Personal Tech 2008: Top 10 Trends

This year everything gets intelligent, social, cheap, mobile and wireless.

With each passing year, personal technology -- phones, gadgets, media electronics, and more -- gets better, smaller and cheaper. With the introduction of the Apple iPhone and other milestones, 2007 was an incredible year.

But fasten your seat belts: 2008 is going to be even better. Here are the trends that will fuel the best year in personal tech ever.

1. The year of flash-based superportables

As 2007 came to a close, the leaders in the PC, notebook and cell phone markets were clear. But the space between cell phones and laptops remained up for grabs. While hundreds of products, from Ultra Mobile PCs to superportables to tablet PCs, came out last year, none really captured the attention of the mainstream gadget-buying public. The whole category has been a wasteland of failed products and confused consumers, high prices and obscure vendors.

Forecast 2008

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In 2008, all this will change. A tiny Linux laptop line called the Asus Eee PC -- which costs as little as $300, has a keyboard, screen, Wi-Fi and clamshell design, and was released late in 2007 -- will upset the ultramobile apple cart and transform expectations about price and portability.

Once you've recovered from reverse sticker shock induced by the Asus Eee PC's mind-blowing price, you'll notice that the device is totally silent. Part of the reason for that is that it uses an efficient 900MHz Intel Celeron processor, which doesn't require a big cooling fan. But the other reason is that it has no hard drive. The Eee PC uses the same kind of storage as an iPod Shuffle -- solid state flash storage.

2008 will usher in a new era of very thin, very light, very quiet flash storage mini-laptops. With no moving parts, flash devices are also more rugged because they don't have delicate mechanics in the hard drive that can be easily damaged with minor shock.

The only downside to the Eee PC is that most consumers have never heard of Asus. So the other massive shift we'll see in the market is that the biggest of the big players -- namely Apple and Dell -- will come out with category-busting flash-based superportable devices that will turn heads and re-invent the category.

2. The year of free Internet access

Amazon clobbered Sony in holiday e-book reader sales with its Amazon Kindle gadget. They both offered the exact same screen technology, but Amazon had at least one thing Sony didn't: free, unlimited mobile broadband access baked right in. You never get a bill, and it never stops working for the life of the device (unless you flip the switch to turn it off).

Amazon can do this because the device is optimized for giving money to Amazon. The main use for the wireless is to buy electronic books, newspaper, and magazine subscriptions, and other content from Amazon. Still, the e-reader's supreme ease of use is a killer feature. Any gadget maker that can pull it off -- most likely in partnership with carriers, who can sell things to gadget owners -- might similarly clobber their own competition.

Meanwhile, we're likely to see new models for offering free Wi-Fi. From airports to airlines (for in-flight access) to McDonalds to Starbucks -- Wi-Fi is going to get freer and freer. Why? As major companies increasingly figure out how to justify access (usually either advertiser-supported, or as a lure to buy other things, like coffee), users will increasingly point and laugh at any company that tries to charge for it as they log in to the free alternatives. By the end of 2008, there will be greater access to free Wi-Fi connections than there will be for hotspots that want to charge you for it.

3. The year of the home robot

We've all grown up watching visions of home robots on TV -- from "Lost In Space" to "The Jetsons" to "Gigantor." Admit it. You've always wanted a robot wandering around, making conversation and doing your chores.

Although a few home robot products have emerged over the last two decades, they've all been either too dumb or too expensive for broad consumer use. Most robots available today are either niche products for hard-core enthusiasts and programmers, or simple children's toys that everyone loses interest in after a few days of play.

But 2008 will be the year when very intelligent and very affordable home robots go mainstream, thanks to a brilliant new idea: Connect the robot to a home PC via Wi-Fi, and let the PC serve as the robot's brains. This innovation means that home robots can cost a few hundred dollars, instead of a couple thousand.

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