High Tech Futures: Seven Predictions for 2001

What's hot and what's not for 2001? CNET editor Steve Fox gazes into the crystal ball and gives us his two cents worth.

It's prediction time here at the CNET Insider, a thoroughly fitting activity for the new year, not to mention the new millennium. Just don't expect any advice about the Nasdaq or the outcome of the Microsoft case. I've read countless analyses, talked to experts, even consulted with my cat Caldonia (who's usually pretty shrewd about such matters). Turns out nobody really knows what will happen. So get your own dartboard; you'll do just as well as the next joe. The rest of the predictions here, however, are certified, bona fide, and verified. In fact, they're guaranteed to be accurate to a reasonable degree. Except, of course, where they simply turn out to be wrong.

One prediction I'm sure of, however: Starting tomorrow, I'm taking a break from writing the CNET Insider. Over the last year or so, this column has afforded me a forum to grouse, pontificate, joke around, and offer opinions in public. I thank all of you for reading and for offering your feedback. But with last year's addition of ZDNet to the CNET fold, my workload here has taken on a life of its own, with little time left for crafting a regular column. So starting January 15, the Insider will be penned by Robert Luhn, CNET's executive editor for hardware and software. I'll let Robert introduce himself then, but suffice it to say you're in good hands. Without further ado, on to the predictions.

Pocket PC catches up: Never bet against a Microsoft operating system. Though the Palm OS is lovely and easy to use, and the powers that be have shrewdly opened up the technology to aggressive clone makers such as Handspring (thus avoiding the Apple error), Pocket PC is coming on strong. Microsoft's latest version of its portable operating system may lack a certain elegance. But it packs so much power and sheer functionality (MP3, anyone?), plus superior compatibility with desktop apps, that customers will be seduced. Right now, Pocket PC's market share is slight. By year's end, Palm and Pocket PC will be getting equal ink on consumer shopping lists.

ASP shakeout: Application service providers, sites that remotely host both packaged and customized business applications "in a one-to-many model to allow for economies of scale" are all the rage. The model is persuasive, giving companies access to applications such as sales-force automation, supply chain management, or payroll services that they couldn't (or shouldn't have to) set up on their own. Unfortunately, everyone and her second cousin is touting a new ASP, with more than 1,000 currently doing business, according to IDC. Sorry, but supply has just exceeded demand. The year 2001 will be for ASPs what 2000 was for dot-coms: a test of endurance. Most ASPs won't shut down; they'll simply be bought by larger entities--portals, major software vendors, and the like--and offered as services within the parent companies' portfolios.

Viruses from within: Last year, we saw how viruses exploited weaknesses in Microsoft Outlook, with Melissa, I Love You, and so on. Imagine how much worse matters could be if the virus came built into an application or operating system. It could happen this year. Last October, someone hacked Microsoft's corporate network and got hold of some of the company's source code. Now picture this scenario: A hacker with access to a software vendor's network could modify source code (with viruses, back doors, or the like built in), secretly reintroduce the jiggered code to that company's servers, and wait for the software to be distributed. Maybe Microsoft--which has become increasingly vigilant after its recent close encounter--won't fall prey to this skullduggery. But another company might. I'm betting this will be a big story in 2001.

The wireless Web fizzles: Last year, I argued that cell phones make lousy Web browsers. They still do. Yet manufacturers are pushing WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) phones that let you surf the Net on a postage-stamp-sized screen. Phooey. Next year, cell phones will offer plenty of WAP browsers, but few consumers will pony up extra cash for Net-ready service. If the pricing doesn't change fast (from expensive to very, very cheap), the wireless Web will unravel.

Bluetooth devices proliferate: Even as WAP struggles, another protocol, Bluetooth (designed for wirelessly connecting devices up to 30 feet away), will surge. Bluetooth devices--including phones, headsets, and handhelds--will show up in numbers this year. These gizmos will allow us to network on the fly, use our phones as modems for other devices, sync our calendars remotely, and maybe even buy sodas from a Bluetooth-enabled vending machine without any cash in our pockets (OK, that's more like 2004). It's fashionable to dismiss Bluetooth as another overhyped technology, but I say that when people see Bluetooth in action, they're gonna want it, too. Consider 2001 a warm-up; 2002 will be the real deal for consumers.

Cell phone health worries: Big-ticket lawsuits against cell phone companies will dominate the news this year, despite the publication of two recent studies suggesting that the phones don't cause cancer. Already a cluster of claims, brought by brain tumor victims, is queued up for 2001. These complex medical cases can run for years (as big tobacco can attest). But while the lawyers duke it out, the phone folks are likely to take quick action. By the end of this year, expect all new cell phones to bear a strongly worded warning sticker, something like, "This phone might be bad for you. Then again, it might not."

Biometrics bonanza: At Comdex this November, biometrics was all the buzz, with thumbprint verification, retinal scanners, and voice ID solutions cluttering the floor. This activity might be misleading, driven more by technological advances than by customer demand. But security fears top the corporate worry list this year. By July, thumbprint ID hardware and software will be standard on many notebook vendors' corporate lines.

Steve Fox, Editor-in-Chief, CNET Online