or SALT, developed separately by six members of the consortium, including Microsoft, Intel, and Philips. This bodes well for progress here, as such controversy is likely to stimulate more work and research in the area.
We know that each transformational innovation came with a dozen detours and dead-ends. This is part of the IT world’s Darwin principle, because only a high level of innovation and experimentation can keep the industry moving forward. Many new products are announced every morning; some never see the light of day and most disappear from shelves quickly. But the few which succeed will change the way we conduct business and interact - and the way we live.
Jonathan B. Spira is the chief analyst and CEO at Basex.