Technology to watch in 2002

The temptation to look back upon the year just past with fondness and nostalgia is great. Alas, we have to move forward.
Written by Stephan Somogyi, Contributor
COMMENTARY--The temptation to look back upon the year just past with fondness and nostalgia is great. But I'll resist and look forward.

Without doubt, 2001 was a great year in tech. The list of Good Things That Happened could easily fill this column. However, 2001 wasn't an unqualified success. Plenty of stuff went wrong throughout the year, so regardless of whether one subscribes to the glass-half-full or glass-half-empty school of thought, there's plenty to ponder in the realms of both consumer electronics and personal computing.

MAC OS X was Apple's most significant product release in 2001, but it's still far from finished. I guesstimate the next non-minor-update version of Mac OS X--tentatively numbered with laudable conservatism as 10.2--will ship approximately a year after 10.0 did. While 10.0 was an important release to get out as a baseline for developers, and 10.1 was the first release that didn't feel like a beta, I'm inclined to think that 10.2 will be the most important release of all.

Apple has deferred features and technologies with the excuse that "we have to ship" for quite literally years now. 10.2 needs to be the release that impresses professional and technical users; we don't need more mass-media gushing about superficialities. It's time for substance to enter the discourse about Apple's next-generation OS.

FIREWIRE ROCKS--not that this should be a surprise to anyone who's been reading my columns. While I recently learned that this high-bandwidth peripheral connectivity standard isn't quite as developer friendly as it is user friendly, FireWire--aka IEEE 1394--is still a major improvement over anything else out there, most notably SCSI and USB.

While FireWire really shouldn't be a competitor to USB, many companies have been trying to make the low-speed serial bus something it isn't. FireWire is better for many of today's USB applications--digital cameras leap to mind as a prime example--than is USB. The mantra should be "use the right tools for the job." Leave it to Apple to pick up the ball that Sony (et al) dropped years ago and use FireWire's combination of bandwidth and built-in power supply to great effect.

Having a single cable connect the iPod to its host Mac is a stroke of extreme cleverness, and I fully expect Apple to continue this approach during 2002, albeit with different gadgetry. If nothing else, Apple is once again showing up the rest of the consumer electronics companies, hopefully spurring them to use all of FireWire's 6 lines (Sony's defanged i.Link version of FireWire has only 4; the two missing ones provide power) and make consumers' lives easier.

MEDIA CONSUMPTION will hopefully improve qualitatively during 2002, though it is probably an act of pathological optimism to even contemplate this notion. After all, the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America are doing everything in their considerable power to make media consumption more restrictive for the consumer, under the deeply misguided impression that totalitarian control over media will improve profits.

If these organizations spent a fraction of the time, money, and effort looking for innovative ways of using new technology to everyone's benefit as they do on making our lives difficult, we might actually be able to have access to more media (back catalogs are just rife with profit opportunity, to name but one example). VHS didn't kill movies as the studios thought it would, and in fact, opened vast new revenue streams. Clearly, these organizations have a selective memory, since they remember only the battles where they successfully destroyed something--i.e., the RIAA's successful lobbying effort and subsequent annihilation of DAT as a consumer audio format--rather than the instances where they were overly panicked and made out like bandits, despite themselves.

THE OVERLAP between personal computing and consumer electronics will continue in 2002, and I hope this creates more opportunity for users to customize their consumer electronics devices. The days of the unconfigurable device are hopefully nearing their end, and I think TiVo should be applauded for not creating active countermeasures against modifying licensed devices.

I very much want to see TiVo offer an even more modifiable media platform. The company needs to generate revenue, but it should also offer the opportunity for user extensibility via published, safe, scripting-language-based APIs to more finely tune the users' experience to their own needs. I'm all for having baseline features suffice for over 95 percent of buyers, but I think it would be very cool if there were officially sanctioned ways to extend the built-in interface with custom features. Supporting something like this is only to TiVo's benefit.

GAMING is the final area I'll be keeping an eye on this year. 2002 is going to be a make-or-break year for the latest generation of gaming hardware. Based on preliminary sales figures for this year-end buying season, it looks like Sony's PlayStation 2 maintains a solid lead, but it's far too early to write off Xbox or Game Cube. The games--quality first, then quantity--are what matters, and this coming year's releases will decide which platforms will merely survive and which ones will thrive.

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