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Technology To Watch In 2004

We live in an age of great technological change and innovation. While it can be confusing and at times scary, these changes are often a good thing.

The staff of Designtechnica lives technology. When we?re not testing the latest gadgets, computer hardware or audio equipment, we?re working tech day jobs such as software engineers, MIS managers and microprocessor engineers at organizations such as Intel, RealNetworks, Microsoft, and NASA.

With that in mind, we polled the Designtechnica staff to see what they thought would be the big tech stories of this year. With 2004 well underway, we?re starting to see some new trends and ideas that really look like they will be in the forefront of technology this year.

Convergence: There were quite a few themes echoed by several contributors. One big theme was the convergence of the computer and networking with other common technologies such as TV and radio. TiVo and ReplayTV are just the tip of the iceberg. We?re starting to see networked DVD players, stereos with wireless speakers, hard-drive based home-entertainment systems, instant-on home theater PCs and a host of new Microsoft Media Center offerings.

Last year there were only a few networked media devices; products that broadcast digital movies, pictures or music through a home network to your stereo and home entertainment system. Now most of the big players in consumer electronics have a product on the market with many more to come. We just hope that companies will make their products cross-brand compatible, as opposed to Sony?s recent media player that requires a Sony VAIO computer.

Broadcom thinks that they may be creating a mass market for home and small business NAS (Network Attached Storage) with their new NAS on a chip design announced this week, and we tend to agree with them. With their BCM7480 NAS on a chip controller, NAS will become much less expensive and much more practical for the home user. This is a trend that we?ll see later in the year, just in time for the holidays, and with home collections of music, movies and pictures growing to many multiple gigabytes, consumers will jump on the new affordable devices.

Look for more networked media devices such as the Roku Soundbridge.

Voice over IP: We were impressed enough with the cost savings and great features of the Vonage Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) system that we gave it an editors? choice award. While Vonage battles with competitors such as VoicePulse and Packet8, the big boys are jumping on the bandwagon. AT&T and other large telecoms are going to roll out their own VoIP solutions this year and the price war is just beginning.

The big question in the VoIP arena is: can the government stay out of it enough to make VoIP technology worth getting rid of traditional landline telephone service?  FCC Chairman Michael Powell is on record saying that he wants to proceed lightly on the regulatory side. “It is critically important that we let these services develop unfettered by unnecessary government regulation, and apply only the minimum oversight necessary to ensure that consumers receive the unparalleled benefits that [Internet] telephony services offer,” he wrote.

With Powell in its corner, VoIP has a good chance of becoming a true alternative to POTS (plain old telephone service). Either way, something big is going to happen with VoIP this year with all of the legislation being looked at and all of the companies trying to get a piece of the pie.

Bluetooth: Yeah right you say. Bluetooth has been the next ?it? thing of the year for how many years now? Well we?ve seen it and it works. Phone manufacturers love it and it?s being integrated in laptops and a host of other devices such as printers, keyboards and mice. You?ll see some very useful Bluetooth products this year and more of them. Look for phones, PDAs, digital music players, digital cameras, and most computer peripherals to start integrating Bluetooth.

Look for some very useful Bluetooth products such as this Motorola wireless headset.

Wireless Networking: While Bluetooth is expanding to more devices, home and business networks will see more 802.11 solutions this year. Security is a big concern and now that the WPA security protocol is being integrated into more networks, that is a big step. Wireless networking makes a lot of sense for homes or businesses that don?t want to route network cable throughout their walls and its relatively easy to configure.

This year, besides the higher wireless adoption rates, we?ll see more speed increases. With 802.11b being replaced by the faster 802.11g and to a lesser extent 802.11a, transmission speeds have been increasing. We?re seeing technologies that effectively double the transmission rate of 802.11g and there are new solutions that are working on improving upon that. Now that wireless speeds are able to handle multiple streams of music or video, more devices will have wireless built in.

Linux: SCO and IBM?s battle over Linux has put the operating system in the news on a weekly basis, as has the feud between Windows and Lindows. Linux has been a mainstay in enterprise computing for a while now but with the rise of alternative operating systems for home use, we?ll see greater adoption rates this year. It will only gain more acceptance in the enterprise market with the merger of Novell, Ximian and SuSE.
Linux won?t take much of Microsoft?s home-user market share, but we think it could make a dent in it as more games and software are released in Linux. The Unreal Tournament 2004 demo was released a few weeks ago with a Windows, Mac and Linux version available on the same day ? a first in gaming. Once this starts happening on a regular basis, and with programs such as OpenOffice, the GIMP image editor and other software similar to everyday Windows applications already available, there will be no reason to stay with Windows.

PC Sales: The old beige box is dead. While we don?t think PC sales will decrease, sales may not grow at record levels anymore now that other computer-like devices are becoming more mainstream. With convergent devices, PC-based gaming systems, networked media devices and the increase in mobile computing, a full-blown PC will become less of a necessity.

Look for the big manufacturers like Dell, Sony, Gateway and HP to come out with new products that aren?t really PCs. And when they do release new PCs, look for them to be more specialized. We?re already seeing Compaq PCs built for high-end gaming at our local CompUSA and desktop replacement portables will become more powerful and yes? more portable.

PC makers like Gateway will have to do more than repackage PCs with a Media Center OS.

Digital Entertainment: We?re starting to see fully digital DVI connectors on more and more audio/visual equipment and with LCD and plasma displays becoming more mainstream, analog connections are on their way out. Plasmas will still be the highest priced displays, but their prices will fall closer to reasonable levels for many more consumers. We think a high-definition DVD standard will be adopted soon and that with the drop in HD display prices, High-Def will certainly become more mainstream.

Products to Watch: There are some very intriguing products on the horizon for 2004. We?re really looking forward to seeing products based on the Broadcom NAS chip mentioned earlier. We?re also hoping the rumors that Apple will release a PC and Mac compatible PDA with an iPod hard drive in it are true. Portable digital media players are getting smaller and bigger at the same time; storage capacity will get a boost this summer with larger capacity mini hard drives. Pocket sized MP3 players will have 8GB and larger hard drives and portable movie players will become more the commonplace also.

Our mission here at Designtechnica is to get our hands on the latest and greatest products and thoroughly test them to help you make a more informed buying decision. We don?t want you to waste your time or your money. We hope to be able to test most new and interesting products this year. 2004 looks to be one of the most exciting years in terms of new product launches and technology innovations and we?ll be there as it all unfolds.