On the tech radar

Dan Farber: Gartner analysts have applied their collective expertise to tracking the evolution of IT during the next decade, focusing on some of the more disruptive technologies that will impact enterprises.

COMMENTARY -- Predicting the future directions of technology is not exactly a science. It's easier than predicting earthquakes or election results, but often sets unrealistic expectations. In fact, most technology predictions are far too optimistic, with one major exception: the impact of the Internet in the last 10 years. Of course, the first 25 years of the Internet (ARPANET) were below the radar.

Gartner analysts have applied their collective expertise to tracking the evolution of IT during the next decade, focusing on some of the more disruptive technologies that will impact enterprises.

By 2015, Gartner predicts that the average city dweller in the U.S. and Europe will use at least six wireless networking technologies in a day. That's to be expected, and of course no one will have to know that they are traversing various network topologies. One of those technologies is mesh networking, which can self-discover adjacent nodes and collectively provide capable wireless coverage, especially in more rural areas. The implication is that within the next 10 years always-on connectivity at high speeds will be a reality throughout the planet and beyond for those traveling in space.

Wireless sensor networks based on RFID or other technologies that capture data -- such as location, movement, temperature, molecular data or auditory signatures -- will improve safety and support better decision-making and convenience, Gartner said. Losing your car keys, for example, will become a thing of the past.

Of course, with all the data come the problems of collection and analysis, as well as with privacy in a world in which information is the major form of currency. "Despite the richness of the data available, organizations will suffer from an 'analysis gap' -- that is, a lag in the ability to manage the mass of information, figure out which portions contain the most value, and apply the appropriate analytical techniques to them. Only a portion of the information's potential will be mined to provide an improved understanding of the customer, and only a much smaller portion of that will be translated into actions that directly affect the customer relationship," Gartner analysts wrote in a report entitled "Technology Radar Screen 2005-2014." During the next 10 years, improvements in several technologies -- ranging from semantic and metadata standards to grid computing for compute resources and predictive modeling -- will help close the analysis gap.

Privacy will continue to be a volatile issue in the next decade, but the die has been cast. Rather than trying to prevent data collection, the focus is on controlling access to data and creating a balance between privacy and personalization. Gartner predicts that by 2008, intermediary services that manage the dissemination of personal data, purchase authorizations, payments and other transaction processes will develop in the United States and Europe.

Gartner also predicts that user interfaces will be highly optimized for different styles of user interaction. In other words, users will have many devices to choose from based on their individual preferences and needs, and processing and storage will be invisible to users, whether in the cloud or more local.

Looking out 10 years, Gartner predicts that more than 30 percent of mobile workers will combine the virtual and real world using augmented reality and wearable environments such as head-up displays. Rather than accessing a separate device to glean data relevant to a specific task, relevant information-such as text, graphics and video-will be superimposed on a head-up display. For example, people performing equipment repair and medical procedures could benefit from more integrated data displays and advanced interfaces, such as voice and gesture. Advances in screen technology, including low-cost flexible screens and low-power consumption displays, will enable more rich media experiences on smaller devices.

Given current trends, Gartner's prediction that by 2010, 70 percent of the population in developed nations will spend 10 times longer per day interacting with people in the digital world than in the physical one is not surprising. Coincident with that trend, collaboration tools for enabling electronic interaction -- ranging from Wikis to sites that can identify and provide specific expertise to a group -- will take on more prominence, as will tools for monitoring and managing collaborative environments. Gartner predicts that collaboration tools for collective content creation will be available in mainstream products, resulting in more distributed decision-making.

In addition, the infrastructure for e-commerce will be transformed over the next 10 years with the availability of improved micropayment schemes and services. According to Gartner, services such as parking, taxi dispatching, security or other more granular location-based tasks will be available within micropayment environments.

All of the Gartner predictions fall within the range of reasonable and inevitable transformations that will gradually evolve into the mainstream. What is less predictable is the social impact of embedded computing, in which the entire environment of everyday objects is invested with some form of computing power and possibly intelligence. It's also likely that in the next decade computers will get much smarter, not just faster and cheaper, and understand more about content in context. PalmPilot inventor Jeff Hawkins has a book, On Intelligence, that proposes a way to create smart machines by applying principles from artificial intelligence and neural network studies. It will take a breakthrough in developing machine intelligence modeled on human brain function to make another great technology leap forward.

You can write to me at dan.farber@cnet.com. If you're looking for my commentaries on other IT topics, check out my blog Between the Lines.


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