Techno-geeks are like puppies most of the time, excited about everything, unable to sit still long enough to put their world in any kind of perspective. Almost anything can be considered the next big thing.
Take the iPad - it wasn't even released and already the articles were pouring out to the effect that "this is going to change everything." It's cool technology, I agree, and if someone gave me one for free I'd probably enjoy it, but from a computing standpoint it changes nothing. It's not the first e-book reader, the first portable media player with a touchscreen or even close to being the first tablet.
It's also a step back in many ways, with less computing power than the average laptop, a closed operating system, no USB ports - it doesn't even have a built-in camera. It's a cool, expensive, somewhat useful toy that showcases the best of what's new in technology, but breaks very little ground unless you look at it from the angle of marketing and hype - advertising agencies will be studying this launch for years. People lined up to buy this thing like it was Star Wars: Episode One and I bet many of them were just as disappointed.
What's a bigger deal is the announcement of a new Apple iPhone OS 4.0, a new operating system that allows for multitasking - but also increases ad content on your phone with the new iAd platform that will put ads in your apps - encouraging app developers to put banners on everything. That's actually something that's worth discussing - nobody paying $200 and signing onto a three-year exclusive deal with a phone company should be subjected to annoying ads. More on this in a future column.
To get back to my original premise, the iPad was not that big a deal and it's not the next big thing. Neither is 3DTV - a technology that will be expensive and underused for years. It could actually die the way all those previous attempts to harness 3D have died. They had 3D films in the 1950s, after all.
I believe one day that all HD televisions will be able to broadcast in 3D as the technology gets better and cheaper, but it will be a feature that people will only use occasionally. Only a handful of shows will spend the money to produce a true 3D broadcast, which basically limits the usefulness of this technology to some sports, movies and video games.
The switch to 4G mobile Internet is not that big a deal either. It's a successor to 2G and 3G standards that let you surf the web on your cell phone or by purchasing a USB plug for your laptop, but it's not going to change your life all that much. It costs money to develop the 4G infrastructure so you can benefit from the boost in speed, which is why it will only be available in large urban areas at the beginning. Meanwhile support for 3G will be ongoing for a long time because literally tens of millions of devices have been sold that are 3G capable, and by the time 4G goes market-wide you can probably bet that 5G will be right around the corner. My advice is not to sweat it - faster download times are great, but being a first adopter of anything is generally expensive and disappointing. Don't throw out your smart phone just yet.
Here are the things that I do consider to be "the next big things" in technology.
• In March, Cisco announced a new series of routers that will speed up servers and the Internet as a whole. Dubbed the CRS-3, these routers are at least a dozen times faster than existing technology. They would conceivably allow someone to download the entire HD, 3D version of Avatar - probably around 10 Gigabytes - in about 72 seconds. Previously, routers were bottlenecks that limited the speed at which data could travel. They will no longer be an obstacle. As you can guess both the movie studios and the people who download movies for free from torrent sites simultaneously crapped their pants when Cisco made the announcement.
• Last week Hewlett Packard demonstrated a new memory technology called Memristor which will essentially double the amount of memory that companies can pack into a Flash drive without any loss of performance. Like Flash it is sturdy (data doesn't decay as quickly over time), low power (up to a 10 th as much power used compared to a hard drive) and lightning fast. Hard drives could literally be obsolete within the next three to five years.
• Last week the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favour of Comcast after they shut down torrent downloads over their network, something that could cast a shadow over the web as a whole by giving ISPs the power to decide who can download what and how fast. The ruling throws open the whole issue of Net Neutrality by siding with a company rather than its customers. There are concerns that companies could use this ruling to block out other content streams to silence their competitors and critics, to back company goals politically and to interfere with the free flow of information. What happens next (Will the government appeal the ruling, or pass a law in favour of net neutrality?) will ultimately determine the future of the Internet as we know it.