2001: The year of shrinking technology

Technology continues to develop at an ever-faster pace, and 2001 provided some landmark achievements - Rupert Goodwins takes a look back
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

A hundred years from now, as a class of surly schoolchildren plug in their Warwick neural interfaces and try to exchange telepathic notes without the Mr Chips Teechabot noticing, here's what they'll be desperately revising for the history test. Do your great-grandchildren a favour, and print this out for the family archives.

Last century we built supersonic airliners and went to the Moon. As we get going on this one, technology is getting smaller and more personal instead of bigger and further away.

Time was when a serious record collection took up a wall of the living room: now, with Creative's Nomad and Apple's iPod, you can pour the lot into a hard disk smaller than a cassette tape. The trend towards digital media in the home became overwhelming this year -- not through any great technology breakthrough but because mass storage and fast processors became so good and so cheap that they could infest new niches. You can have your zillion-channel TV system record your favourite programmes automatically onto disk; shoot an epic movie in pristine digital and edit it in your bedroom over a wireless LAN; or get the latest album delivered in minutes over broadband and email it to your pal in Auckland. None of this is new: what's groundbreaking is that you can do it with high-street gizmos that don't break the bank.

Meanwhile in research labs around the world, some truly amazing technologies are getting ready to fuel whatever comes next. If some of this stuff comes off, 1984 will look like Woodstock. Pervasive technology -- stuff that's all around us, all the time -- is growing like mould in a Petri dish. Hitachi showed off its Mu chip, a tiny wireless device small enough to embed in clothes, money or a fingernail and report back who and where it is. Location services tied to mobile phones broke cover, and GPS got small and cheap enough to build into wristwatches and tags for the children, while ultra-wideband wireless swung into action in the aftermath of 11 September to try and find victims in the rubble. Special forces in Afghanistan found that it's just as good at spotting guerrillas hiding behind walls. Allegedly.

Nano-scale computing gets more intriguing, although it hasn't yet found a practical use. Barely a week went by without IBM, NEC or a host of university research labs announcing something new in carbon, yet more Alice in Wonderland stories from the far shores of quantum computing, or both. Pairs of photons carrying secure information in quantum entanglement, designer molecules executing vastly parallel processing algorithms, even -- in the case of Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop of the University of Queensland -- atoms that go backwards and forwards at the same time, potentially holding and processing information in entirely new ways. Back on slightly firmer ground, Cambridge researchers built a transistor that hooks into standard designs but does its switchy stuff with between one and ten electrons per bit. While there's no shortage of electrons, this sort of work shows that we'll be riding Moore's Law all the way up to the physical buffers in 2015, when one electron will presumably do the work of ten strong men and a dog.

Elsewhere, power is on people's minds. The wind-up phone charger is here at last, while NEC, Sony and Motorola are among the companies promising a big breakthrough in personal fuel cells. These take alcohol and turn it into electricity; a bit like Shane MacGowan but more reliable. We're still a year or so away from being able to buy our mobiles one for the road, but it won't be long before a spoonful of methanol will keep us talking for days. Also look out for big advances in solar cell technology soon, where lots of recent research into advanced silicon and other semiconductors will have exciting effects on quality, efficiency and cost.

Wireless started the year being the great hope of the industry, and it's still in there despite everything. BT activated the first 3G network in the British Isles on the Isle of Man, launched GPRS across the country, and might just have some handsets ready in time for next Christmas. But the most excitement came from wireless networking, although even Sesame Street couldn't tell us exactly what the number 802.11 and the letters A, B, and G were bringing us. Still, we now have affordable 11mbps networking with the promise of 54mbps next year, Bluetooth and WiFi learning to live together, and much more to come. The most promising thing for next year is also burdened with gnomic numbers -- 802.16 is the newly anointed standard for last-mile wireless links to home and business. It promises to go up to over 100mbps, and includes mesh networking to hook people together in the absence of a base station.

Processors, memories, chipsets, graphics and soundcards all got better, faster, cheaper and more luscious, but without any stand-out breakthroughs to make the heart beat faster. On the list of great ideas that are still resting, AI deserves a mention, although late news from HNC Software shows life in an otherwise disappointing field. A computer that can listen to people at a noisy party might not be the final word in machine intelligence, but it will relieve us of yet another tedious social chore -- and since the mobile phones will be drinking all the booze, we can excuse ourselves and slip home to leave them to it.

See ZDNet UK's Christmas & New Year Special for our look at the tech world in 2001, and what's coming up in 2002, plus a shopping guide with reviewers' best buys.

Have your say instantly, and see what others have said. Click on the TalkBack button and go to the ZDNet news forum.

Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom. And read other letters.

Editorial standards