The Year In Emerging Technology: 2007

In most industries, change comes at a slow, plodding and predictable pace. Many workers today have new tools and processes, but the job they do isn't much different from what a similar worker was doing 20 years ago. But, for those of us lucky enough to work in the technology industry, there is nothing slow, plodding or predictable about the changes we deal with on a regular basis. And the forces that feed and bring about these changes are emerging technologies. The history of IT is filled with examples of the massive changes that can be brought about by core emerging technologies. In the mid-1980s, IT workers were concerned mainly with configuring stand-alone PCs; managing access to central mainframes; and, by the end of the decade, setting up basic network access. In the early 1990s, workers were concerned with e-mail and groupware systems. And then, in the mid-1990s, came a new thing called the World Wide Web. Of course, the Web radically changed the course of business and the IT workers who supported it. In just 10 years, IT workers' main focus shifted to building a Web presence for their organizations. By the early 2000s, even this had changed, with Web presence morphing from mainly static pages to dynamic and increasingly interlinked sites using SOAs (service-oriented architectures) and Web 2.0 technologies. Once again, it took only 10 years for IT professionals' roles to change radically yet again. So, what is the next big thing? What emerging technology will change your day-to-day job and the face of business?

Emerging Technology

eWEEK's Look Back at the Emerging Technologies of 2007

The Biggest Emerging Technology Disappointments of 2007 When a product or technology is still emerging, it's hardly fair to call it a flop. But it isn't too early to be disappointed by some of the failures of promising technologies.

2007's Tech on the cutting edge Many cutting-edge technologies were just getting their start in universities and research labs around the world in 2007. Here are just a few of the technologies that are poised to make a business impact in the future.

In most industries, change comes at a slow, plodding and predictable pace. Many workers today have new tools and processes, but the job they do isn't much different from what a similar worker was doing 20 years ago.

But, for those of us lucky enough to work in the technology industry, there is nothing slow, plodding or predictable about the changes we deal with on a regular basis. And the forces that feed and bring about these changes are emerging technologies.

The history of IT is filled with examples of the massive changes that can be brought about by core emerging technologies.

In the mid-1980s, IT workers were concerned mainly with configuring stand-alone PCs; managing access to central mainframes; and, by the end of the decade, setting up basic network access. In the early 1990s, workers were concerned with e-mail and groupware systems.

And then, in the mid-1990s, came a new thing called the World Wide Web. Of course, the Web radically changed the course of business and the IT workers who supported it. In just 10 years, IT workers' main focus shifted to building a Web presence for their organizations.

By the early 2000s, even this had changed, with Web presence morphing from mainly static pages to dynamic and increasingly interlinked sites using SOAs (service-oriented architectures) and Web 2.0 technologies. Once again, it took only 10 years for IT professionals' roles to change radically yet again.

So, what is the next big thing? What emerging technology will change your day-to-day job and the face of business?

When it comes to emerging technologies, 2007 has plenty of candidates. Some look poised to effect major change, and some will have a more modest impact. Some will come up short, failing to deliver on their initial promise.

One common thread in the history of important emerging technologies is that many people initially fail to recognize them.

IBM famously missed the boat on the initial PC revolution, tossing aside the software responsibilities (to Microsoft) and failing to recognize the needs of the user (unlike Apple). In the early days of the Web, few recognized its true importance, with even Microsoft's Bill Gates dismissing it early on.

Odds are that some of today's most-hyped technologies will decrease in importance or fade completely into oblivion, while some mostly ignored technology becomes the true groundbreaker. Looking back at 2007, there are many technologies that fit in either category.

In this special report, I take a look at the emerging technologies that were announced or started to gain traction in 2007. From this list, I'll identify the technologies that are most likely to deliver important improvements for all businesses. I'll also identify the technologies that have failed--or appear likely to fail--on their promises.

One thing that's certain is that some of these technologies will greatly affect your job. The challenge for IT workers is to stay on top of these potentially disruptive technologies and be ready to leverage them to provide a competitive boost.

Radical change can be scary, but it is also what makes working in technology so much fun.

Open Social Networks

Whether you like social networks, their importance in both everyday life and work is increasing daily. Social networks such as Facebook and Linked In are becoming as key to business as golf outings and expensed steak dinners.

However, these networks are limited in their effectiveness by their closed nature. Users find they must join multiple networks to reach different clients and contacts. And the difficulty of separating business from personal contacts can easily lead to embarrassment or worse.

Luckily, this year has seen a trend toward opening up these social networks. From the opening of Facebook as a development platform to the formation of the Google-backed OpenSocial platform to the increased popularity of the OpenID digital identity standard, the opportunities for opening and connecting multiple social networks are growing.

Hopefully, in the near future, we will be able to maintain and individually control one identity that openly connects to our different social networking needs.

Next-gen Smart Phones

Can a technology market be both dynamic and stagnant at the same time? Looking at the smart-phone market of recent years, the answer seems to be yes.

Sure, smart phones continued to add new features and interesting capabilities. But, to a large degree, they didn't change the main functionality of the phones themselves. Despite frequent changes, most modern smart phones didn't seem that different from those of a few years ago.

That was until a little phone from Apple made its appearance earlier this year. No, the iPhone isn't perfect. Lots of compromises were made both in the carrier limitations and in the software lockouts.

But the iPhone's strengths greatly outweigh its weaknesses, and you need to use it only for a short time to realize how old and stodgy most other smart phones feel. In most cases, the iPhone provides the real thing in terms of Web and Internet capabilities, not watered-down phone versions.

And the iPhone has already unleashed competition from other vendors that recognize the innovations and enhancements that the Apple phone has introduced. Thanks to the iPhone, we are getting close to the time when the phone can actually replace the PC.

Web-based Applications

To many people, web-based applications hardly seem like an emerging technology. After all, there have been Web applications pretty much as long as there has been a Web.

But the applications coming out now have about as much in common with those early Web applications as an iPhone does with a 1980s brick phone. New technologies such as AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML), Flex and JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) have made it possible to build Web-based applications that work in much the same way that desktop applications do.

For most people, the obvious examples are those from Google. From the classic office suite functionality of Google Apps to the stunning capabilities of Google Street, Google has been pushing the envelope in bringing classic GUI capabilities to Web applications.

And now, through technologies such as Google Gears, Adobe Systems' AIR and the Mozilla Foundation's upcoming Firefox 3, offline capabilities are being brought to Web-based applications. Very soon, it may be desktop-only applications that are the oddity.

SAN Encryption

Many companies subscribe to the idea that any news is good news. But one type of news that most companies don't want to see, especially companies in retail or financial markets, is a story about a data breach or loss that has put personal data of customers at risk.

And one of the biggest areas of risk for companies is their storage infrastructure. A lost laptop is bad enough, but if boxes of backup tapes or disks fall into the wrong hands, the damage can be immeasurable.

There is a solution to this problem--namely, encryption. Tapes or disks that have been encrypted are of no more use to thieves than a box of old Monkees eight tracks. But managing and deploying full-on encryption of large storage deployments can be a tall order.

However, this year, major vendors such as Cisco Systems and RSA have been working together to build systems that deploy encryption across the fabric of enterprise-class storage networks. This combination of tools makes it possible to enact encryption without huge performance costs and to effectively manage encryption keys.

Done correctly, this technology can go a long way toward securing vital company data--and toward preventing the wrong kind of news about your company.

Ultra-Web Connectiveness

Imagine you're in a place where disaster strikes. Luckily, you're OK. You pull out your cell phone so you can call family and friends to let them know you're safe.

Unfortunately, this is the same impulse that everyone else has at that moment. And, at the same time, rescue workers, police and victims needing aid are also trying to use their cell phones, which means the network gets saturated and lots of important calls don't get through.

But there is a way to let people know you are OK without causing disruption to those needing to use cell phone resources. Immediately after the tragic bridge collapse in Minnesota earlier this year, some of the people involved were able to notify all their friends and family about their situation with a single text message that used minimal cell network resources.

These people sent a short note to their Twitter account, and the note was readable by anyone who subscribed to the Twitter feed.

In many cases, the microblogging service Twitter can seem pretty stupid, with its endless lists of people going to delis or waiting in lines at the movies. But this form of constant connection to the people you know has shown it can pay dividends in serious situations--and may very well point to a future where letting everyone know you're OK is just a single phone click away.

Green Technology

To a large degree, managing technology has become more and more about managing energy. For many companies, the cost of running and cooling their IT investments is becoming a huge issue.

And while many companies and individuals want to do the right thing when it comes to the environment, it is the actual cost of not being energy-efficient that is driving a great deal of the interest in green technologies.

Notice the plural--there is no one green technology. Rather, going green is about making improvements in all aspects of IT infrastructure. From PCs and monitors that use less power to data centers that are cooled and managed efficiently to systems that control heating and cooling within office buildings, green technologies are finally beginning to make an impact on how hardware and software are delivered and consumed.

The Semantic Web

It has been nearly 10 years since Tim Berners-Lee first announced his vision of the semantic Web, so it may seem a little strange to refer to it as an emerging technology. But 2007 has clearly been the year that the semantic Web finally began to arrive in practice.

This was the year that many vendors began to offer products to help businesses deploy semantic Web technologies.

We also saw real sites and solutions built using semantic Web technologies--from online video services such as Joost to advanced mapping sites such as GeoNames.

While the semantic Web is still facing some challenges--both from critics who think it will never succeed and from vendors that like the term but don't feel the need to follow the standards--the promise of the technology is too big for it to ultimately fail.

The semantic Web is already making it possible to build applications and sites that understand and link to data across the entire Internet. As more and more new applications are built using these technologies, I expect to see massive changes in how businesses, people and applications connect across the Web.

Low-cost Laptops

Today, you can go out and buy a pretty good laptop for less than $1,000. Cutting-edge tech adopters, meanwhile, can drop a bundle to get a very small but fully functional micro or ultramobile PC.

But it may turn out that the sweet spot for small-form-factor laptops is somewhere between the micro PC and a standard laptop--and that the ideal price point is actually somewhere well south of $500. In fact, since many of the systems that are landing on this sweet spot are designed for children, we'll call this category the "baby bear," meaning the form factor and price are just right.

Leading the charge is the One Laptop Per Child project's XO laptop.

Designed for children in developing nations, the XO would be groundbreaking if the only thing it succeeded in doing was launching the rush to build and provide small, low-cost systems (a rush that has launched products such as the Intel Classmate PC and the Asus Eee PC).

But the XO has done quite a bit more than just provide a $200 laptop. The XO is easily one of the most innovative products of 2007, making great strides in the areas of display technology, power consumption and management, and wireless connectivity and collaboration.

No matter how successful the OLPC may be in deploying XOs in the developing world, the legacy of the XO is already set in stone: Going forward, users and businesses will expect laptops of the future to be able to offer capabilities and features that are at least as good as those found in a $200 laptop designed for children.