As 2008 comes to a close, here are the six tech marvels that are ready to explode into ubiquity. And after a year of almost-breakthroughs — fast-but-spotty 3G; cheap-but-slow netbooks — we deserve them. After all, this is the future, isn't it?
Free National Wi-Fi
Despite President Bush's recent condemnation, there is a terrific piece of legislation before Congress now that could provide for free, nationwide Wi-Fi access in 2009. A swath of radio spectrum will be auctioned off by the FCC next year after it is vacated by television broadcasters, who must switch to hard-wired digital broadcasting in January by federal mandate. The FCC's new legislation would require whoever buys the chunk of white space to set aside 25% of it for no-fee service, that would especially help rural areas that don't currently have broadband access.
Although Kevin Martin, the current FCC chairman who has championed this initiative, is stepping down in January to make way for President-elect Obama's nominee, he is leaving office with the national Wi-Fi project as well-positioned as possible. He's recently agreed to drop a filtering stipulation, meant to block pornography and other illicit sites, which had raised significant First Amendment issues. Though nationwide Wi=Fi faces tough opposition from the telecom lobbies, Obama has said that bringing Internet access to every American is a fundamental part of his technology policy.
Powerful Mobile Internet Devices
Sure, netbooks are cool, but how about a truly potent on-the-go mobile Internet device? That's the promise of chips like Intel's [INTC] Moorsetown, which is on track to replace its Menlow chip. Never heard of Menlow? It's also known as the Intel Atom processor, featured in practically every new netbook that rolls onto the market.
The Moorsetown processor promises ten times the power savings of the Atom, meaning that mobile Internet devices will be able to power larger screens and beefier graphics without losing a precipitous amount of battery life. Oh, and with today's Atom chips screaming along at 1.6GHz, it's not unreasonable to hope for a 2GHz chip that could power a new, powerful platform that will make the iPhone look like a McDonald's toy. To see Intel's first fabricated Moorsetown chip at work, check out this video.
Linux On Everything
When devices powered by chips like the Moorsetown hit shelves, they won't be running Windows, which is bulky, expensive, and ill-suited to MIDs' methods of input (touch and stylus). Research published by Gartner [IT] suggests that about 8 million netbooks will be sold next year, with that number rising to 50 million by 2012. And that's not even counting the in-between Internet gizmos that don't exist yet.
Unless Microsoft [MSFT] whips up a mini-Windows (ala Apple's [AAPL] iPhone-version of OS X) and sells licenses on the cheap, you can bet that most of these devices will run proprietary Linux systems, or existing platforms like Google's [GOOG] Android. Canonical Limited, the organization that distributes Ubuntu Linux, has been collaborating with chip-maker ARM to cook up a version of Linux that is specially made for netbooks and other small devices.
Americans spent a huge amount of their time in cars, where they rely on small-screened cell smartphones and lonely, unconnected GPS units to keep them in the know. But in 2009, that should change.
If Chrysler still exists next year, you can count on Dodge to lead the charge in in-car connectivity with its U-Connect service, which can turn the car makers vehicles (like the new Ram pickup truck) into roving Wi-Fi hotspots that access 3G wireless broadband and pass it on to any Wi-Fi-capable device within 100 feet. Look for that feature in the 2010 models that will roll out in '09.
Of course, connected cars can have a downside, if you're a teenager; Ford's [F] new MyKey technology will allow parents to set a speed governor on their child's car, and have the dashboard chime when the car reaches 45, 55 and 65MPH. If that's not annoying enough for your kid, you'll also be able to set radio volume limits. Those features will debut in the 2010 Ford Focus.
GPS units will make strides, too. Devices like Best Buy's [BBY] Insignia GPS recently started packing two-way cellular modems built in, so users can do Google local searches and get live traffic updates. If that's any indication, 2009 might bring full-blown Web access, self-updating maps and even email notification to your dashboard, for those of us without a built-in navigation system.
Most people are just starting to take advantage of 3G wireless, now that smartphone sales are booming. But it won't be long before the apps and phones we love outgrow 3G speeds and leave us hankering for more. Sprint [S] is leading the charge with its first WiMAX service in Baltimore, which testers for the Baltimore Sun reported got them speeds comparable to Wi-Fi broadband as they drove around the city.
Verizon [VZ] is reportedly hard at work at a 4G network of its own, which is reported to be ready by 2010. AT&T [ATT] seems to think it can tweak its 3G network in '09 to sqeeze faster speeds out of it, which will be a welcome improvement, too. It plans to roll out its 4G grid by 2012.
Hardware makers are in line, too; Intel, Nokia [NOK] and Motorola [MOT] have all either promised or already launched chipsets, phones and USB dongles for WiMAX for 2009. Hopefully it won't be long before you can watch last night's episode of House from your mobile phone using Hulu.
Windows Vista may have been the latest in Microsoft's history of flopped OSes (remember Windows ME?), but the company seems eager to make up for it.
After Windows 7's beta version was leaked last week, Tech Cast News performed a through walk-through and deemed it a "massive improvement" over Vista. New features will include easier window management courtesy of "Aero peek," a more economical taskbar design, a "Jump Lists" feature that flies out a menu of recently-used items in the Start bar, and a cleaner, more logically-arranged Windows Explorer.
According to Microsoft spokespeople, Windows 7 should be available in beta form in early 2009, and in final release by the end of the year. Hopefully this version will come without its own class-action lawsuit.
Here's to 2009, and all the tech glory it could — and should — bring us. And if it doesn't, well, you can always pack your crap and move into a cave.