Progress isn't all breakout products and scientific coups. In fact, some of the most salient indicators of the direction of technology come in re-directions of products and services we use every day. Here are seven subtle changes to the tech landscape that hint of bigger things to come.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer Goes All Online
As newspapers, books and magazines see the technological world evolving past them, some are making changes, and others are accepting insolvency. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, owned by Hearst Media, is doing the unthinkable: razing its print version in favor of an all-Web business model.
The 146-year-old paper was put up for sale in January, but no buyer came forward. The transition to Web will leave Seattle with only one printed daily, the Seattle Times. In the same month, two other western cities—Tuscon and Denver—lost their own printed dailies, the Rocky Mountain News and the Tucson Citizen. Other major papers have also filed for Chaper 11 recently.
Unfortunately, the P-I will also pare down its staff and original reporting, relying more on other news outlets, wire services and blogs to generate content for its site. Online advertising can't generate the kind of revenue that print advertising does, necessitating a smaller staff and lower overhead costs.
But as I reported last week, online advertising is getting more targeted, which in turn means ROI will improve and tracking metrics will grow more accurate every year (ed. note: assuming privacy concerns don't get in the way). As that happens, ad platforms will be able to demand more money for the ad space on their publishing partners, buoying the profitability of the whole online ad network. As online ads become more valuable and print's dusk grows darker, advertisers will dedicate more of their budgets to online campaigns, finally giving the Web its ad revenue due.
Once that transition begins, newspapers with strong Web presences may find themselves back in black, and able to carry on printing on demand the paper-paper in small, sustainable numbers. In other words, welcome the Web paper: it could keep newsprint and newspapers alive.
After letting its GrandCentral aquisition languish in eternal beta, Google is finally paying some attention to the telephony site. It's started by re-branding it as Google Voice, and adding more sophisticated call-out features that will rival eBay's Skype service for cheap long distance calling.
Google Voice is still in private beta mode; only users who've been using GrandCentral previously will have access to the new features as of this week. As a sometime GrandCentral user, I'll testify that the service is an ingenious suite of features that let you manage incoming calls in a bevy of creative ways—ring multiple phones at once, forward some calls to voicemail, and even listen in on voicemails with the option to pick up the call.
Google's edge will be integration with existing phones, someting that Skype doesn't do so well. With your Google Voice account, you'll be able call into your voicemail using a regular phone, and place outgoing domestic calls with a normal phone, all for free (though you must dial your own number first.) Skype, to its credit, is hard at work building video-calling infrastructure that Google Voice won't (yet) try to compete with. Look for Google to open up its Voice features to the wider public soon.
Cities die, but they rarely disappear. So it will go with Detroit, where property values have fallen to pennies on the dollar. Yes, the American motor companies may have grossly mismanaged their businesses and eviscerated Detroit's economic core in the process—to see just how, read this lecture—but there is indeed beauty in Detroit waiting to be salvaged. According to the AP, cheap homes are bringing in out-of-state buyers by the droves, if for no other reason than to indulge in the novelty of buying a $10 house.
For evidence of Detroit's inevitable rebound, look no further than this online photo essay by Time magazine documenting the city's delapidated architectural elegance. Untouched Queen Annie Victorians, stately public buildings and once-lavish neighborhoods beg for revitalization, and the prices expect it.
While it might seem quixotic to hope that the auto industry will rise again, it's entirely within reason to believe that Detroit might find itself home to an information economy in the next decade. As startups look for space on the cheap in a worsening recession, and our larger economy transitions away from manufacturing and towards intellectual property and invention, a host of heretofore neglected cities might find themselves unlikely candidates for colonization by small, agile companies looking for the space to expand away from the excesses cost of New York, Boston or California.
New iPhone Software Will Drive Your Kids to Soccer
Alright, so maybe the iPhone can't do everything. But its new software, iPhone OS 3.0, is probably packing some signifcant improvements, if Apple's behavior surrounding the update is any indication. While software updates are typically low-profile events that barely register as blips on the tech landscape, iPhone 3.0 is being treated more like one of Apple's major OS X updates, complete with its own media "sneak peak" on March 17th.
Apple's new excitement over iPhone software suggests that smartphones are beginning to act more like computers and less like phones. Indeed, their physical guts and their software platforms are beginning to do the same; all that's been left to follow suit is the marketing.
What's in store? Deeper MobileMe integration, cut-and-paste, background-running applications, mobile Flash—who knows? The laundry list of iPhone wants is full of tough and sundry technical problems, many of which Apple has no doubt been working on.
If you're still sober come 1pm EST on St. Patty's Day, check FastCompany.com for updates on the new OS.
Cloudera Eats Your Data
As the computer technology improves, the piles of data we generate get even more monstrous, requiring two things: more processing horsepower and more elegant software to do the math. Cloudera is a startup that aims to do the latter, and it has some good credentials to back it up. Why should you care? Because as hardware becomes commoditized, the invention of next year's new breakout service depends on ever more complex software. The websites or products that will change your life in 2010 may very well do it on Cloudera's back.
Cloudera was founded by alums of Yahoo, Google, Facebook and Oracle, and it uses an open source software it built called Hadoop to do its processing. Hadoop is a generic version of MapReduce, the software that constitutes Google's secret search sauce. MapReduce allows Google to keep its information stored in the "cloud," instead of on specific dedicated servers, and allows them to constantly re-analyze the ways in which people use websites in relation to other sites. Best of all, the system doesn't rely on any one physical machine, making failures and upgrades nothing more than hiccups.
One of Cloudera's founders helped develop Hadoop while at Yahoo, where engineers there use it to help populate users' Yahoo homepages with dynamic content. But instead of using it for search and Web data, Cloudera wants to adapt Hadoop to help other companies process their data: it could change the way biology researchers sequence genomes, or help oil companies analyze the data that tell them where to drill. The group of Cloudera founders have secured funding from Accel Partners.
Hulu Gets All Friendly on You
Everyone's Web TV darling, Fox and NBC joint venture Hulu.com, is entering the social fray. Wisely eschewing a proprietary social network, Hulu has allowed its users to integrate friends from Yahoo Mail, Gmail, Facebook and MySpace, enabling friends to share videos, see each other's video ratings, and see what they're watching, reviewing, and discussing. You can also leave notes for friends, or share videos on any number of social news sites like Digg, Reddit and Del.icio.us.
Social network integration wouldn't normally make news. But when we're talking abou Hulu, a site that has the potential to singlehandedly revolutionize the way we watch television, any growth steps are worth watching. Every TV network gets weak-kneed at the prospect of video virality, and Hulu's social integration has the potential to make TV-watching a more communal, communicative pastime—something that would drive up online TV viewership and force producers to start focusing first on Web, and secondarily on the networks. Already, studies are showing that kids spend more time online than they do in front of a television, so Hulu's new functionality might be one medium through which the TV industry can keep pace with that behavioral shift. Now let's just hope they bring back the entire library of Family Guy episodes.
Sirius XM Plans Streaming Radio
After nearly going belly-up last month, Sirius XM is hoping that a few new tricks might drive usership growth enough to keep the company going. The company announced this week that it would build an iPhone and iPod touch application that would allow users to stream Sirius XM stations to their devices, though it didn't specify whether the application would be free, require a subscription, or come with Sirius XM's full menu of talk and music channels.
As I discussed last month, Sirius XM is in trouble not only because of their burgeoning debt obligations, but also because they rely on new car sales to generate subscriber growth. Now that the car industry is in severe contraction, Sirius XM has had trouble convincing potential investors that its business is viable, which has forced the company to take emergency financing at high interest rates. As part of its renewed efforts to survive, Sirius XM has also announced a new campaign to reach out to used car buyers whose vehicles come pre-installed with satellite radios.
The potential of a Sirius XM app on the iPhone is only as exciting as its execution; make iPhone owners pay for a subscription, and they'll balk. Since the iPhone lacks a satellite antenna, this won't be true satellite radio, meaning that everywhere your 3G or WiFi connection fails—the subway, the woods, dead zones—your music will fail, too. Add to that inconvenience the fact that no music app but iPod can play in the background of the iPhone, and you have a relatively limited service that won't bring in users with a monthly charge. Should something about the iPhone 3.0 OS change all that, Sirius XM might be able to leverage its app to make some real revenue. But as for now, the most they can hope from an app is $5 a pop for the program itself, and a low-cost introduction to the Sirius XM suite of services that might bring in more vehicle subscribers.