Where Are We Going?
The (Near) Future of Information Technology
by Donna Justice
'Tis the season to make predictions, and the information technology experts are making plenty. We have compiled the following predictions from a variety of print and Web sources. Some of the categories emphasize new technologies; others, new paradigms for conducting business, managing our households, and entertaining ourselves. All promise to transform our lives and work.
- Faster, (nearly) ubiquitous Internet connections. By 2004, Gartner Group (a leading industry advisor) predicts 32 percent of households will have access to "broadband" connections (e.g., through DSL, cable modems, wireless networks). Today, streaming video (uninterrupted, television-quality "reception") and seamless video conferencing are out of reach because connections are too slow and the commercial Internet too clogged. At the University, Internet 2 promises to support work we can't easily do on the commercial Internet. For more information on Internet 2 see http://www.internet2.edu/. Other alternate, commercial broadband networks are in development.
- Connectivity/assistance devices. These will be very similar to a combination cellular phone/Personal Digital Assistant (e.g., Palm Pilot). Compact and portable, they will store all of your vital (and not so vital) information -- email and voice messages, electronic business cards, reports in progress, grocery list, calendar -- and offer the ability to download and upload new items at will. A computing project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will link this type of device to computers in your home and car and to a global satellite network.
- E-Services. Just as we will come to rely on e-commerce for more and more of our purchases, we will come to depend on "24/7" (hours a day/days a week) online support for all types of services, from banking to medical diagnoses to computer repair.
- Online classes/distance learning on the rise. As the use of the Internet and the demand for continuing education continue to grow, more people will seek at least part of their education online. Competition from the private sector and the decreasing availability of physical space to accommodate large numbers of public university students will also increase online course offerings. Business has already replaced much of the traditional off-site employee training with online alternatives that save corporations untold millions.
Source: National Center for Educational Statistics, December 1999, "Distance Education at Postsecondary Education Institutions: 1997-98."
- Percentage of post-secondary educational institutions that offered some form of distance education in 1997-98:
|Public 2-Year: 62%||Private 2-Year: 5%|
|Public 4-Year: 78%||Private 4-Year: 19%|
- Of those who did not offer distance education, percentage that planned to in next three years:
|Public 2-Year: 20%||Private 2-Year: 20%|
|Public 4-Year: 12%||Private 4-Year: 22%|
- Digital publications. Print will be dead or at least on its deathbed by the end of the decade, if the majority of the experts have it right. This is not to say leather and paper will disappear, but imagine a digital format that combines an electronic medium that feels and functions like paper, is easy to read, and connected via satellite (or other wireless technology) to an unlimited number of publications available for download, anytime, anywhere. We're closer to this paradigm than you may think.
We know who you are
- Biometric Authentication and smart card proliferation. A biometric security device analyzes physical characteristics, such as voice, fingerprints, and handwriting, to prove who you are. Some experts predict that laptop touchpads will be equipped with fingerprint authentication in the next few years. American Express's new "Blue" card already uses a chip instead of a magnetic strip to store the card holder's personal information. Soon, many of us will load all kinds of personal information onto smart cards that could enable us to transmit that information to another person's card simply by shaking hands, using our natural electrical impulses to transfer the data. No need to tote around a stack of business cards; just press the palm.
- Voice recognition. We will interact with our computers by talking to them, primarily for start-up and general navigation at first. Hand-held voice-to-text devices will be fully developed for the average person to use in tandem with their computer, PDAs, cell phones, etc. Complex programming and design, however, will still be done via keyboard, mouse, and tablets for many years to come.
Okay, so these are just predictions. Anyone familiar with the history of predictions know that most are never realized, but it sure is fun to think about what the future might hold. At the very least, we hope this list stimulated your imagination.
- Flat panel monitors or partition-mounted 30-inch work views are universal in corporate offices and in most stores (especially large ones).
- Flexible ultra thin displays that are affordable and could be carried or hung on walls easily.
- Minuscule computer chips which exist everywhere and allow absolute surveillance, data transmission, even "air-typing." No kidding. For less than $100, you can now buy a Virtual Keyboard system that lets you glue tiny chips onto your fingernails and you can type in midair. The chips contain sensors that transmit your fingers' location and movement through radio waves to a receiver that plugs into your computer. See http://www-bsac.eecs.berkeley.edu/ for details.
Faust Gorham and Heather Thompson contributed to this article.