Seven Technologies That Will Rock 2011

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So here we are in a new decade, and the technologies that are now available to us continue to engage (and enthrall) in fascinating ways. The rise and collision of several trends—social, mobile, touch computing, geo, cloud—keep spitting out new products and technologies which keep propelling us forward. Below I highlight seven technologies that are ready to tip into the mainstream 2011.

Before I get into my predictions, let’s see how I did last year, when I wrote “Ten Technologies That Will Rock 2010.” Some of my picks were spot on: the Tablet (hello, iPad), Geo (Foursquare, Gowalla, Facebook Places, mobile location-aware search, etc.), Realtime Search (it became an option on Google) and Android (now even bigger than the iPhone). Some are still playing out: HTML5 (it’s made great strides, but isn’t quite here yet), Augmented Reality (lots of cool apps have AR functionality, but for the most part it is still a parlor trick), Mobile Video (FaceTime and streaming video apps pushed it forward), Mobile Transactions (Square and other transaction processing options came onto the scene), and Social CRM (Salesforce pushed Chatter, and tons of social CRM startups pushed their wares, but enterprises are always slow to adopt). And one got pushed to 2011: Chrome OS (we are still waiting).

What’s in store for 2011? Some of these themes will continue to evolve, and some new ones will gain currency. Here are seven technologies poised to rock the new year:

  1. Web Video On Your TV: We’ve already seen many attempts to turn the Internet into a video-delivery pipe to rival cable TV: Google TV, Apple TV, the Boxee Box, Roku, and a slew of “Internet-enabled” TVs.  None of them are quite yet cable killers, but they are seeding the market with simple ways to bring Internet video to your large-screen TV in the living room. The more cable-quality video that becomes available over the Web via streaming services such as Netflix, Vudu, or iTunes, the more that people will turn to Web when they are looking for something to watch. This trend is not about surfing the Web on your TV. Nobody wants to do that. It is about using the Internet as an alternative way to deliver movies and TV shows to your flat-screen TV. Even the cable companies will dip their toes into the Internet delivery waters (or plunge deeper if they already have their toes wet). What looks like a pale competitor to cable today will be a lot more viable in a short, twelve months.
  2. Quora Will Have Its Twitter Moment: Social Q&A site Quora may be the current darling of Silicon Valley, but not a lot of people beyond the insular tech startup world actually use it yet. That will start to change in 2011, which I believe will be the year Quora has its Twitter moment and start to really take off. Quora represents a bigger technology trend, which is the layering of an interest graph on top of people’s social graph. On Quora, you can follow not only people, but topics and questions. It defines the world by your interests, not just the people you may know or admire. This is a powerful concept and is not limited to Quora (both Twitter and Facebook also want to own the interest graph), but Quora is designed from the ground up to expose and help you explore your interests. It is addictive, and as it reaches a critical mass of early users, this will be the year it emerges from its shell much like Twitter did in 2007.
  3. Mobile Social Photo Apps:The end of 2010 witnessed a spate of mobile photo apps including Instagram, PicPlz and Path. They all take advantage of several massive key trends: the growth of iPhone and Android, the ubiquity of decent cell phone cameras, GPS, and existing social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare. Each of these apps is built for mobile first. They let you take a picture, mark your location, and share it with your social network (sometimes public, sometimes private). With Instagram and PicPLz, you can choose a filter to make humdrum pics look more exciting or capture a mood. By building on top of existing social networks like Twitter and Foursquare, they are making popular new ways to use those services. Instead of simply checking in, now you can do a photo checkin (even Foursquare lets you do that now). Already Instagram is one of the most popular photo apps in iTunes. Sharing photos is pretty much a universal impulse, and these apps make it easier and more fun.
  4. Mobile Wallets: If you could use your cell phone as a credit card, would you? Everyone from Apple and Google to Nokia want to make that a reality and tap into the mobile payments market. Both Apple and Google are exploring this opportunity. Google bought mobile payments startup Zetawire to gain experience and the latest Android phone, the Nexus S, comes with an NFC chip—the same kind that is embedded into credit cards and lets you pay by waving it over a wireless reader. The iPhone 5 also may come equipped with an NFC chip, and Apple was sniffing around mobile payments startup BOKU last year for a possible acquisition. It is going to take more than just NFC chips in every phone to make mobile payments a reality, but efforts by the major players this year should begin to move the needle.
  5. Context-Aware Apps: Whether it’s search, mobile, or social apps and services, the most useful apps people will keep coming back to are the ones which help people cut through the increasing clutter of the Internet. Apps that are aware of the context in which they are being used will serve up better filtered information. When you search on your mobile phone, that means you get local results and local offers served up first. If you are on a service like Quora that understands your interest graph, it means that you are only shown topics that you care about, sorted in realtime. If you are on a news site, you will see the most shared links from people in you follow on Twitter or are connected to on Facebook. Music and movie services will similarly surface social recommendations. In a world of information overload, context is king.
  6. Open Places Database: Every mobile app, it seems, taps into the geo capabilities of phones to pinpoint your exact location and show you what is around you. (Incidentally, that is another example of a context-aware app). But there is a lot of duplication going on, with everyone from Google to Facebook to Foursquare creating their own database of places. It would make much more sense if there was an open places database that any company could both pull from and contribute to. While we are not there yet, we are making progress towards a more open places database, or at least a federated one. Factual is providing some of the data for Facebook Places and creating a places database is a major focus for the company; MapQuest (owned by AOL, as is TechCrunch) is adopting OpenStreetMaps (which could very well become the central places database with more resources and development); and Foursquare lets other apps pull from its places database through its API. There are economic reasons why some companies don’t want to participate (controlling the places database makes it easier to serve up local offers), but expect to see this movement pick up steam in 2011.
  7. The Streaming Cloud: As all media moves to the cloud, more and more people will stream their movies and music whenever they want to any device. I’ve already mentioned the forces that will bring Web video streaming to your TV, but those movies and TV shows should also be available on your iPads, Android Tablets, or even mobile phones if you want. Expiring downloads will still make sense for plane trips and other places where the network is spotty, but you will manage your subscriptions and collections in the cloud. Think Netflix streaming applied to all media. If Google or Apple can convince the record companies to come along for the ride, the streaming revolution will hit music as well, with both working on jukebox-in-the-sky services. Why would you want to bother with managing all the download rights for the songs you buy from iTunes between your iPhone, iPad, laptop, and your wife’s computer, when you could just sign in form anywhere and start streaming? Plenty have tried with varying degrees of success and failure (Rhapsody, Rdio, Spotify), but it will take someone with the negotiating muscle of Apple or Google to finally bring streaming music to the masses.

What technologies do you think will make it big this year?

Photo credit: Flickr/ Pandiyan

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