"If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then to me." Shakespeare's words are just as wise today, but this hasn't stopped people from trying to divine the future.
Crystal balling the near future is a lot less risky than the long-term future, with only small extrapolations needed from the present. Doing so can be both interesting in itself and practical, helping you prepare for what may lie ahead.
The advertising industry is among those sectors of society charged with keeping track of current, and possible future, trends. JWT, formerly J. Walter Thompson, is the world's fourth largest and perhaps best-known advertising agency, and it just released a report titled "10 Trends for 2009."
The report includes some insightful predictions, including the following:
The use of email will decline. Email is "an increasingly outdated medium," says Ann Mack, who goes by the title director of trendspotting at JWT. The reasons are twofold: Younger people prefer to communicate via text messages and social networks, and people of all ages are fed up with overflowing inboxes.
The report calls email overload a "serious productivity drain," but as yet there's no clear successor. The report indicates that partial substitutes will be social networking for professionals, which involve communications-centered websites, and microblogging, which involve brief text updates. A popular example of the former is LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com); an example of the latter is Twitter (www.twitter.com).
One characteristic common to both is that communication can more easily be restricted to a specified group.
Computing will increasingly become untethered. Instead of using programs that are installed on personal or network hard drives, we'll increasingly access software online. This is a fairly old computer concept, formerly known by such monikers as "web services." The current catchword is "cloud computing," with the internet being the "cloud."
One promising example is Google Apps (www.google.com/apps), which includes services for personal as well as business and school use, such as word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, website creation, and private wikis. The latter are collections of webpages designed to let anyone who is permitted to access them contribute or modify content, creating collaborative knowledgebases.
The use of mobile devices will continue to increase. Cloud computing offloads processing and storage requirements to web-based servers, making it possible to do more with less powerful devices. The increasing availability of wireless broadband connections from companies such as AT&T Mobility (www.wireless.att.com), Verizon Wireless (www.verizonwireless.com), and Sprint Nextel (www.sprint.com) will make it possible to use those devices in more and more places.
The devices themselves, following the lead of previous digital technology, will decrease in cost as they increase in functionality and ease of use. The technology leader, if not the price leader, is Apple's iPhone (www.apple.com/iphone), an internet-connected multimedia smartphone that not only lets you talk and exchange text messages with others but also do email, surf the web, take photos, listen to music, watch videos, play games, take notes, keep your schedule, do calculations, and more. Another popular smartphone with PC-like functionality is the BlackBerry (www.blackberry.com).
As with personal computers, the biggest benefit to smartphones is their customizability. Independent software developers create programs-some free, some at a cost-that let you do more and more things, and the number of such programs available will only increase.
Netbooks will increase in popularity. These low-cost, light-weight, energy-efficient, and ultraportable notebook computers occupy the space between smartphones and larger laptop and desktop computers. They're designed primarily for email and web surfing but can also run word processing and other office applications over the internet using the cloud-computing model.
Personal computers and televisions will continue to converge. This merging of PCs and TVs has been promised for more than a decade, with as yet only incremental steps being taken. More steps will be taken.
Yahoo's Connected TV (http://connectedtv.yahoo.com) is a project designed to let you view websites at the bottom of your TV screen while watching TV programs or movies. Boxee (www.boxee.tv) is a startup project designed to let you watch TV shows on a laptop computer and streaming content websites on a high-definition TV while communicating with friends through social networking features.
Related to this report but independent of it, JWT's website (www.jwt.com) includes snapshot descriptions of 60 important trends it has identified regarding technology as well as other aspects of society.
Reid Goldsborough is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.