Peering Into 2002’s Tea Leaves
This time of year it’s traditional either to look back at the events of the past year or to offer predictions for the upcoming one. 2001 was a bit grim in many ways, so let’s instead look forward to a few of the top stories for 2002, remembering at all times the lessons we learned in the past.
Battle Over Digital Content — As Dan Kohn’s essays in TidBITS over the last few months have shown, we’re at a point in history where views surrounding traditional concepts of intellectual property are changing. Millions of people share music in MP3 format every day, and video is becoming increasingly common on the peer-to-peer file sharing services that have grown in popularity after the recording industry managed to hamstring Napster. This genie will never be stuffed back into the bottle, despite consumer-angering moves like copy-protected CDs that can’t be played back in computer CD drives.
I don’t give the music downloading services started by the record labels – PressPlay and MusicNet – much of a chance. Few people know or care which labels (and thus which of the services) distribute their favorite artists, the usage limitations are significant, and did I mention that neither one works on the Macintosh or Unix?
Movies and books will increasingly start to pop up on the file sharing services in 2002. Neither is likely to be as significant a concern as music, since movies and books are produced and consumed differently than music. I haven’t worked out of all of the variables, but consider the fact that you can listen to a song hundreds of times in a year, but few people over the age of 10 would watch the same movie more than a few times in a year. And how many adults re-read books? In addition, movies can require a vast number of people and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make, whereas a single author can produce a camera-ready book in only a few months.
I don’t have any answers here, but if you’re either a creator or consumer of digital content, pay close attention in 2002, because things will be changing and it’s better to change with the times than stick your head in the sand.
Go Fast, Go Wireless — It’s ironic that the most prominent magazine of geek chic – Wired – is in danger of having its name end up sounding outdated. Wires aren’t going away, but it’s clear that 2002 will be another step on the ascendence of 802.11 wireless networking.
More people will be jumping on the wireless home networking bandwagon in 2002 as they replace older Macs with current ones that can accept Apple’s AirPort cards. PC laptops are finally starting to include antennas so they can compete with Macs in range and elegance. Apple’s recent addition of support for sharing an AOL Internet connection via the AirPort Base Station will also help, given the many millions of AOL users.
Most people believe that 802.11b wireless networks are limited to a 50 meter range, but in fact that limit is related only to antenna size and power. Thanks to this flexibility, long-range wireless networking will become much more common in 2002. Free metropolitan area wireless networks are leading the charge in numerous communities around the world. Also coming soon will be EarthLink founder Sky Dayton’s new service, Boingo, which will provide wireless Internet access in over 750 locations in the U.S. by overlaying existing local wireless networks with a single access and billing system. And if you want to wing it on your own, check out WiFinder.com for a map of wireless access points around the United States.
Also look for penetration of faster variants on the 802.11 standard, including 802.11a and the recently approved 802.11g. 802.11a promises data rates up to 54 Mbps, but uses radio frequencies between 5 GHz and 6 GHz, so it’s not compatible with current 802.11b hardware. 802.11g also promises data rates up to 54 Mbps over relatively short distances but stays in the 2.4 GHz frequency band for compatibility.
Wireless network security is likely to remain an issue, given that several high-profile cracks last year made it clear that intercepting wireless traffic wasn’t difficult. Much work is being done to secure wireless networks – I expect to see solutions start appearing in 2002, although older hardware may not be able to take advantage of these advances, leaving some networks open to eavesdropping.
TidBITS will cover the highlights of the wireless networking space, but if you’re really interested in the topic, be sure to check out our friend Glenn Fleishman’s 802.11b Networking News site.
Fall and Rise of Broadband — Some of the biggest stories of 2001 were the troubles of major broadband ISPs, first the large DSL providers and then one of the most prominent cable providers, [email protected] Also caught in the net was Metricom’s wireless Ricochet service, along with numerous other ISPs that suffered when a larger upstream ISP went under.
And yet, it’s clear from the angst that fills the email of those affected that the loss of broadband Internet access is felt deeply. Once you’ve experienced having the Internet available instantly without dialing and at generally good data rates, it’s hard to go back to modem access. It’s difficult to say if broadband will recover fully in 2002, but if the companies still providing it can’t figure out a way to make it profitable given the significant interest shown by customers, there’s something wrong, especially given the amount of infrastructure already in place.
Perhaps broadband companies could succeed in 2002 by implementing more sensible pricing and eliminating unnecessary restrictions on the number of machines and use of servers. The first restriction is so easily circumvented with a gateway it isn’t funny, and the second shows a lack of understanding of the Internet. ISPs sell bandwidth, nothing more, and it makes more sense to charge for bandwidth used than to make arbitrary distinctions about the number of machines or the type of programs running. Neither approach is likely to be as popular as flat-rate pricing, but that’s proven problematic, and I’ll bet those missing high-speed connections would be happy to get them back under terms that are clear about the costs of the system.
PDAs Stay Put — I really wanted to say that we’ll see something stunning from the PDA world in 2002, but frankly, I just can’t see much of interest happening, which is news in itself. Some new handhelds like the Handspring Treo will ship, and they’ll be smaller, cheaper, and include a few more functions. But the PDA industry has a number of problems that add up to 2002 being a year of recovery and stabilization.
I’m not sure people want much more from a PDA than they can get now. That was one main reason Palm succeeded where Apple’s Newton and others failed previously – the original PalmPilot didn’t attempt to do everything. The various PocketPC devices offer more functionality, but from what I’ve seen, it’s primarily for demonstration purposes ("Look, you can even watch videos!")
Form factor also limits where PDAs can go. There’s not much room to change the PDA form factor while maintaining screen size and still fitting it in a pocket. Plus, the traditional large-screen form factor makes for an uncomfortable match when mimicking devices with different form factors, such as thin cell phones or diminutive RAM-based MP3 players. Innovative engineering, such as that which produced the folding PDA keyboard, could overcome some of these problems, but great industrial design doesn’t happen every day.
Finally, the major PDA hardware players – Palm, Handspring, Sony, Compaq, HP – fall into two categories: relatively small and unprofitable companies without strong capitalization, or large companies that focus primarily on other products. Designing and manufacturing new hardware is risky for Palm and Handspring, given the costs of ramping up production lines and holding inventory, and although the larger companies have less exposure to financial problems, PDAs simply aren’t a significant part of their product mix. Add it all up, and you get more of the same PDAs to which we’ve become accustomed.
Jokers Wild — I’m sure I’ve failed to anticipate some of the major stories that will be coming up in 2002, and I hope that Apple will be a major force in surprising me. Not all of Apple’s attempts to change the face of computing succeed – as we’ve seen most recently with the Cube – but no other company tries as hard to push the envelope of what’s technically possible with products that elegantly meld technology into our lives.