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Futurama!

Gadgets have come a long way since the days of clunky personal organizers that had about as much memory as high-powered calculator.

Think of a futuristic gadget. Maybe what you’ve got in mind is a combination of remote control, mobile phone, gaming device, and MP3 player, with the whole shebang Bluetooth-enabled. Your next step? Sit back and wait, because sooner or later, it’ll be coming to a store near you.

Gadgets have come a long way since the days of clunky personal organizers that had about as much memory as high-powered calculator. Now, thanks to lower costs for processing power and more flexible batteries, the line of gadgets can seem almost endless. At the last Consumer Electronics Show, booth after booth displayed nothing but a profusion of small, silvery devices stacked atop each other like they were in a bargain bin. Yes, friend, the era of gadgets is upon us.

But, some say, it’s nothing compared to what’s ahead. As chip prices sink and battery life lengthens, devices will become more ubiquitous. They’ll also be able to do more than in the past–those days of juggling four different electronic devices could just become an amusing memory, like using carbon paper and typewriters. Although some converged device types have found lackluster sales (like the combination phone and PDA that makes users look vaguely like Maxwell Smart), gadget developers are getting smarter about what people really want. And, in the process, everybody wins.

Listen up

The fastest growing device type in the near future will be MP3 players, say many analysts, and manufacturers agree. Apple’s iPod may dominate the market right now, but within the next year, it’ll have a slew of challengers, says IDC analyst Roger Kay. “This is a market that’s going to get hot,” he says. “It’s already full of competitors, but you’re going to see a lot of attention in the MP3 space. Consumers should be happy about that.”

Kay predicts that Apple will feel some heat from two companies in particular: Sony and Digital Networks, maker of the Rio player. Both companies plan to introduce new digital music players in the coming months, which has led Apple to slash the iPod’s price tag by nearly 25 percent already in preparation for the musical onslaught.

No matter which companies are at the top of the market, though, it’s clear that digital music in particular is poised to boom. Michael Bull, a lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, notes that the coming deluge of digital music devices and delivery systems is an indication of a cultural shift. Bull has extensively studied the social effects of the Walkman, and is now focusing his research on iPods. He says that the adoption of MP3 players has changed how people consume music, and that will have ramifications for the future.

“Many users feel that the iPod has allowed them to rediscover their zest for music,” he says. “These are people ranging in age from their early 30s to their late 50s, and they all had very similar responses in that way.”

He adds that people often define significant parts of themselves through music. Some might have believed that putting a lifetime worth of music into digital format and throwing it on shuffle would inspire nostalgia, and many times it does. But there’s more to it than that.

Bull says: “Being able to revisit old music has inspired them to buy new music as well, and to consider exploring genres that they didn’t before. Basically, it’s given them a resurgent taste for music that they might have lost.”

Instant gratification

Another trend that will be hitting more gadgets in the future is instant messaging (IM), that electronic shorthand that was once the domain of kids and early adopters, but has since become standard practice at many companies. As the corporate world becomes more dependent on messaging, its use in gadgets is a natural transition.

Maxime Seguineau, CEO of enterprise IM system developer Antepo, notes that instant messaging will make a big impact in how gadgets are used in the coming years, saying, “The wireless handheld has graduated from gadget to necessity for many organizations, evident by widespread BlackBerry use. The addition of instant messaging and presence functionality makes the BlackBerry environment truly real-time, with dial tone-like availability.”

Companies are rushing to make sure their devices have IM capability to keep up with high consumer and corporate demand. Already, Motorola whipped up IMfree, which allows AOL IM users to send and receive messages from anywhere within 150 feet of an active network. Microsoft has also noted that it plans to release a product that will let users IM from the big three IM purveyors: Yahoo, AOL, and the company’s own messaging system.

Unlike the coming MP3 revolution, though, IM products may be ubiquitous a bit further in the future, rather than the coming months. Competing standards have stalled some products, and getting the three IM chiefs to agree fully on integration is a trick that will take some time.

Living in futurama

So, with digital music and instant messaging as the next big waves to hit the gadget seas, you might be wondering: Yeah, but what about the odd stuff? Well, have no fear, that’s coming as well. Just as with last year’s dog bark analyzer, there’s already an indication of where the gadget market is headed in terms of weirder items

The most prevalent trend is to attach cameras to a bevy of devices. Philips has already come out with a keychain camera that’s exactly what it sounds like. The company isn’t the only one either; it faces serious competition in the, um, keychain camera space from the likes of Veo, Aiptek, and Mustek.

And, of course, the converged devices will always be there, littering your desk like a pile of papers used to. It’s a gadget-driven world, says IDC’s Kay, and it’s only going to get more packed with buttons, beeps, and clicks. “The consumer electronics space is incredible,” he says. “There’s no end in sight to the possibilities for tomorrow’s gadgets.”

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