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Peering into My Crystal Ball

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
January 2010 Issue
November 26, 2009

Peering into My Crystal Ball

My crystal ball was recently upgraded to organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology. This gives me a much brighter, clearer and more energy-efficient view of the future. In fact, I see OLED displays become standard as their prices continue to fall. That, and California is mandating more energy efficient video technologies.

What else does the future hold for residents of the Virtual Valley? Gazing through the virtual Tule Fog, which can be quite dense when trying to see the technology trends of tomorrow, I see the “connect living room” is finally arriving after years of hiding.

The promised media center computers are not bringing us this networked entertainment hub. No, the Microsoft Windows Media Center and even Apple TV failed to match the marketing hype behind them. Yet, it is Microsoft delivering this future to many households. The Xbox Live video rental model is going to change television forever.

With the success of the Xbox movie rentals, the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo Wii have joined the battle for our eyes in earnest. With a decent Internet connection, there’s no reason to wait for the U.S. Postal Service to deliver a Netflix envelope. Best of all, though I love computers, it turns out that video game consoles are much more convenient movie machines. Apple TV is okay, and iTunes is great, but the game machines have delivered the future.

I know cable and satellite offer on-demand viewing options and DVR services, but I’ve had more than a few on-demand shows stop or reset unexpectedly. The game console uses the same cable-company Internet connection, but without the headaches.

The game console has come a long way since the lowly Pong with four built-in games. Now, it is a media center that will continue to add new features.

Speaking of features and power, the portable computing craze is taking a bite out of the “tower case” market. Analysts have long predicted the “Year of the Laptop” and now it is arriving in 2010. The combined sales of netbooks, notebooks and laptops will reach 35 to 37 million units this year. By comparison, 35 million “desktop” systems were sold in 2007, and sales have fallen four to six percent annually.

Many of my students own a single computer: inexpensive netbooks from Asus and the entry-level MacBook dominate the desks during lectures. The choice has nothing to do with Apple snobbery, either. Design students need slightly more expensive computers for reasons of speed and screen size, or they’d be using $300 netbooks, too.

This leads to seeing another trend through the haze: the good-enough approach to computing is here to stay.

I used to suggest spending at least $2500 on a computer if they wanted it to last for five years. Now, I advise my students in graphic design to buy $1000 laptops and add a $250 external monitor if they need more screen real estate. Most people don’t use the same computer for more than three years, according to the Gartner Group. If a student becomes a professional designer, then spending $5000 or more on a nice system is more than reasonable.

Of course, most of my students will be using Microsoft Office, surfing the Web, and updating their Facebook status. They can do those things on a $200 to $300 netbook. I saw a holiday promotion for $100 computers that do enough for some of my students.

Also in the “good enough” category are the latest eBook readers. No, they aren’t in color yet and the prices are higher than cheap netbook computers, but they are good enough for a lot of bibliophiles.

My crystal ball shows prices falling faster than oak leaves in November. You’ll be able to buy a Sony, Amazon, Barnes & Noble or other brand of eBook reader for under $100 by the end of summer and it will be a good deal. The screens will also be improving thanks to E Ink’s “electronic paper” research.

The Kindle, Nook and other readers are also starting to support standardized file formats. In December, Amazon added Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) support to most Kindle models. Look for Amazon to add the public library format, known as ePub, in coming months as well. You’ll be able to checkout library books from anywhere. These books will remain on your reader for mere weeks, but if you like a book you can instantly buy the copy. Some libraries are seeking a portion of these sales, since this is a “try before you buy” option.

There are some vaguely possible, slightly improbable, changes on the horizon. Most of these are probably a few years away, but the OLED image suggests they are arriving someday.

Google continues to research more ways to be the dominant Internet technology company. With Wave, Chrome and Android it is possible that Google-based and even Google “co-branded” computers will suddenly surge into the market. I’ve seen the Android operating system, which is based on the popular Linux OS, and it could be just what netbook users need: a fast, easy and cheap alternative to Windows and OS X.

Another technology that could surprise us is 3D video at home. No, not the funny, 1950s retro red and blue cardboard glasses form of three-dimensional video, but a version based on polarized glasses or even no glasses. Philips, Samsung and Sharp are already selling “3D-ready” televisions that use clear, polarized glasses for the effect. Panasonic and Toshiba are testing a “glassless” experience.

It probably won’t surprise you that I see a lot of people replacing DVD and Blu-ray video collections with 3D downloads or discs once the technology arrives. Of course, maybe the Tule Fog is clouding my vision.

Sometimes, technology hides in plain sight for a few years, like the Web did. In other cases, it seems to materialize out of nowhere. The one thing this is certain about the coming year is that some new gadget or technology will take us by surprise and alter life in the Virtual Valley.

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