Where Will the Digital Signposts Lead?

I got a lot of nice comments on my writings about the big changes from the last decade to the new one we have entered.  So, I decided to do a followup.  If technology is leading us in all of these changes, where are we headed and how will we adapt?

1.  The Implications of a Wireless World

In the big personal computer revolution, we could do things that we never imagined. Like printing in sophisticated ways right from home, chatting around the world, and sending pictures and other things attached to electronic mail.  But we had to be sitting at a plugged in computer to do those things.  Now the portable devices are taking over.  Eventually, the Internet will be with us everywhere we go.  It can be now on laptops, but with a high monthly fee.

When the prices come down and the devices become more portable, such as the new tablets coming out this year, a lot of things will change.  We will stop thinking of the Internet as a unique “place.”  It will be with us all the time, just like a purse, wallet, or wristwatch.  New generations will never know what it’s like not to be connected.

Let’s step back and think about the most immediate form of communication that we used to have – the land line telephone.  The next step after that was snail mail and even the telegram.  And if we wanted the latest news, we would look for a newspaper, or turn on the radio or TV.  In the digital age, all of those things are with us everywhere we go.  But there are still some fractures in the way we access this stuff.

People who have dropped their land line telephones have to remember to carry their cell phones around the house.  The old convenience of extension phones goes away.  When you want to watch a movie or a TV show, you need to track down which remote to use, the DVR one, the TV one, the DVD player one, or whatever.  And this process is played out in whatever room you happen to be in.

What will probably change all that is the disappearance of the physical computer, as we know it today.  Homes will probably have a central box where the guts of a computer are kept.  Sort of like the metal enclosure where your TV cables are set up, or the circuit breaker box in your house.  The guts of a computer will probably be about the size of a paperback book, if not smaller.

Everything that “connects” to the computer will do so wirelessly.  Portable devices will be cheap enough that you could have one in each room for convenience.  You should be able to point one of them at a any screen in any room and use it as  a remote to watch TV, movies, or browse the latest pictures from your camera.  And if you get a phone call, just tap the device and answer the call.

These devices, much like an iPhone, will be used in stores to scan things you buy, and in the car to look up where you are, using GPS.  A lot of these things are already happening, but what will change is the merging of all the complicated ways that we do it now.   It will rapidly reach the point where every device does just about everything in the same simple way,   There won’t be the distinction between a cell phone account, an Internet account, and a cable account.  Cable TV will almost certainly go away, as will anything else that relies on wires or cables.  It will all be done “online” and wirelessly.  Eventually, we won’t even notice whether or not we are online, because we will be there all the time.  This convergence of devices and “always online” state of things will be made possible by citywide wireless services, based on Wimax and other similar competing technologies.   Austin is just now getting one called Clearwire, but I’d advise checking the customer reviews before signing up.

2. What Will Happen to Online Media?

When newspapers, magazines, and printed materials went online in the early 90’s, we all got used to it.  Mostly because the established brands were portable enough to just move to the new medium.  The same publishers were in charge, so there was a logical structure in place to lead the change.  However, the profits are not as high as anticipated and the publishers are in a quandary. The profits from the print editions are fading away as those operations go away.  And they are hoping that new tablet devices will open a new paid subscription market.  But, will people be willing to pay for something they are used to getting for free?   Nobody knows yet how that situation will play out.

Music is an even more complicated story.  The old model of the record labels calling the shots did not adapt well to digital distribution, and the industry is still in a state of disarray.  There is plenty of music available online, from iTunes, Amazon.com, and other sources.  But who’s in charge of marketing and promotion?   And where do the music buyers get exposed to the new music?

There are plenty of scattered websites offering new music.  But old models die hard.  Just like it’s difficult for the music industry to give up CD’s, the movie industry is struggling to adapt to streaming music.  A Netflix movie played over the Internet looks just as good on a big screen TV as a high definition DVD or cable TV signal.  So, both CD’s and DVD’s will probably become obsolete.  Imagine the cost savings of never having to manufacture, package, or distribute those anymore.  Hopefully, we consumers will be exposed to many more choices at a much lower cost.  The biggest challenge, especially for musicians, will be to organize some sort of popular system to replace traditional radio.  An early example of that is the Pandora style radio software, where you create your own stations by selecting your favorite artists or genres of music.  But the so-called “Killer App” for music that replaces all the traditional marketing, promotion, and distribution has not come about yet.  That industry is still lost on the digital highway.

3. Taking Wireless to the Next Level

Today, wireless is primarily used to deliver content from the Internet to your computer or handheld device.  The next step, which is getting close to happening, is wireless communication between devices.  Bluetooth does that, but only at short distances.  When wireless expands to connect devices, you won’t have to use cables to set up printers, hard drives, scanners, etc.  And people will be able to share information just be pointing a device at their friend’s device and tapping, swiping, or jiggling the device.  An iPhone app called “Bump” can do some of that already.

And by the way, batteries will be charged automatically.  The technology to charge them over the air is already on its way to development.

4. The New World of Interactive Video

When you throw cameras into the mix, it really gets interesting.  With high speed video conferencing, the home user can have lots of fun.  You should be able to whip out an iPod on a vacation and show your family back home a live video of the white cliffs of Dover.  They’ll be watching it live on their HD TV.

A logical extension of that idea involves face to face contact.  People in large numbers have not taken up the use of video phone technology.  It can be done on computers quite easily with cameras that come built-in.  But I can think of one scenario that might make it more appealing.  Right now, if you sit on the couch with your laptop and play Scrabble through the Google website, iGoogle, you can see and talk to the person you are playing with.

But your opponent’s face is in a little box on the screen and it may show up at a weird angle in crummy light.  The ideal situation would be a full screen Scrabble board, with a formatted image of the person you are playing with, sitting on the other side of the game board.  On the screen, you would see them sitting in a chair, facing you, with the game board on a table.  That would look a lot more natural.  Perhaps what we need is some software to upload some pictures of our friends, so that simulated, realistic images of them could be put into the game playing “scene.”  Then the computer camera would pick up the live facial expressions and eye contact, making it appear like you were in the same room playing together.

It’s not a stretch to imagine that type of real world simulation to allow people to interact in natural ways in lots of situations.  Beyond playing games, people in different cities could go shopping together at virtual stores, and check out what each other is wearing.  The computer would have stored images of you.  So, if you clicked on an outfit in a store, you and whoever you were shopping with would see a live simulation of you wearing it.  Or you could both take a walk along a Hawaiian beach and have a nice chat.

All of these thoughts leave me with one final question.  How long will it be before we’ll be able to substitute our own selves for the lead role in a movie?  I wouldn’t mind watching a good Sandra Bullock movie with me in the male lead!

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