Information technology takes us back to the future

Think back five or 10 years. Did you even own a cell phone? Perhaps. But it certainly didn’t come with a colour screen, digital camera, MP3 player or e-mail capability. Now consider how ubiquitous, inexpensive and unremarkable these offerings seem to us today.

This is just one small example of how devices and technologies have changed radically in the last few years. And with these changes has come a drastic shift in the way we live, work and even socialize. The question is whether it has changed for the better, and what’s in store for us next.

Some trends in future technology are probably going to be ones experts have been predicting for years – greater connectivity, heightened mobility and all the related security issues and products.

But others may be less obvious, such as those in the software development world, according to Bruce Johnson, partner with ObjectSharp Consulting in Toronto, a firm specializing in software development consulting and training.

One trend that Johnson predicts will be big in the next two or three years involves dynamic languages and domain-specific languages. For these, developers will write scripts that come closer to what a businessperson would recognise as a set of steps to accomplish a task.

“Developers create this language and then give it to non-technical people so they can more easily write scripts and command sets, without having to understand the hideously ugly syntax that most other (programming) languages might have,” Johnson said.

This ultimately may require less dedicated developers within a company, and for the developers that remain to have a different set of skills than they did in the past – they will have to know more about the business side of things.

To the Internet – and beyond

The oft-hyped “always connected” ubiquitous network concept is now closer to reality. “It’s definitely an evolution rather than a revolution – but convergence is happening,” said Ellen Daley, an analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.

“Bluetooth and ZigBee networks are becoming more pervasive, and for the first time this is allowing us to physically connect things,” she said. “The beauty of it all is that because IP is going almost everywhere, that is giving a standardized, low-cost protocol for low-cost equipment, for access.”

In a trend Forrester has coined the “Extended Internet,” both enterprise and consumers will soon be tracking and managing physical items using a combination of RFID technology, sensors, Wi-Fi and the Internet.

“The infrastructure is finally in place (and) there are billions of endpoints now awaiting connection,” Daley said. These endpoints can include everything: wireless phones, tracking corporate laptops in an office or wheelchairs in a hospital, telematics in cars, monitoring appliances in the home and the ability to track and send conditions such as acoustic signals in specialized fields such as petrochemical plants, to name a few.

One challenge right now is that there are many access methods, but no access transparency, she said. “The trend is to look at ways to start stitching together different types of wireless, as well as IP technologies, so that you can log on and have access to any network, whenever you want, and then seamlessly roam from one to another.”

You can take it with you

Having everything online has increased privacy issues, which will drive greater need for cryptographic exchanges, and new technologies in this area, said Dr. Tom Keenan, professor in the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary.

“There is a growing trend to have info posted online for one purpose, but then being used for another,” he said.

However, once more security is in place, these same cryptographic technologies will allow people to become more mobile – in fact, one day soon airplane seats may have a place to put in an ID token, allowing all your important files to be with you on the road.

And, while travelling, you might soon be able to take an “e-paper” device with you instead of the usual laptop or book. This has been talked about for years, but new, cheaper technology is allowing it to be one step closer to reality, according to Paul Smith, laboratory manager, Xerox Research Centre of Canada (XRCC) in Mississauga, Ont.

Xerox is developing organic-based chips that are less expensive to make than silicone ones. Nanotechnology-enabled electronic “ink” would physically print the transistors on inexpensive film-like “paper,” allowing the content to be refreshable. Smith said this has the earmarks to be very disruptive but warns: “This is in the early stage of development – we are not looking at the next couple of years here.”

But will we be better off?

The way we tend to take our work wherever we go is putting us in a state of permanent exhaustion, but the younger generation is simply not prepared to do it, according to Dr. Wendy Cukier, associate dean of business at Ryerson University in Toronto.

“The single biggest thing that will alter every aspect of the how we work and play is demographics. Younger people entering the workforce are going to change the way we operate,” she said.

According to Cukier, we must start taking a closer look at things like how much time we now spend on things like e-mail and cell phone calls, and come to terms with “all the waste that technology enables,” from both a time and monetary perspective. “Because at the rate we are going now, it is simply not sustainable.”

Despite our 21st century technologies, we are still stuck in the 19th century it terms of how we work, according to P.J. Wade, Toronto-based strategist and futurist with She says technology was supposed to make things easier and faster, and give us more free time. Instead, it has enabled us to work longer hours and be on call 24/7. The good news is that – like Cukier – Wade sees this changing as technologies mature.

“Society is moving away from our offices being the centre of our lives – now homes are the centre of our universe,” she says.

Wade sees more telecommuting in the future, newer technologies to support this, a greater division between work and play, and “smart” household devices that can serve many different functions.

She also predicts “fashion” items such as cell phones will become less pervasive – and less invasive – as the novelty of such devices wears off. Some day soon it may not be a slick little phone you use, but a utilitarian wire you wear around your neck, or even a button you press on your shirt, she said. And it won’t be such a big deal. People may also have a lot less tolerance for dinner or a movie being interrupted with a flurry of “important” calls.

“We used to call up someone on a cell and say, ‘This is so cool . . . I am calling you from the mall.’ We don’t really do that anymore. And remember, smoking used to be cool too. Now it’s not very socially acceptable . . . you can’t just smoke wherever you want anymore. So, some growing up still needs to be done.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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