THE GIZMO: Tech trends for 2010.
What will gizmo lovers be buzzing about in the new year? Our crystal ball shows big things a-brewing in "cloud computing" and a new breed of companion computers called "smartbooks," plus in-your-face 3-D TV, Internet TV and a growing, "green" electronics consciousness.
"CLOUD" BURST: Is the age of physical content (books, DVDs, video games) and even digitally-stored "downloads" coming to a close?
Will we soon nab everything we want to see, hear and read from a high-tech "cloud"? And prize stuff that's here one instant, then gone the next?
With biggies like Comcast and Apple getting involved, increasing attention will be paid in 2010 to services that stream movies, TV shows, music, video games, newspapers, magazines and books on demand from a distant computer server (aka the "cloud") to your Internet-connected portable or home computing device.
Comcast's just-launched (in beta test mode) Fancast Xfinity is a ripe example. This no-extra-cost "TV everywhere" bonus for bundled cable/Internet subscribers streams shows from partners like HBO and Cinemax, TBS and TNT to as many as three of a customer's computers, no matter where the devices are.
Apple's recent purchase of the music streaming innovator LaLa Media points to a possible rethink of the iTunes delivery service in 2010 as an alternative to the time-consuming file download process. LaLa's thing is to sell you, for dirt cheap, a "virtual" copy of an album or single that it streams instantly, on demand, to the "owner's" chosen Internet-connected device. But if you own only a virtual copy, can you still pass it on to a family member or friend?
The kids in Cupertino, Calif., also are making moves to deliver a streaming subscription video service over the Internet to devices such as the Apple TV set-top box, possibly challenging the cable and satellite TV industries. CBS and Disney have reportedly expressed interest.
And in a few weeks or months, the company may drop the other shoe, namely . . .
TABLET COMPUTERS, TAKE 2: Bigger than a smart phone but thinner and lighter than a "netbook" portable PC, a new generation of tabletlike "smartbooks" will debut in 2010 to deliver productivity, communication and entertainment functions.
Lack of a spinning hard drive or removable disc drive will keep these gizmos energy-efficient. And while there'll be some solid-state memory on board, smartbooks will rely mostly on Wi-Fi or mobile phone connectivity to store and retrieve content in/from the "clouds."
The big ifs for smartbooks, as I see it, will be in coming up with a tactile touch screen that:
_ delivers a decent typing experience;
_ offers vibrant color and clarity for watching movies and TV shows;
_ and can be put into a less energy-sapping monochrome mode for extended e-book reading sessions (in the process, making kindling out of Kindle, Sony Reader and Nook).
Oh, and if you can use a smartbook easily for Internet phone and video calling, so much the better.
Apple insiders have been buzzing for months about just such an "oversized iPod Touch," with the branding name "iSlate" now being bandied about. The company has product announcements scheduled for late January and again in June.
BANDWIDTH BLUES: Smartphones that accomplish all the above (and more) will become the mobile phone norm in 2010, as subscribers trade up.
Which begs the question, where's the wireless signal bandwidth coming from to serve all these mobile devices and multimedia applications? Don't we have enough dropped phone calls already?
The Consumer Electronics Association will float a couple of trial balloons in 2010 - suggestions for bandwidth recovery sure to raise a ruckus in the broadcasting industry.
One proposal calls for local TV stations to give up over-the-air broadcasts to rely on cable and satellite for signal delivery. Viewers of over-the-air TV would get a free subscription to ultrabasic cable or satellite TV for, oh, 10 years or so.
The other (slightly less onerous) concept is that TV stations should change the way signals are transmitted. They'd use a scattering of low-powered, signal-hopping transmitters to fill out the official coverage area without "bleeding" into adjacent markets, as today's single, high-powered broadcast antennas often do.
Either way, the number of channels allocated to broadcasters could be reduced or eliminated, with leftovers returned to the government for resale.
That's what happened in the analog-to-digital TV conversion, when Verizon, most prominently, spent billions on evacuated signal space for its 4G wireless network.
INTERNET TV: A little less than 10 percent of the televisions sold in 2009 were IPTVs (Internet protocol television sets) capable of tuning in select Internet-fed services like Netflix, Amazon Video on Demand, Vudu, Pandora, Facebook photos, MLB.com and Twit.TV.
Market forecasters believe that in 2010, that sales percentage will soar, as TV makers pump up awareness and the variety of alternative viewing options.
Kicking their butts will be upstarts like Boxee, an Internet TV linking service that's promising a set-top box that will tune in almost everything video on the Web.
3-D IN YOUR FACE: Been loving those 3-D movies in theaters? To bring home stereoscopic spectacles such as James Cameron's "Avatar" in a really grand way - and add an extra level of engagement to, say, football viewing - the consumer electronics industry will push hard on new-age 3-D TV products for your home theater in 2010.
All require viewers to wear special glasses, of course.
The Blu-ray Disc Association recently finalized the specs for a high-performance 3-D HDTV format to be encoded on a new generation of compatible 3-D/2-D Blu-ray discs. Companion players connect to a new breed of 3-D-ready TVs.
All will be ready for sale next fall.
Several other 3-D TV breakthroughs are promised for next week's annual Consumer Electronics Show, too. Cinema tech leader RealD, for one, will showcase more efficient picture coding techniques to deliver 3-D through the Sony PlayStation 3 video game/movie machine as well as on current cable and satellite TV boxes. (You'll still need a new-generation TV, though, to jump into the extra dimension.)
To get broadcasters into the game quickly, the Edison, N.J.-based HDlogix will demonstrate technology that converts conventional 2-D video shoots into 3-D in real time.
That is, live and "on the fly."
ECO OVERKILL? With a California state regulation newly in place setting limits on new TV sets' and monitors' power consumption, look for other states to follow suit in 2010.
And other electronic products we know and love could come under scrutiny, too, starting with video game consoles, traditionally a big energy user.
Let's just hope well-intentioned energy conservationists don't overdo it. When a breakthrough like 3-D TV is introduced, the first models are always energy hogs, using multiple components to work the magic. Over time, the technology is shrunk down to a single chip that consumes a fraction of the power.
Bottom line, regulators? If your laws are too strictly drawn, product innovation will suffer. That's one 2010 prediction I hope doesn't come true.