Thursday, April 1, 2010

A View Towards the Future

Last month, i.e. yesterday, the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council held its annual meeting at a hotel outside Boston. The title of the session was “Flipping the Switch from Survival to Growth.” The underlying theme was that the technology industry stands poised for a new wave of connectivity-fueled growth, characterized by ubiquitous access, cloud computing and “new” new media.

Surrounded by a slightly corny opening session by Council leaders (e.g. Massachusetts has always been venture funded… our first angel investor was King Charles) and a closing panel, were three interesting presentations:

1) Economics of Innovation: The Road to Optimism

2) Internet 2020: The Future Connection

3) Futurescape: Sixth Sense Technology

The first talk by the economist Michael Mandel explored the question, “what are the key areas for innovation going forward?” Mandel showed data that says that those industries that recover first from an economic decline, and we had/do have one, are the industries that will lead the next boom. His most interesting chart showed that through the years 2007-2010 when the mis-deeds of the mortgage market came home to roost, connectivity oriented technology companies kept on hiring. He’s not prediction or making stock recommendations, he’s just saying…

The next two presentations were about providing and then using the connectivity. Tom Leighton, Chief Scientist & Co-Founder, Akamai showed how the delivery mechanisms for the web will need more than higher band width to accommodate coming demands. Today we average 2.4 terabytes per second (tbps) going over the web. Akami estimates 1,296 tbps by 2010. That’s an increase of over 500 times the volume. Delivering adequate bandwidth and processing power is a challenge, but doable.

There’s a second challenge dealing with how content and information are delivered over the Web. Engineers use a metaphor for describing the path of traffic. Each message to or from your PC has a First Mile, a Middle Mile, and a Last Mile phase in its path. The provider puts content into the web infrastructure, it travels, and it then gets used at the end point. Over the past few years there has been a 50 times increase in First Mile connectivity, a 20 times increase in Last Mile connectivity, and only a 6 times increase in the Middle Mile. We have a constraining bottleneck. Expect innovations in the Middle Mile (Akami’s is distributed delivery of content).

As the internet and its capacity and capabilities evolve expect to see “dramatic change in media, software, and communications as well as new applications in medical technology, financial technology and other verticals.”

Leighton described four new kinds of technologies we’ll be using. The first is video. YouTube currently delivers you “Longtail SD. SD means standard definition and Longtail is pre-HD TV. As TV and the web merge, video over the web will transform to Premium HD. You’ll have HDTV quality on your laptop and your cell phone. This will drive much more web use and, when combined with digital analytics of the web traffic and user, allow for the customization and tailoring of content to each user.

This tailoring will allow the second technical change, this time in web and TV advertising. Currently you see ads based on the context of what’s on the page you are viewing. Increasingly the web will be able retain information about what you have been doing, the interests you hold, and show you information based on your behaviors, so-called behavioral advertising. It is already in use with web pages but coming to video as well. An example of the change: when baseball is televised there are advertisements displayed behind the batter via green screen. They are tailored by geography. Soon they will be tailored to each viewer. Expect an extended discussion on privacy and control of personal information on this.

The third technology deals with Das Kloud. If you use an application on your desktop today you hit enter and you get a response. If that application is in The Cloud and it needs data thousands of miles away, even across oceans, because that’s where The Cloud put it, the Middle Mile could have latency of 8 seconds or so. Decentralized delivery, and Akami is a provider, can reduce that latency to one second. When your company buys services from The Cloud they are buying at marginal cost to the provider. It is coming to a neighborhood near you. Expect it to come in an increasingly distributed delivery model, slightly higher cost but somewhat more functional.

The fourth technology is radical changes in mobile devices. This was the heart of the SixthSense technology presented by Pattie Maes, Associate Professor of Media Technology at the MIT Media Lab. She demonstrated a prototype of “wearable” technology that allows users to interact with the digital world in and through the real world. It can project digital objects like cell phone dialers and digital cameras onto real world objects such as a wall, a sheet of paper, a product in a store or a hand and call up relevant information from the internet such as “is this product green” or “what do people say about this book’s author.” You can also get your e-mail… This style of capability entirely frees mobile users from the constraints of a cell phone’s screen. It also creates applications opportunities not available without this kind of mobility.

How soon is all or some of this going to be available? Beats me. The technology providers surely have their projections, some of which are too soon and some of which are equally to far into the future. If history serves those companies that make the “internal combustion engine” will do fine. Those who make the “cars” will do better.

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