From Skype to LCDs: A very good year
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

T e c h n o f i l e
A few surprises in the important tech news from 2006

Dec. 31, 2006

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2006, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2006, The Post-Standard

   It's been a good year for geeks. But everybody else got a few benefits, too. Here's my list of the top half-dozen developments in 2006.
   1. In 2006, NIntendo and Sony raised the stakes in the console-game competition with the Wii, Nintendo's flying-controller console, and the PlayStation3, Sony's conttribution to the art of incredible 3D graphics.
   This was great for gamers, but the research that produced those products (and Microsoft's own XBox console) will pay off for other products for years to come. I expect Apple, in particular, to incorporate some of Sony's techniques in a new line of next-generation games for Apple's Mac OS X computers.
   2. You can also point to Apple as the big force behind the quick success of the hand-held video market. After resisting the notion that anybody would want to watch movies or TV shows on a screen the size of a cracker, Apple made the video iPod a huge success in 2006. It's been selling millions of copies of Hollywood movies and TV shows from its iTunes online store.
   The hidden side of this video iPod success story has nothing to do with hand-held players. Apple has shown the entertainment industry how to sell videos without the need for physical stores. Within a few weeks, Apple will start selling a device that allows these downloadable movies and TV shows to be viewed on a normal TV instead of just an iPod or computer screen. Can you say the word "revolution"?
   3. Geeks probably already know about the wild success of Skype, the free software that lets anyone with a computer make telephone calls using the Internet. In 2006, some companies started selling phones that have Skype built in. Usually, these Skype phones have wireless capability, letting them connect to any nearby wi-fi access router.
   Will wi-fi Skype phones take over from cell phones or home telephones? Not likely, but I smell a bonfire of competition in the communications industry.
   4. Another big change came in the form of a small device the size of your thumb -- the portable flash drive, so-called because it uses solid-state "flash" memory instead of a spinning drive to store data. These flash drives are rugged and cheap. That makes them ideal for toting computer files from the office to home and back again.
   But the hidden benefit is going to have a huge effect on just about everyone. Laptop computers due out next year will use flash memory instead of hard drives. This will cut out about half the weight of a typical laptop and extend battery life by as much as 500 percent. You'll be able to buy a laptop computer that will run for an entire working day on one charge.
   5. In software, Microsoft finally got its newest version of Windows out the door for selected corporate customers at the end of 2006. This version, called Vista, is better than Windows XP in nearly every way, and finally gives Microsoft a chance to challenge Apple's highly regarded OS X operating system.
   But the hidden benefit of Vista is what it represents to the future of software design. Vista took much too long to develop (five to seven years), and the lesson Microsoft should be learning from Vista is that the old way of creating huge software programs isn't effective any longer. It almost certainly will turn to the method used by Apple and others of making modular software, made from relatively small components that can be blended into a more complicated program.
   6. And, finally, the dream of any self-respecting geek for a high-quality flat-screen computer monitor came true early in 2006 when the price of LCD panels started plunging. LCD screens in the 19-inch category are now selling for well under $200, and those prices should drop below $100 in late 2007.
   The benefit to the rest of us comes from the increased production of even larger LCD screens for TV sets. Immense LCD TV screens in the over-40-inch category will become readily available in 2007, and I would not be surprised to see affordable 60-inch or even 72-inch LCD TV sets a year from now.