IN PICTURES: 10 products changing the business world

From Siri and SSD to augmented reality and Ice Cream Sandwich, here are 10 technology gamechangers

  • Solid State Drives: Apple's original MacBook Air, which debuted in early 2008 with an optional 64GB solid-state drive (SSD), shined the spotlight on diskless storage. The SSD has since become one of the major attributes of today's superskinny laptops, including the aforementioned Air and an upcoming brigade of Windows-equipped Ultrabooks. With its speedy boot times, energy-efficient design, and fast app-launching capabilities, the SSD is rapidly becoming a standard feature of business laptops too. A recent rise in hard-drive prices, a result of floods in Thailand, may help accelerate the adoption of SSD-equipped laptops, which currently have a relatively small share of the global PC market.

  • 10 Products Changing the Business World: NFC, SSD, ICS, HTML5, AR, "The Cloud": Tech jargon can drive a sane person bonkers. Products based on these trendy acronyms and buzzwords are altering the business landscape at breakneck speed. Want to know what they mean, why they matter, and what you should do about them? Read on.

  • Augmented Reality: No "Minority Report" jokes, please. Augmented reality (AR) is no longer a sci-fi fantasy, but rather a real-world business tool that's beginning to appear in the mobile devices we use every day. Today's typical AR application overlays points of interest, such as restaurants and transit stops, over a live street view. Promising technologies such as Google Goggles and Layar Vision offer a glimpse of how AR apps, working in conjunction with tablet and smartphone cameras, will change the way businesses interact with their customers. Here's an example: A tourist points a camera at a hotel, views an overlay of vacant rooms, and books a reservation on the spot.

  • The Cloud: One could argue that cloud computing isn't new. After all, enterprises have been warehousing information on Internet-connected servers since the last millennium. And businesses continue to migrate to the cloud, as options such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft's Windows Azure provide a convenient and cost-effective alternative to in-house IT departments. The emergence of consumer-friendly cloud services, including Apple's iCloud, Amazon's Cloud Drive, Dropbox, Google Docs, and Microsoft's SkyDrive, as well as online backup providers such as Carbonite, will help spread the cloud-computing gospel to the masses. In short, more of us will become digital renters rather than owners.

  • Windows 8: Microsoft's upcoming operating system delivers the most dramatic interface change since the arrival of Windows 95. Windows 8's touch-friendly tiles--a concept that borrows from Windows Phone 7's Metro interface--may cause considerable consternation in the business world, as companies debate the merits of upgrading to an OS that messes with the status quo, and not necessarily in a good way. It's an open question whether the majority of businesses will bother with Windows 8 at all, particularly since many only recently upgraded from Windows XP to Windows 7. Businesses have bypassed Microsoft operating systems before, as demonstrated by their tepid (and often hostile) response to Windows Vista.

  • Near-Field Communications (NFC): The wave-and-pay convenience of NFC-enabled smartphones will become a reality in 2012, as NFC-ready devices such as the Samsung Galaxy S II and Galaxy Nexus go mainstream. Retailers will need to upgrade their point-of-sale terminals, switching to NFC-enabled hardware that enables consumers to ditch their credit cards. But NFC's potential extends far beyond the cash register. The capability to use your phone to pay parking fees and bus and taxi fares, to conduct financial transactions, and even to get information from NFC-enabled kiosks and "smart" posters, is an enormous business opportunity for clever entrepreneurs. The NFC revolution is just beginning, and it will be huge.

  • Siri: Voice input won't supplant mice, keyboards, and touch anytime soon, but the debut of Apple's "personal assistant"--Siri--on the iPhone 4S is a sign of things to come. Competing mobile platforms, including Android and Windows Phone 7, offer a hodgepodge of voice commands as well. Like Siri, however, they're still a work in progress. So where's the business opportunity here? Third-party developers will use voice input in any number of creative ways, including something as pedestrian as asking your phone to find a better price on the pair of Bluetooth headphones that you're trying out at Best Buy. And Siri's voice-search capabilities have the potential to seriously disrupt Google's very profitable business model.

  • HTML 5: With Adobe throwing in the towel--ending development of its power-hungry Flash Player for mobile browsers--the path is cleared for HTML 5 to take center stage. As you're probably aware, HTML5 allows developers to build dynamic Web apps that work equally well across various browsers, including those on mobile phones and tablets. The migration from Flash to HTML 5 won't happen overnight, but a rapid adoption of mobile devices in the workplace may help quicken this transition. HTML 5 may be a work in progress, but it's definitely the future of Web development.

  • Tablets: Everyone knows that tablets are a big hit with consumers. But what about the business side of things? Apple is wooing enterprise customers, touting the iPad's strengths in manufacturing and retail environments, and talking up its support for Microsoft Exchange. But the imminent arrival of Windows 8 may offer the comfort zone that businesses need to implement tablets on a massive scale. Windows 8 will be a security blanket of sorts, providing uniformity for business users who want to run a single operating system (and ideally legacy applications) across multiple hardware platforms, including desktops, laptops, and tablets. But there's more to this story. See the next slide.

  • Android 4.0: Google's new Android 4.0 mobile OS, better known in geek circles as "Ice Cream Sandwich," is viewed by some pundits as a consumer-oriented offering. But ICS has many enhancements targeted at business users too, an important consideration in enterprises where IT departments are required to support a motley mix of mobile devices. Version 4.0's business-friendly upgrades include on-device data encryption, improved calendar features, the ability to disable apps, and an easy way to grab screenshots (useful for resolving technical issues).

  • 3D Printers: The 3D printer may never be as ubiquitous as a conventional laser or inkjet, but its value to businesses will increase significantly in the coming years. A developing technology, 3D printing allows engineers, scientists, artists, hobbyists, and even criminals to quickly construct three-dimensional prototypes. Plastic is usually the material of choice for these creations, but 3D printers can use a variety of other substances, including stainless steel, Styrofoam, and (yuck) even human tissue. Some researchers believe that 3D printers may eventually create replacement body parts. (Don't try this at home).

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