Who knows what tomorrow will bring?
I have seen the future, and there's not much e-mail in it. Perhaps I'm overreacting, but I think we should all mug up on our smiley faces and instant-messaging shorthand, because pretty soon, we'll be using IM for most of our written communication. Imagine yourself sending instant messages from the back of a speeding car or train while watching streaming video and talking on a VoIP phone.
At least, that's one conclusion to draw from some recent announcements, surveys, and patents that have been coming down the pike over the past few months. Having failed my Divination courses at Hogwarts, I may be drawing the wrong conclusions here, so feel free to punch holes in my rationale. But peer at the vision in the crystal ball anyway. See? The mists are clearing, and what do we see?
Roam if you want to
We'll be seeing a lot more broadband roaming in the future. Back in January, Novatel Wireless filed a patent for a technology that allows users to flip back and forth between wireless LAN and mobile phone networks, even at high speed. A hybrid 3G cellular and WLAN device built to this spec should be able to maintain a broadband connection on the speedier of the two networks as you roam from zone to zone.
A hybrid 3G cellular and WLAN device built to this spec should be able to maintain a broadband connection on the speedier of the two networks as you roam from zone to zone.
Exciting stuff, though one patent does not a revolution make. However, others are also working on the same idea. In mid July, NEC's Ubiquitous Platform Development Division announced a similar technology, which they tested, PT Barnum-style, in the back of a Porsche at a racetrack. They had tested a WLAN-only rapid-switching technology at 330 kilometers per hour, and in May of this year, they showed hybrid technology that jumps between cellular and wireless LAN connections at 200 kilometers per hour. Just don't try this on the freeway: that's 124 miles per hour, and the trail of speed cops pulling you over would pretty much crush your download buzz.
The implications for this technology are pretty significant. The vehicle speeds are just for show (not even high-speed trains would reach these speeds in a real-world scenario), but the connection speeds are for real. A router that can switch from 6Mbps wireless base stations in an urban setting to slower but more ubiquitous 3G cellular Internet connections as they pass out of WLAN range is pretty thrilling. At speeds like these, high-bandwidth applications such as VoIP telephony and streaming media are quite possible.
Of course, nobody's making too much noise about when such a thing will hit the market. Despite NEC's exciting demonstration, the company won't commit to a time frame for product development. The closest it'll come is to say "not for a few years."
But in the future, what will we actually be using this ubiquitous connection to do? According to a survey and report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, probably a whole lot of IMing. Last year, the research organization ran a callback telephone survey among 12- to 17-year-olds and their guardians to learn what they do online. In July, they published their findings in a report.
Teens who participated in focus groups for this study said that they view e-mail as something you use to talk to "old people" and institutions or to send complex instructions to large groups.
Just shy of 9 out of 10 teenagers, the survey says, get online regularly, with more than half of them going online every day. Three-quarters of them get their news online, and 43 percent have made purchases online. Of course, as with most teenagers, playing games is the highest priority, with 81 percent using their connections for that. Really, there's nothing too surprising there. Only the fact that streaming video doesn't play a major part in the teens' online time is surprising--and the fact that they were taking their surveys in the company of their parents may account for that. Who's going to admit in front of Mom that they're using that highly expensive computer for an instant gratification version of MTV's Total Request Live?
But perhaps the biggest surprise in the report is how teens communicate with each other. Say, young fellow, do you, the single most active Internet user of all time, send e-mail? "Well, duh! Like, whatever, old dude"--which apparently means no. The report says:
Teens who participated in focus groups for this study said that they view e-mail as something you use to talk to "old people," institutions, or to send complex instructions to large groups. When it comes to casual written conversation, particularly when talking with friends, online instant messaging is clearly the mode of choice for today's online teens.
In short, the casual e-mail exchange is about as dated as Austin Powers's mod suit and elastic-sided ankle boots. If you're a teen and you're not at your computer, you maintain a constant presence with custom instant-messaging Away messages.
But perhaps we're paying too much attention to what teenagers are doing and overreaching by using their behavior to predict the future. If they'd done that when I was a teenager, the pundits would have predicted a future dressed entirely in black, with unisex eyeliner, and street protests about the conditions in Namibia. Maybe that's an accurate prediction in some respects, though as the '80s wore on, that guys-in-eyeliner thing was pretty much just for the lead guitar and vocalist.
But there's something about the immediacy of instant messaging that may cause a sea change in the way we communicate online. In fact, excuse me while I fire up Trillian Pro and log on to AIM, Yahoo, and MSN at once. I don't want to miss a trick.
Disclaimer: This document contains forward-looking statements. We caution that assumed facts inferred or implied by these statements may vary from the actual results. The words guess, think, probably, wonder, and similar expressions may identify forward-looking statements. This is what you should expect from divination without the aid of a Hogwarts diploma.
Has Matt Lake spent too much time staring in his pensieve? Should he get out more, perhaps in the back of a speeding car with roaming broadband? Let him have it in the TalkBack section below.