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Where Tech Is Headed

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A new decade defined by fickle tastes and digital freedom.

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It's astonishing that it only took a dot-com collapse and a decade of sobering hindsight for a digital world to hit a stride. Years of misguided ventures, Silicon Valley hubris, and 404 errors irrevocably led to the failure of not only the companies themselves, but the ability to grasp what the Internet even means.

However, after a total reevaluation of direction and feasibility, we're back on path. The web and the products it's influenced may still show their kinks, but given all the missteps, false starts, and utter disasters, the progress and vision in the last 10 years is nothing short of remarkable.

As with every decade, the next 10 years will be a series of ups and downs. But the end result will undoubtedly be for the better.

Recent tech development has shown an eye toward improved usability. More than ever, intuitive displays and streamlined interfaces are regarded as importantly -- if not more so -- as the hardware behind it. Apple (AAPL) has long been a proponent of a welcoming UI and will likely be a leader in that regard. But the strides shown in Microsoft's (MSFT) upcoming Windows Phone 7 Series have displayed a clearer understanding of what sleekness coupled with logical consolidation can accomplish. A handful of hubs -- rather than hundreds of apps -- is a far simpler method of relaying information.

In fact, consolidation will be an inevitability in the next few years. As web apps explode both in number and variety, it will be nearly impossible for average users to visit each site individually during their free time. As seen in the Windows Phone 7 Series and RSS readers, more aggregators will gather up information from multiple sites and display them all in one place. Almost every chat program does this now with AIM (AOL), Google Talk (GOOG), Yahoo Chat (YHOO), etc. Buzz slip-ups aside, Google Profiles will likely expand beyond their Facebook and Twitter links to encompass a complete online profile -- every app, status update, and location tag grouped into one page.

Speaking of geotagging, location updates will continue to rise in popularity. Foursquare -- a location-based social network which just celebrated its first TV spot -- has already inked deals with Bravo (GE), HBO (TWX), Warner Brothers, and the History Channel (DIS). Location-aware services like Yelp and Google Goggles will flourish on mobile phones, and thanks to the popular feature on the Motorola Droid (MOT), turn-by-turn navigation will be a given on more smartphones.

Expect a boom in augmented reality. Wikitude -- which overlays information onto known landmarks using a smartphone camera and display -- merely touches upon what augmented reality could deliver in the coming years. Imagine identifying animals on a nature hike in real time. Imagine diagnosing your child's illness with a screenshot of their throat. Imagine a social network based around virtual graffiti tags that are displayed when you hold a smartphone up to a city block. Just a fraction of what can and will be done.

As data files grow, so will the storage and affordability of solid-state drives -- making load times exponentially faster than with the outdated hard disk. Samsung, Kingston, and OCZ have shown a lot of progress in the field but could easily be usurped by another group. However, as physical media is gradually phased out in favor of the video and audio file, so will the need for a high-capacity hard drive.

While there's little to assume that government initiatives of delivering citywide wi-fi will be any different from any other grandiose promise, there's no denying that wi-fi is more available than ever. And as bandwidth increases, so does the viability of online storage. Google Apps and its upcoming Chrome OS relies heavily on the cloud, and Apple's recent acquisition of the music startup Lala hints at the development of an online music and video library.

But that's assuming record labels and movie studios would ever agree to it.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest detriments to innovation in the last 15 years won't disappear any time soon: Digital Rights Management. It brought down Napster, it crushes BitTorrent trackers, and it will soon ruin Hulu. Jonathan Miller, chief executive of digital media at Fox (NWS), hinted at the possibility of a pay structure being implemented into the free video-streaming service, prompting Hulu's backers to give a closer look at the concept. What was once a beacon of hope for both viewers and networks will be more of the same: feeble attempts to keep viewers from watching video for free. But if Hulu falls, another service will replace it, and until studios realize that, there's always BitTorrent.

If anything, the next 10 years will have an emphasis on digital freedom. The ease to adopt a service and integrate it with another. The lightweight portability of cloud computing and better smartphones. Sleeker and more configurable user interfaces. Immediate access to information and connections to friends two blocks over. The ability to be completely immersed in a digital world of your choosing.

And hopefully, if privacy is a concern, the ability to shut it all off.

See Is Tech Bubble 2.0 Ready to Burst? for more about the future of the tech sector.
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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