Looking Back To The Future

Remember the EO? What makes a product successful isn’t just the technology. It has do actually do something useful.

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By Frank Ferro
As I’m reading through year-end articles on the top technologies of 2011, along with predictions of what’s hot for 2012, I naturally start to reflect on the emerging technologies for the year ahead—and will anyone see them coming?

Undoubtedly this was another year where rapid technology adoption changed our behavior throughout the day. It was the year of the tablet, the smart phone, LTE and Android, to name just a few. It is hard to believe that the iPad2 came out less than one year ago and now tablets already have become a hot household product that spans generations throughout the home–small children, us middle-aged technology enthusiasts, and even our parents who were just struggling with e-mail downloads not too long ago. When my wife, the least tech-savvy person on the planet and proud, self-acclaimed late adopter, asked for one of her own, I knew we were on the cusp of a major consumer shift and the widespread humanization of technology. As we’ve all seen, tablets are omnipresent, across all ages, and have made their way far beyond the confines of business meetings.

But think back. Did anyone actually predict the success of the tablet? There were early rumblings in the late ’90s about “thin-client computers” and then its successor, the netbook, in 2009. Then Apple and Microsoft claimed the first concept tablets in early 2000s. And remember pen computing from the ’90s? Talk about flashbacks. And what about smart phones, MP3 players or any of the high-tech gadgets we can’t put down today? If history is an indicator of the future, then let’s take a look at some technologies that have paved the way for many of the products we can’t live without today. And in doing so, perhaps we can gain some insight as we look forward to 2012 and beyond.

Having worked as a DSP engineer and then in DSP marketing for AT&T/Lucent for many years, I’ve seen up close and personal many attempts to change the way we interact with high-tech gadgets (speech recognition, handwriting recognition, speech coding, audio coding.) These are some of the underlying technologies in the products we use today, but that is all they are—technology.

I can recall the launch of the AT&T EO personal communicator (GO OS), a handwriting recognition tablet PC released in the early ’90s. I was given one to use for evaluation and it was not bad, fairly fast (page turn speed was the metric then) with good handwriting recognition. The device was natural to use in meetings. It wasn’t nearly as obnoxious and socially unacceptable as typing on a laptop keyboard (at least it was unacceptable at that time). The device experienced some success in vertical markets, but it and devices like it failed overall in the marketplace. Why? Ultimately it was about cost, content and usability. Tablet PCs for all their popularity today are mostly ‘output’ devices. Even today, it is tough to input a lot of data via the tablet, so without wireless broadband and all the content on the Internet, the device becomes far from optimal very quickly.

Remember the PDA or the Palm Pilot? I’m pretty sure they were ultimately just expensive calendars.

Here are a few more examples of products and technologies that were way ahead of their time, or emerged in unexpected ways:

POTS Video Phone: This ended as a quickly as it was released. The first real consumer incarnation is Skype for personal communications. And note that the video is rarely used for business calls. Do you really want to see your colleagues at their home late at night? Pass.
Voice recognition: This is another technology that has been around for 30+ years with niche applications in financial services and the airlines industry. Can you imagine using this technology in today’s cubicle-based office? Everyone talking/yelling slowly and intentionally into their phones at the same time? Still waiting on the killer app…
Wireless LAN: It was around for 10 years before Apple decided to put it in the PC, then everyone quickly followed.
MP3 Players: These were finally made popular with the online music store (not technology).

So what have we learned here? Technology never “sticks” the way we expect, and in fact, it is difficult to predict when, if and in what form a product will emerge successfully in the marketplace. As engineers, we tend to get excited about the technology and forget that products ultimately will be accepted by the consumer the second it doesn’t “feel” like a high-tech gadget, when you don’t need your own personal system administrator, and when it can be used to solve very practical problems and streamline behavior.

So applying some of these principles may help us to see what will succeed as we look into next year. Some of the hot technologies now include gesture recognition, 3D and NFC (near-field communications). NFC may be an easy one to predict because it already has seen some success in Japan and Europe, and is waiting for some major handset vendors to bring it to market in the coming months. NFC does, in fact, solve a practical problem for consumers to securely and easily pay for their purchases. NFC’s proliferation in the rest of the world, however, will depend on a use model that is acceptable for the consumer, along with embedded software and hardware that ensures they are 100% secure.

3D viewing may be a more interesting case. 3DTV has been slow to catch on because the “human” interaction model is not there yet. Wearing glasses and having to contort the body for the best viewing position are bad enough. But there’s also a more fundamental question: Do I want (or am I ready) to see things in 3D? Gesture recognition is even more forward-looking. This technology is widely depicted in various forms in movies and TV, and although you can see concepts of how the technology will be used, it is not clear what the first incarnation of products will be. Personally, I can’t see myself swinging my hands on an airplane when I barely have enough room to type on a keyboard as is! Again, fundamentally it has to solve a practical, real-world problem and cannot just be more technology for the sake of technology. Consumers don’t have the patience for that anymore.

Over the last decade, we have seen the most technologically advanced consumer devices come to life in our sector, with semiconductor technology powering these amazing innovations. As an IP provider, choosing the winning technologies, markets and customers is critical for our success because it’s our job to lay the fundamental groundwork for this very innovation. Providing critical IP, at the right time in the design cycle, will enable semiconductor leaders to do what they do best, namely focus on their specific value-add in solving problems at the consumer level.

This core IP includes better ways to develop high-speed silicon for SoC performance in the 1 to 2GHz range now required in tablets and smart phones. To make efficient use of all this processing power, IP is required to enable higher memory bandwidth technologies like multi-channel support for wide I/O, along with superior power management. These highly efficient, high-performance SoCs will provide the processing power for future technologies, such as gesture recognition, and those that have yet to even be imagined.

No doubt in 2012 we will see companies continue to push the underlying technology forward, creating innovation around the next generations of tablets and smart phones and that one new device that will be under your Christmas tree next year but only a twinkle in someone’s eye today.

Happy Holidays and best wishes for a successful 2012!

–Frank Ferro is director of marketing at Sonics.


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