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Shapes of things to come

Predicting which technologies will make waves in the coming year is no easy feat. Still, we throw caution to the wind and try it anyway.

As the new year gets under way, there’s more to look forward to than breaking resolutions and wondering where the next COMDEX conference will be. As we’ve come to expect in the dizzying, fast-paced world of tech, the future is fast approaching. Who knew that last year would see the introduction of a canine bark translator, or a tsunami of USB storage devices? Every year, it seems, has its surprises.

But some technology doesn’t just appear. Rather, it gets developed in labs for a few years and then is launched upon us lucky computer users. This year should be no different as we see the rise of certain sectors of technology and its accompanying products. The difference with 2004 is that, as we head out of the economic malaise, some technologies that were in development have suddenly become interesting again, especially because they’re closer to being a reality. Here’s a glimpse of some not-so-new technology that’s re-emerging.

Grid computing

For anyone who expected a roundup of futuristic gadgets, grid computing has to be something of a disappointment. Computers and other devices networked together to expand their computing power? Yawnsville.

But don’t be so hasty. Begun as an open-source academic movement, the technology works in a fashion similar to the electric grid. Although most of the East Coast can attest to such power grids being far from failsafe, it’s still a given that sharing resources like electricity, and now computing, can make a large amount of people happy when it works.

The reason this technology is worth investment is that computers spend much of their time sitting idle, just yearning for data to process. If grid computing became widely used, the idle time of servers and databases could be utilized for a wealth of tasks. That means more power would be available, and far less money would have to be spent to get it.

Also called utility computing, grid computing has been around for years, and all the major tech players have toyed with it, but this looks like its year to shine. Oracle is making the biggest leap into the technology, with a bevy of related software products.

Paul Shread, editor of online magazine GridComputingPlanet, notes that grid computing is very big right now for R & D, engineering firms, and anyone doing financial risk modeling. He says, “Essentially, it’s used for applications that can be broken down into many parallel computations that can be run simultaneously.”

This year, look for grid computing to make a bigger impact on other kinds of companies, thanks to Oracle’s big push. For users, it could finally be the year of the grid.

Throughput computing

Like grid computing, throughput has been around for a number of years, but is now poised for more widespread attention. Developed by Sun Microsystems, the technology aims to change the way that computers work by tinkering with processor performance.

In the past, processors have been measured by the amount of time it took to execute a task. Getting better performance was just a question of shortening that amount of time.

No longer, says Harlan McGhan, strategic marketing manager for Sun’s UltraSPARC division. He notes that Sun is trying to change the rules by finding a way to increase the amount of work that can be done in a given amount of time, rather than simply shearing minutes off the processor speed.

This new way of thinking about the problem will steer developers in a new direction, he says. “Everyone has been throwing money at processor speed for a long time,” he says, “And yet we get progressively smaller improvements in terms of being able to increase speed and performance.”

With throughput computing on the horizon, in the near future processors may be able to perform better, and not just faster. “This will have a dramatic impact on what you’re able to accomplish,” McGhan says.

Bluetooth

Wait a minute, you might be saying. Didn’t we hear all about Bluetooth during the dot-com days, when it was hyped as the next really big thing? Well, actually, yes. But this time, it’s worth the press.

Bluetooth allows devices to interact with each other wirelessly, and it, too, has been out for a number of years. Unfortunately, it arrived on the scene at a time when the technology was cool, the market was hot, but the devices just weren’t ready.

Howard Dulany, IBM’s PCD division worldwide manager of mobile market development, says, “The interoperability wasn’t there, but it’s starting to be resolved now.”

Companies are taking notice. Coca-Cola just rolled out a program that provides Bluetooth phones for its salespeople. With the proliferation of wireless hotspots, the need for a technology that allows wireless devices to play nice with each other will be important in the coming year.

The technology may now be ready for primetime because of consumer attitudes as well. Wireless has never been as embraced as it is now, when even Joe Homebody is buying a wireless network and setting it up in his den. Dulany says, “Wireless is going mainstream, and that’s a key trend.”

For aficionados of Bluetooth, that trend may spark more affection for the technology, especially if it’s embraced by corporate America and developers like IBM. “The security issues with wireless are being resolved, and the number of wireless hotspots are growing,” says Dulany. “So, it’s a good area of focus for us, and Bluetooth is part of that.”

Sure, there are other emerging technologies that may appear in 2004, probably having to do with notebook battery life or game logic implementation. But it’s always nice to revisit technologies that showed potential and discover that those yesteryear promises may become today’s reality. For the year ahead in emerging technology, the glance backward proves to be a rewarding one.

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