This year has been a good year for technology. The trend of most innovation happening in the consumer space has continued in 2010, with the year's hottest product being the consumer-focused iPad. The most innovative smartphones were also targeted at this space, and for many companies, taking advantages of these developments by adapting consumer technologies to the enterprise no longer seems like such an unsavory idea.
So, what does the near future hold? I've long ago given up on my Popular Science-inspired childhood dream of a flying car, so I will focus on three technologies where all the pieces are in place, but the product just isn't there yet; technologies we could easily see in 2011 that could have a profound effect on how we work and play.
A content creator's tablet
The iPad rekindled interest in the tablet format in a big way, creating a raft of imitators nearly overnight and dominating a market that could kindly be described as stagnant. While the iPad is a compelling device, I see it as primarily a content-consumption tool. The interface and software are exceptional for tasks like watching a movie, reading a book, or playing a game, but writing a document, leading a brainstorming session, or taking notes in a meeting are poor experiences, despite a raft of add-on keyboards and the like.
Steve Jobs is dead wrong about pen-based tablets being "dead." A pen is a far more natural way to creatively enter and modify ideas in a meeting setting than a keyboard (whether on-screen or physical). What we need is the day-long stamina, ease-of-use, and form factor of an iPad, with the drawing and handwriting capabilities of something like Windows. The biggest piece currently missing is a software layer that would make Windows faster and more iPad-like during the initial content-creation stages, yet also retain all the full capabilities of Windows productivity applications for refining penned notes and diagrams into documents and presentations that can be shared.
The "Computer on a Stick"
Virtualization is rapidly becoming the standard approach for data centers in companies big and small. The simple concept of separating a server from its physical hardware is infinitely sensible and makes IT far more responsive when provisioning a new application no longer means building a new hardware environment.
Aside from some technical niches, however, virtualization has done little on the desktop. Where it could be very compelling is to separate corporate personal computers from the hardware that they run on. Rather than issuing new laptops every few years and managing a fleet of machines with different configurations requiring different images, just deploy a USB stick with a virtual machine that meets your company's specifications. Users could bring their own preferred computer, be it a PC, Mac, or Linux, and merrily run your company's standard OS and applications.
For those who occasionally need more powerful hardware, you could deploy a few "workhorse" machines, and users could plug their "computer on a stick" into them when needed and return to an inexpensive machine for the rest of the time. Many a road warrior would likely give their IT rep a bear hug if they could carry a stick weighing a couple of grams rather than a full-size laptop around the country.
Combine this with some off-the-shelf security technologies, and you could even "self-destruct" sticks that went missing when they were next plugged in. Upgrades to software would be as simple as dispensing a new image for each worker's stick, and a company could even allow a "bring-your-own-laptop" policy and get out of the hardware distribution and maintenance business altogether.
A split-personality smartphone
Smartphones are an indispensible part of modern life. I could not tell you where I need to be two weeks hence or the phone numbers of my closest friends without consulting my phone, and I am certainly not alone in this situation. Where smartphones tend to lack intelligence is in being sensitive to what one is doing and how that drives how someone interacts with their phone. When I am at work, I want to see different information prominently featured on my phone, interact with a different e-mail account, and be notified of different things than when I'm not at work.
While some phones have taken steps toward this, it is rarely well-executed. To my knowledge, none of the phones use the GPS and location features to drive how the phone displays fundamental information like contacts, appointments, and e-mail accounts, and none allow you to set this up easily. My Blackberry requires eyeglasses and hours of patience to modify the hundreds of alert settings, and most other mobile operating systems are either too light or too complex in this area, and all seem to miss the concept that we want to interact differently with our phones in different situations.
Software could even take this concept to another level, with your phone politely asking if you'd like to turn off the ringer when you walk into a movie theater or museum for example and filtering messages to only those from a list of critical contacts.
Each of these three products is mainly a matter of integrating existing technologies, adding some software magic, and rolling out a system that could change the way we work with technology. In many cases, we're most of the way there: some polish and transition to newly available hardware could breathe new life into Microsoft's tablet platform, and some more intelligent software with Apple-like ease of use could make the split personality smartphone a common sight in every bar and boardroom. As many companies are realizing, success is in execution and usability, not necessarily in long lists of technical features and flash.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.