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Back to 2002, Forward to 2003

Last year at about this time, I made a few predictions about what I thought the top stories of 2002 would be (see "Peering Into 2002’s Tea Leaves" in TidBITS-612). Overall, I did pretty well, particularly in saying that the battle over digital content would rage throughout 2002 and that wireless networking would continue its ascendence. Open for argument are whether I was right in saying that 2002 wouldn’t bring much of interest in the PDA world and whether my lukewarm prediction that broadband Internet access might recover in 2002. More interesting is the fact that I think some of last year’s top stories will continue to dominate our attention this year.


The Copyright Wars — The copyright wars continued unabated throughout all of 2002, with the Content Cartel fighting tooth and nail to preserve their existing business models against the reality that, for better or worse, sharing of digital content has become a way of life for a vast number of people. It’s safe to say that copyright and peer-to-peer file sharing will remain in the news throughout 2003. There’s no way the Content Cartel will suddenly convince millions of people to stop sharing files, but it’s equally unlikely that big media companies will admit defeat and start giving away their content online.

And as far as the legal part of the equation goes, I also don’t see major changes being applied to the DMCA and its brethren. There may be a few minor victories, such as happened recently when a jury acquitted the Russian firm Elcomsoft in one of the first cases brought under the anti-circumvention provisions of the DMCA. Also interesting reading were the comments submitted to the Library of Congress in that body’s search for possible classes of works that should be made exempt from DMCA’s prohibition on circumvention of copy-prevention technologies. But one way or another, the world of politics moves slowly.

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It’s a Wireless World — Wireless networking came a long way in 2002, with precipitous price drops, progress on faster standards, and an ever-increasing number of community networks. If anything, the rate of change is going to increase in the wireless world in 2003. Right now, 802.11b is essentially just a liberating replacement for Ethernet cables, but it’s in many ways just the first step.

802.11a and 802.11g are likely to make their appearance in multi-band access points that work with any flavor of 802.11, and as the cost of chipsets comes down, we’ll start seeing wireless network access being built into less common devices. It’s easy to imagine a wireless-enabled MP3 stereo component (we’re not far off with the SliMP3 from Slim Devices), or a wireless-enabled car MP3 player that can download songs from your Mac while you’re parked in the driveway (an engineer friend patched one of these together a while back, but she has serious hardware and software hacking skills). I could also imagine wireless-enabled digital cameras that sport their own Web servers or that can upload or email pictures directly from the camera without the need for a computer (Sanyo claims they’re developing a prototype of something similar). Memory card full while you’re on vacation? Visit a wireless-enabled Internet cafe and off-load all those pictures to your server at home.


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I’m looking to see Apple making some significant moves with regard to wireless in 2003. Although Apple kickstarted the wireless revolution by selling the AirPort Base Station and AirPort cards cheaply at first, Apple’s prices aren’t competitive any more, and apart from an integrated modem and support for AOL, AirPort simply no longer stands out. If Apple were to make the AirPort Base Station support both 802.11a and 802.11g (which itself is backward compatible with today’s 802.11b) simultaneously, and do the same for AirPort cards, the Mac would once again clearly be the preeminent platform for wireless networking. Apple might even benefit from upgrade revenue as existing AirPort users replace their current cards and access points in search of better performance.

Bluetooth will also be taking off in 2003 as a wireless cable replacement, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Apple building it into every Mac. Steve Jobs can’t be happy about the aesthetic mess of cables emanating from the back of every Mac (or when it trails from the bottom of the Power Mac G4 Cube), and Bluetooth support would set Apple on track for eliminating many of those messy cables.

PDAs Evolve? As much as 2002 was a ho-hum year for PDAs, 2003 could be the year that new form factors for digital devices take off. Apple’s success with the iPod, which remains one of the best-selling MP3 players despite its hefty price tag, shows that people are willing to spend money on digital devices that aren’t strictly necessary as long as the overall package is sufficiently attractive.

As far as what we’ll see in 2003, the likely products will approach from two directions – the cell phone and the tablet computer. The cell phone market has slowed as manufacturers have struggled to find compelling ways to differentiate new phones from the previous generation, but there’s no question that anyone developing a portable digital device would do well to consider adding cell phone capabilities, much as the Handspring Treo and the Danger hiptop (marketed by T-Mobile as the Sidekick) have in 2002.

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Tablet PCs made their appearance in 2002, and although the reviews weren’t stellar, success will be a matter of finding the sweet spot. Apple stands a better chance at doing that than any of the PC manufacturers (with the possible exception of Sony), given Apple’s strong design sense, emphasis on digital media, and customer base that’s willing to pay more for quality hardware. The trick, I think, is that a tablet Mac must not attempt to compete with an iBook, but should be focused on playing digital media – DVD movies and MP3 music – and Web browsing (via AirPort, of course). That’s not to say it can’t have a full version of Mac OS X under the hood, with a version of the Finder that’s appropriate to whatever controller devices are available. At that point, the addition of a keyboard and trackpad via Bluetooth turns it into a perfectly useful portable computer for the relatively simple tasks most of us perform while traveling; but, the device would emphasize sitting on the couch browsing the Web while listening to MP3s over being a no-compromises laptop like the Titanium PowerBook G4.

Will some sort of Apple PDA really appear in 2003, whether it’s on the cell phone or the tablet end of the spectrum? I have no inside knowledge, but Apple is the sort of company that can grow only through constant innovation, and the iPod has proven that the company can extend its efforts to digital media devices successfully. And of course, rumors of Apple developing a PDA have been swirling since the demise of the Newton, so it could be just collective wishful thinking.

Extreme LuCiDity — Lastly, although I’m not sure it’s going to be in the news all that much in 2003, look for LCD displays to be dropping significantly in price as the year goes on. That’s not terribly interesting in itself – all technology gets cheaper – but in the case of LCD displays, I’m fascinated by some of the possibilities a cheap display presents. I started down this line of thinking a few months back when my old NEC 3FGe 15-inch utility monitor died. I didn’t want to pay much for a new monitor, and since it’s the sort of thing I use on my PCs every few months, or on servers when remote control isn’t sufficient, I decided that a svelte LCD monitor would be ideal. Thanks to dealmac, I was shocked (and gratified) to find a 14-inch LCD monitor for $150. The display quality stinks for normal use, but it’s perfect for a few hours of use every couple of weeks.

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The LCD display was a necessary aspect of enabling the creation of laptop computers that let us escape the tyranny of the desk, and we may also start to see people exploiting the size and flexibility of LCDs in other ways. The concept of hanging a monitor on the wall to save desk space or enable a standing workstation is obvious, but you can go further.

With the cost dropping so low, you don’t have to be Bill Gates to buy an LCD monitor and hang it on your wall as art. Photo slide shows, screensaver patterns, iTunes visualizer displays, or even SereneScreen’s Marine Aquarium (since I never had the guts to venture beyond freshwater tropical fish) would all be welcome on my walls. I love the concept of the Ceiva digital picture frame, but it’s small, expensive, and requires a monthly service. Putting an older Mac to work running a digital picture certainly wouldn’t be cheaper than a Ceiva, but the picture could be much larger and using .Mac shared slideshows beats using Ceiva’s mind-boggingly awful Web interface.



Of course, there are far more exciting advances in display technology coming down the pike, such as massive LCD displays like Samsung’s recently announced 54 inch (137 cm) display, organic LED displays that can be laid down using inkjet printing technology, LCD paint that could turn a wall or a piece of clothing into a display, and electronic paper that could provide the tactile sensation of reading a book along with the flexibility of being a digital display device. Will any of these technologies make a difference in our lives in 2003? Probably not, but hopefully the early products using them will give us something more to look forward to in 2004.

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