2006: A Fun Year for Geeks

A lot of cool stuff happened in 2005.

My favourite device, the iPod,
literally took over the world and legitimized the internet as a
marketplace for digital media sales.

The next generation of gaming
consoles has started to appear.

The traditional phone network began its
decline.

Yep, for geeks like me who enjoy technology that keeps things moving, 2005 was a banner year. 2006 promises to be even better.

As Christmas looms we learn just how prevalent the iPod has become in society: it’s the single most sought-after gift, more so even than cell phones.

Consider, too, that the iPod is a proprietary device, not a product category. This fact alone promises that whatever technology happens in 2006, it’s going to have to play nice with the iPod.

Then there’s the XBox 360, which marks a new era in gaming, one that seeks to converge video games with other forms of home entertainment.

Microsoft’s XBox 360 is as much a home stereo component as a video game console. It features high definition video capabilities, true Dolby 5.1 surround sound, an awesome DVD playback system and a sweet little universal remote control.

And, yes, it plays nice with the iPod (presumably against Apple’s best interests).

Finally, 2005 marked the year of cheap quality telephony. Every member of my British Columbia family rejoiced in the fact they were able to kick the customer-service-challenged Telus out of their homes by adopting the popular internet telephone service provider, Vonage. And, personally, I’m happy to now be able to afford to call my mom in Macau using Skype.

The bottom line: if you have a high speed internet connection, you can call anybody anywhere for next-to-nothing. The lumbering giants that are our traditional telephone companies are having a hard time waking up to this fact.

Next year we’ll see all these trends progress, some more quickly than others.
The biggest advance will come in internet telephony, which is set to explode in 2006.

More people will abandon the traditional telephone and cell phone networks in pursuit of super-cheap — even free — long distance calling.

The major problem with internet telephony to date has been its dependence on convolute technical interface requirements — it’s just hard to use. Skype requires endless tweaking of a PC’s sound settings; and Vonage has limited coverage, is a bit tough to order, and depends to a certain extent on a customer’s technical know-how.

Skype’s CEO has promised everyone free phone calls. This will become a reality to a significant number of people in 2006 as somebody (probably Vonage) stabilizes the technology and offers a range of easy-to use products that are ubiquitous in the retail marketplace.

The next movement that may come to flower in 2006 after years of endless promises from the industry is convergence. We’ll see more devices, good and bad, enter the living room that promise to marry traditional computer technology with entertainment devices.

There are still significant hurdles that may hold things back here. The primary one is a clear lack of standards in the industry’s approach to this generation of technological endeavour.

Consider the fact that they can’t even agree on a disc format for the next generation of DVD, a key aspect of progression, and the challenge becomes clear. Digital Rights Management, or DRM, will be another problem area, as there are any number of competing methods and technologies here.

Apple currently has a stranglehold on consumer-oriented DRM due to its strong music sales through iTunes and massive sales of the iPod. The problem with this is that they won’t license their DRM to anyone else. So as long as we’re buying music and videos online from Apple, we’re stuck to their technology.

This strategy will work in Apple’s favour for the foreseeable future. But as soon as someone else comes out with the next piece of kick-ass entertainment technology, consumers are apt to be just a tad disgruntled with the fact their iTunes music is useless.

There are two key pieces of technology to watch in 2006. Possibly the biggest is Sony’s answer to the XBox 360, the Playstation 3.

These gaming devices are clearly targeted to play a more central role in the future of home entertainment, one that reaches beyond pure gameplay.

Sony’s position in the living room is clearly far more advanced than Microsoft’s, despite the fact they’ve been faltering the last few years. The PS3 will likely come at the XBox 2 hard with at least the same level of integration, and probably more.

However, Sony has a history of silly proprietary technology (Beta, MemoryStick and UMD are good examples). They may slow themselves down with yet another in the PS3.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Apple may introduce the second important piece of technology in 2006.

There are rumours stirring that early next month Apple is gearing up to release a media centre that is the natural progression of their success with the iPod and iTunes.

The machine is reported to be a combination of their popular Mini desktop computer and an iPod docking station that plugs into a television display rather than a computer monitor. Reportedly it will be able to download content either from a television network or on-demand from the internet. It will also represent Apple’s first device sporting an Intel processor.

Microsoft, Sony, and Apple are all gunning for the same target next year — dominance in your living room — but they’re coming at it from different directions. It will be interesting to watch their successes and failures in coming months. I just hope my Visa stays healthy enough for me to partake.

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, December 23, 2005

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