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Mobile tech 2010: Five trends that will change our lives

The next two years will bring a slew of advances for mobile workers. Here are five that will make life on the road more productive.

By Brian Nadel
February 4, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The past two years have been exciting ones for mobility, with the dawn of netbooks, 4G communications and the first smartphones without keypads. The next two should be just as attention-grabbing, if not more so, as a slew of new technologies make workers more productive on the road.

Last year, for the first time, notebooks outsold desktop computers, according to iSuppli Corp., a tech analyst firm, showing that the move to a mobile lifestyle is under way. "It's just the start," observes Steve Kleynhans, a research vice president at Gartner Inc. "2009 and 2010 will be big years for mobility, with major advances coming that will affect what we carry and how we work and play."

I went in search of what the face of mobility might look like in 2010 and came away optimistic that the world will be a better and easier place for mobile workers to get their jobs done. After talking to a dozen analysts, engineers and marketing types - sorry, no fortune tellers - and sifting through a mountain of technical material, it became clear that these advances are just the beginning of what could be the start of a golden age of mobility, where work gets done wherever you might be.

On top of more powerful small notebooks with better batteries and faster data access, there will be high-powered smartphones, as well as two high-speed wireless networks to choose from that will deliver broadband speeds on demand. Here are five areas that may quickly change the face of mobility.

High-class netbooks

The big story in 2008 was the rise of the netbook from a marketing idea to sales of 14 million units, according to Austin-based DisplaySearch's estimate of year-end sales. But while these tiny notebooks work well as a second or third computer, they lack the performance needed for a primary work system.

That will change quickly later this year, when netbooks start shipping with Intel's dual-core Atom processor. The Model 330 Atom processor has a pair of computational cores -- like the Core 2 Duo chips -- for churning through heavy-duty work. Right now, computer makers are sampling the chip and integrating it into a new generation of netbooks and other products.

"2009 will be the year of the netbook," explains Kleynhans. "They will be small and light enough to take everywhere and just powerful enough for most workers." Adding a second computational core, says Kleynhans, won't double the system's abilities, but the new Atom chip will likely boost overall performance of these small wonders by about 50% and bring them to about the level of mainstream systems. Look for them sometime this summer or fall.

Netbook graphics will be improved as well. Nvidia has packaged its capable GeForce 9400M graphics accelerator (the same being used on Apple's new MacBook Pro notebooks) with Intel's Atom CPUs. The chip combo will take netbooks beyond Web browsing, e-mail and simple applications to handle complex graphics and high-definition video.

Intel will not be alone in boosting netbook performance. Later this year, AMD plans to focus on ultraportable computing with its Athlon Neo family of single- and double-core processors. According to the company, Neo will be packaged with ATI Radeon Avivo video to make quick work of decoding and displaying HD video.

Further out on the technological horizon, Via, the maker of the C7 processor that Hewlett-Packard uses in its Mini-Note 2133 netbook, is redesigning the C7 as a dual-core processor. Called the Via Nano, the processor will likely be available late this year or in early 2010 (a single-core version shipped earlier this year). Its design will likely have something that Intel and AMD aren't offering in this class of processors: full hardware encryption of data for the security-conscious among us.

There's a dark side to this generation of more powerful small notebooks: The new processors will use between 6 and 8 watts of power, about double the level of today's systems. "That cuts into battery life," says Gartner's Kleynhans. "The juice has to come from somewhere."

More aggressive power management could compensate for some of this power shortfall, but it could also require bigger (and heavier) batteries or shorter battery life, potentially defeating the whole idea of a netbook.

Rather than producing cookie-cutter designs that look and act alike, each manufacturer will be forced to make its own decisions and compromises on power, producing a wide variety of netbooks over the next two years. Look for the first high-powered netbooks this summer.



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