Tomorrow's news today: The biggest tech stories of 2014

Tomorrow's news today: The biggest tech stories of 2014

Concepts like the smartwatch, 3D printing, device ID, biometrics and connected cars will be among the biggest tech headlines in 2014.

I write one of these "Tech Trends of 20XX" stories every year. For me, it's as big a part of the holidays as the Yule Log. I can remember some years when the big predictions for the next year were just the natural, incremental growth of current trends.

But some of the big tech trends we'll see next year seem futuristic--technologies that are quickly ramping up toward some sort of tipping point after which life could change in big, obvious ways. Let's start with the future of your wrist.

The year of the smartwatch

I'm betting on smartwatches this year. A friend of mine told me that she bought a watch because she was tired of pulling out her phone to get the time. She prefers that familiar motion of swinging her arm up to present the back of one's wrist to one's face to get the time. With the right device, it seems natural that people would like to get lots of other kinds of information at the end of that same gesture.

We've already seen a first mover, Samsung, come out with a product that largely failed to capture the public imagination. Now it's time for the other heavy hitters (Apple and Google) to come in and take the concept mainstream.

Cars get connected

Give me a car that's a rolling access point with screamin' fast internet connectivity. Give me enough bandwidth to stream music, stream video at 1080p resolution, connect up all my mobile devices and wearable tech, enable solid video calls, provide accurate and fast mapping, and whatever else I can think of.

GM says it will build 4G LTE connectivity into most of its 2015 cars. Audi's 2015 A3 will have 4G connectivity. Gartner predicts that in 2014 the majority of car buyers will expect at least basic web-based information in premium automobiles. Cisco says global mobile data traffic will increase 18-fold between 2011 and 2016.

Will this year be the year that the auto makers, the wireless carriers, and all the other stakeholders finally figure this out? Since it's Christmas time and I'm feeling optimistic, I'm going to say yes, but I wouldn't bet the manger on it.

Your new password: your body

God knows why it's taken this long but the tech world is finally starting to react to the problem of site, service, and device credentials. Not only are password requirements becoming more stringent (passwords must have capitals, numbers, and special characters blah blah blah), but we also have way more usernames and passwords to keep track of than ever before. Geesh.

That's why there's growing interest in biometric alternatives to alphanumeric site credentials. Instead of typing in a unique password that you have to remember, you use your unique fingerprint, your voice, or maybe the patterns in your eye. Apple got the ball rolling this year by building the Touch ID fingerprint reader into the latest iPhones, and you can expect that many other vendors will release their own biometric devices during 2014.

TV wherever, whenever

Facing pressure from TV services offered by telephone and satellite companies, cable companies will increasingly let subscribers watch their cable programming on multiple screens and even start a show on one device and continue viewing it on another.

For instance, you might be checking out Breaking Bad on the big TV in the living room before work, then grab your tablet and easily pick up where the show left off while you're on the bus. Cable services, probably led by Comcast and its X2 platform, will finally get the systems (and mindsets) in place to place-shift, time-shift, and device-shift video easily. It'll be clunky at first, but it will get better.

3D printing comes out of the basement

It took me awhile to "get" the utility of 3D printing, but like others (I suspect) I eventually realized that really useful objects could be printed at home with reasonably priced 3D printers. Like the back cover to the remote control that disappeared last month.

3D printers were hot in 2013, but Jupiter Research says their popularity will increase significantly over the next 12 months as HP, Samsung, and Microsoft join the party. Soon we'll be printing car parts, batteries, prosthetics, and computer chips to jewelry, clothing, and maybe even food, Juniper muses.

Your devices understand you

We are surrounded by intelligent devices. We carry them, we wear them, we talk to them and they talk to us. But increasingly our devices are getting to know us.

They're learning to understand where we are, what we're doing, the ways we work and play, the things we buy, what we need to remember, and most importantly, the ways they can help us with all of those things and more.

Google Now and Apple's Siri are good current examples of "personal assistant" tech, but similar functionality will take on more AI qualities and will start to show up in more devices, apps and services in 2014.

The 'internet of things' goes mainstream

The digital world is extending its vast tentacles into the real world. A wide array of previously dumb objects are growing eyes and ears, connecting to the internet and each other, and becoming searchable. Real world objects--both smart and dumb, active and passive--are beginning to talk to each other.

A doorway sensor at a store in the mall detects when my smartphone enters the store and when it leaves. A refrigerator passes data to a grocery store system. Sensors detect when your car passes over a bridge and when you return.

For the most part, all this new communication will be beneficial and benign. Still, a boatload of data is being generated and logged about every aspect of our lives. As the piles of data mount, some might wonder where it all goes and how it is used, and by whom. As our devices become privy to more and more intimate information about us, the more and more dangerous that data becomes if allowed to fall into the wrong hands. Like the NSA, for example.

Google pushes broadband forward

When Google Fiber launched in Kansas City, Time Warner Cable apparently got antsy and announced it would increase its fastest service to 100 megabits per second (mbps) in that city. TWC also said it would match anything Google rolls out in Austin. AT&T also took the bait: when Google announced plans for gigabit-fast fiber broadband service in Austin, AT&T immediately outlined plans to offer fiber-based gigabit-per-second broadband service in that city as well.

Google's fiber march is very likely to continue on to new cities during 2014, and the slow and complacent ISPs in those markets will be forced to respond with higher home and business broadband speeds. By the end of next year, gigabit per second broadband service could reach half the large U.S. markets, largely because of competitive pressure created by Google Fiber.

Wi-Fi begins to feel ubiquitous 

A group of major cable companies have already banded together to put more than 300,000 Wi-Fi hotspots in major markets around the U.S. Cities like San Francisco and New York are beginning to install free Wi-Fi hotspots in downtown areas and in public transportation. The wireless companies are using Wi-Fi hotspots to offload traffic from their cellular networks. Major food chains like Starbucks and McDonalds offer free Wi-Fi in and around thousands of stores, and more retailers are likely to follow suit. More and more smaller businesses are setting up hotspots as a free service to customers. In 2014, free Wi-Fi will become something we come to expect, not the novelty it's been in the past.

Browser cookies give way to device ID

In 2014 the advertising industry will move away from using browser cookies to track our identities, interests, and preferences online. Cookies don't actually work very well because the advertisers never really know who is using the browser being tracked. And cookies may not last very long in the browser: Security software is often set to delete cookies once a week.

Increasingly, advertisers will track us using unique device IDs associated with our smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles, and wearable computers. Advertisers feel device IDs are more accurate, and that they might reveal more about all the things people do on their mobile devices. For instance they might learn how often we make purchases in a certain part of town, or whether or not we research the product online before we make the purchase in a brick and mortar store. Yes, you're giving more of your privacy away in 2014.

To wrap it all up with a nice Christmas bow: the tech trends in 2014 will be about the extension of the internet to a million previously dumb objects around us, and increasingly to our own bodies with wearable tech and biometrics. Connecting to the internet will seem possible from almost anywhere, and will be fast enough to do things like stream video to and from all kinds of devices. The entire tech industry (including publishers and advertisers) will focus on optimizing content, media, apps, and services for use on mobile devices, while building for the desktop will start to feel like an afterthought.

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