Data a constant companion in a wireless world
By Marsha Walton
Laptops and PDAs mean information and communication are almost always at hand in today's world.
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(CNN) -- "Mobile media" is the most important technology of the past 25 years, at least according to one expert.
"If you look at a young person and ask them a question, there was a time when they would have stood up to find that information in a computer or somewhere else. But ask a 17-year-old a question now and you're going to find them reaching into their pocket, because that's something that they expect to gain access to whenever and wherever they are," said Scott Shamp, director of the New Media Institute at the University of Georgia.
Whether it's a cell phone, iPod, or Blackberry, Shamp says students and adults have seen information transformed from a destination into a companion.
Much of what millions of us rely on within those devices was made possible because of the Internet. Inventor and software designer Dan Bricklin says the Internet changed the way technology had been approached for decades.
"When I was in school we were taught about systems like the telephone system, which was central, and it was the most complicated thing ever built by man because it had so many parts. But with the Internet, they had all these separate colleges and schools and institutions that were connected together, but they weren't coordinated," said Bricklin, president of Software Garden Inc.
And the beauty of that lack of coordination was an explosion of innovation, first in numbers, then in text, then images, music, and video.
Bricklin developed the first electronic spreadsheet, known as VisiCalc, when he was a student at Harvard Business School. He learned from that experience that inventors sometimes have no idea what creative uses people will come up with: In his case, far beyond accounting and inventory for his spreadsheet.
"When the spreadsheet first came out, the publisher sent out a card saying, 'What are you using it for?' And we got back things like 'anesthesiology calculations during open heart surgery.' It's like, we didn't think it was going to be used for THAT!"
Business and serendipity
The capabilities of the Internet also led to a sea change in the way many industries conduct business. After many legal battles and much kicking and screaming, the recording industry has moved from a strictly bricks-and-mortar enterprise to a digital world, partly because enterprising young people figured out swift and simple ways of swapping music and video files from their computers. That has led to new business models, and new ways to make money.
"It takes time for old industries to reinvent themselves. I think we are seeing that in the music industry," technology analyst Chris Shipley said.
"I think we are seeing that when music is made widely available and very affordable, then people are willing to take legal aspects to acquire it. So the industry has really had to think through those models, let go of their security blanket before they could really embrace those new ideas. And that's happening," she said.
Shipley is executive producer of DEMO, an elite technology show that has launched cutting-edge products for 15 years.
And some of those products are the result of total serendipity.
Members of the "thumb generation" who send billions of text messages to their friends may not know that SMS, or short message system, was not a specific product design. It was simply a test system added by engineers to mobile devices to make sure they were functioning properly.
Now it's a ubiquitous form of communication that has been used to help overthrow governments (Ukraine); remind patients to take their medications (South Africa) and to help shy teenagers flirt (everywhere).
Whether it is texting or instant messaging, the "no fear" attitude of young people toward technology will likely trigger more innovation, analysts say.
"I don't know of anyone who is old enough to walk and talk who is not embracing technology in some fashion," said Shipley. "Whether it is children who are using iPods or grandparents who are using e-mail to stay in touch with their children and grandchildren -- technology really has become so much a part of everything we do."
Wireless hot spots
And these days, people want to use that technology everywhere and without wires. Shamp and the New Media Institute created one of the first wireless "hot spots" in Athens, Georgia, in 2002. Since then he has consulted others from around the globe on setting up their own wireless zones.
"We had to keep an atlas around because this was hot. Malta was calling and China was calling and Oklahoma was calling," he said.
One of the first wireless hot spots was in Athens, Georgia. Today, hot spots are popping up everywhere.
What Shamp says he stressed with these inquiries was to focus on what specific communities could gain from having easy wireless access, not just to have the technology for its own sake. And he says developing countries may gain the most.
"Technology such as wireless has allowed these poorer countries to leapfrog. They don't have to put in this same type of infrastructure throughout all of their country. They don't have to lay those expensive cables under the ground. For fractions of the cost, they can establish a communications infrastructure in places that could never have been served before," he said.
Shamp expects one of the next "big things" will be video for cell phones and other handheld devices.
"Don't think about this as being just TV made small. Think about a new type of communication that people will be willing to pay for, for an entirely different reason," he said.
But academics, analysts, and inventors do agree that the next big thing may well be still in the mind of a student in a dorm room wondering, "What if?"
"Those of us who invent may have no idea what's going to be the leading application of what we've built," Bricklin said.
"The telephone people, Alexander Graham Bell didn't have a clue what his thing was going to be used for," he explained. "We have to build systems that let you try things and see what sticks. We have to not put in place barriers to trying."
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