Future Gadgets: Wonders of the Web

Broadband where it’s never gone before and other technological marvels

Just as once obscure innovations such as Ajax, RSS, and social tagging helped define Web 2.0, so a new generation of technologies are emerging that could shape the next stage of the Internet’s evolution. Each offers an upgrade of sorts to the online tools that have become second-nature over the last few years.

Among them are WiMax, often referred to as “Wi-Fi on steroids,” which holds the promise of turning the wireless Web into more than a spotty Internet imposter. Then there’s telemedicine, which aims to harness user-generated content for the more pragmatic goal of providing health care services online. And if html seems very Web 1.0, an application dubbed Ruby on Rails is gaining traction as a way to make Web site development faster and easier by cutting back on the arduous coding required.

Of course, these technologies are likely to bring upheaval as well as improvements. “What we are seeing is the blending of the logical extensions of existing technologies,” says Stephen Wood, president of the WiMedia Alliance, the San Ramon, Calif.-based wireless trade group.


It's a Wild, Wild, Wireless World

A big shift for the Web is already in the air: the next round of wireless technologies, specifically WiMax and mesh networking.

First, WiMax. The Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access is a super-fast Web connection standard that works without pesky wires or a traditional cell network.

Think of WiMax as a really, really big hotspot. And with WiMax data-coverage areas measured in hundreds of miles, exactly what will you need traditional cable or phone company broadband for — other than to be cheaper than WiMax?

Marketers can expect a wave of new players to muddy the already complex broadband waters: TowerStream, Valtech Communications, Clearwire and others are planning to offer service in Boston, Providence and New York, among many, many cities. And Sprint Nextel will be offering connectivity to 100 million people by 2008.

“WiMax will be a viable alternative for home broadband service,” says Sean Hughes, director of corporate communications for Sprint, “with WiMax having the edge due to mobility and versatility.”

And then there’s mesh networking. These are wireless networks that actually make themselves. Mountain View, Calif.-based Meraki Networks is selling a $49 wireless router that not only transmits data to and from a customer, it transmits data to and from another Meraki router. Simply put one router within range of the next — say, on every light pole or street corner in a city — and, voilà, instant network.

“We expect to see a surge in smaller ISPs,” says Sanjit Biswas, co-founder of Meraki Networks. “And that may present an opportunity for advertisers to enable low-cost or free access.”

Already new wireless technologies are spawning some unusual deals.

Earlier this year, old-world broadcaster WABC in New York and transaction company Verifone announced a new network that will show the nightly news in New York City cabs. Notice there is no wireless provider here; the connectivity is a gimme.

And Barcelona-based Whisher Technologies recently released a program that allows for real-time sharing of wireless hotspots. Simply download Whisher 2.0, give up some personal information, and you gain access to hotspots around the world as long as you are willing to share your access as well.

“There is no monetary transaction involved; it’s purely altruistic,” says Ferran Moreno, CEO at Whisher Technologies.


The Ultimate UCG: Telemedicine

Think user-created video and music are hot? Meet telemedicine.

Sometimes called digital medicine or remote monitoring, the process of providing health care remotely via the Web is a massive market that is finally beginning to organize.

Around 60 million people in the United States suffer from a chronic illness, according to Dallas-based research firm Parks Associates. Factor in those providing care and the total audience for health care can easily double, or even triple, that figure.

With the potential audience that high, the telemedicine market is expected to grow to $1.83 billion by 2010, according to Parks Associates’ research analyst Harry Wang. And companies like adt’s QuietCare and Webvmc are offering services such as remote monitoring, in-home wellness, and the Remote Nurse — a purpose-built health-care display.

“The technology behind the industry has been in place for 15 years,” says Wang. “What holds it back is the lack of understanding of the business between doctors, insurers and patients.”

In other words, a few good branding campaigns could help this nascent industry grow into a real market.


A Smarter Way to Create Content

Code exactly one line of hypertext mark-up or similar Web language and you will learn the numbing truth: The Web exists in spite of itself. Coding is hard, brutal and — unlike life — long.

At last, that may be changing.

A new riff on a coding language, called Ruby on Rails, is attracting some buzz by forcing users to program with existing modules and keep coding very strict and simple. Ruby on Rails differs from traditional coding that is usually done line by line, with almost no limit on what individual coders can do.

Ruby on Rails can be impressive. Programmers can make a blog from scratch in 15 minutes or turbocharge a Flickr page in even less time.

“The lesson should be that once you start caring about programmer happiness and beautiful code, the language will guide you along an interesting path,” says David Heinemeier Hansson, a partner in Chicago-based Web design firm 37Signals, who is credited with much of the research work at the heart of Ruby on Rails.

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