Tech Trends and Products to Watch in 2008

Adopting a new technology only makes sense for small businesses if it does at least one of three things: solves a business problem, saves you time or saves you money. With this in mind, we take a look at technologies that could very well meet that criterion in 2008.

Cell Phones: Big Changes Coming?
A number of trends that are already in play could change how you use your cell phones in 2008.

The Google Alliance. In November 2007, Google announced its Open Handset Alliance (OHA), which is designed to rally the cell phone industry around Android, a new operating system for cell phones.

Android is open platform, so it costs nothing for developers to create compatible software and services. If all goes as planned, you’ll see new cell phone tools in the second half of 2008 that can run on any Android-compatible handset, regardless of the cell phone carrier. More than 30 companies have joined the OHA, including Intel, T-Mobile, Sprint Nextel, Samsung, Motorola and HTC.

How is this different from today? Cellular network carriers have long controlled which applications can work on the devices that connect to their network. The carriers have imposed fees and rules by which software developers must abide in order to offer applications that run on the carriers’ networks. These restrictions have limited the software and services we have available on our phones today.

Exactly what kind of new software and services Android is likely to spur isn’t entirely clear yet. But there’s been buzz that Android tools will go beyond what’s currently available on cell phones. For example, some OHA members have expressed interest in developing new social-networking applications that can incorporate information about customers, such as their current location, contact list, and ‘presence’—meaning whether their phone is on or off.

Such software could spur further development of mobile marketing and other tools for businesses, especially as built-in GPS navigation becomes more widespread on mobile handsets.

Another iPhone? Although Apple hasn’t officially announced a second-generation iPhone, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson announced in 2007 that an iPhone using the carrier’s 3G data network (instead of the slower EDGE data network, which the current iPhone employs) would arrive sometime in 2008.

Also, Apple CEO Steve Jobs has announced the company will release a software kit in February 2008 that lets developers more easily create iPhone software and services. In the meantime, some new iPhone services are already available or imminent. An iPhone version of WebEx PCNow 3 software lets you access files on your computer using your iPhone. And Intuit recently announced a version of its Quicken software would be available for iPhone owners in January for $3 a month.

Easing Restrictions. Cell phone carriers will continue to loosen their iron grip on subscribers, at least a little. As wildly popular as it is, Apple’s iPhone—which is only available in the U.S. in a model tied to AT&T’s network—has raised awareness about the unfair restrictions carriers have imposed on their customers for years.

For example, those hefty early termination fees you must pay to break your cell phone contract? Under pressure from consumers and lawmakers, the major carriers have announced they are now prorating those fees so that they decline over time. Now if you break your contract after 20 months, you’ll pay less than if you broke the contract after two months.

Also, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint Nextel said they will stop forcing subscribers to enter into a new contract just to switch calling plans. (You’ll still have to reboot your contract when you buy a new phone from your carrier—which makes buying a new phone from eBay or other sources all the more appealing.)

WiMAX: Here at Last?
After a long buildup, the promise of Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access—WiMAX—is poised to finally become a reality in 2008.

In short, WiMAX is a faster, longer-range version of Wi-Fi. A Wi-Fi network’s signal range usually extends in a radius of about 100 feet, while a WiMAX network’s signal can go to about 30 miles.

Because no cabling is involved, WiMAX can more affordably deliver Internet access than DSL or cable. The mobile WiMAX specification will allow you to continually stay connected to WiMAX networks as you travel by train, car or other ground transportation. WiMAX has enormous potential in providing broadband Internet access in developing countries, too, where little if any cabling infrastructure exists.

Whether WiMAX emerges as a viable broadband alternative is still in question, however. Last fall, Sprint Nextel and Clearwire announced they were suspending their high-profile partnership to develop a nationwide WiMAX network in the U.S. WiMAX also faces competition from existing 3G cellular broadband networks, developed by Sprint Nextel, AT&T and other carriers.

However, Intel—a big WiMAX proponent from the get-go—is promising in 2008 a new Centrino chipset for mobile computers that will offer the option of integrated Wi-Fi and WiMAX. And Cisco Systems, once a WiMAX skeptic, recently acquired Navini Networks, which manufactures WiMAX hardware.

Sleeker, Thinner, More Affordable Laptops
In 2008, look for more laptops like the Asus Eee PC that combine ultraportability with affordability.

In late 2007, Asus’s Eee became a big success for the Taiwanese company. The Linux-based laptop cost only $400 (for a model with a 4GB flash memory drive), weighs just two pounds, and yet admirably performs basic Wi-Fi connectivity, Web browsing, e-mail and office productivity tasks.

By comparison, most laptops in the $400-$600 range are extremely heavy (about six pounds), while those weighing only two-to-three pounds typically cost $2,000 or more. The laptop’s runaway success is sure to inspire competitive models from other companies in 2008, as well as new models from Asus.

Meanwhile, flash memory storage in laptops gained attention in 2007 as an alternative to hard drive technology. Why? Because flash memory has no moving parts, it consumes less power and is less vulnerable to failure than hard drives. Flash memory drives can also boot a laptop more quickly than a hard drive and are smaller and lighter than typical hard drives. (Flash memory is already widespread in devices such as the iPod Touch, but generally in capacities of 16GB-32GB or less.)

To date, Asus, Sony, Fujitsu and only a few others have introduced laptops whose main storage is a flash memory drive. The high cost of flash memory thus far has prevented the technology from becoming more widespread. But prices are likely to drop in 2008. And rumors abound that Apple—always a trend setter—is planning a flash-memory based portable this year.

James A. Martin has years of experience covering technology, and he’s also the author of Traveler 2.0, a blog that provides technology news and views for travelers.

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