Tech Trends Come of Age

Applied Clinical Trials

Applied Clinical Trials, Applied Clinical Trials-12-01-2004,

A technological look at yesterday and today could predict tomorrow's trends.

A technological look at yesterday and today could predict tomorrow's trends.


It seems like a good time to review the state of information technology in 2004. The goal of a review of this sort is to try to identify the early trends that will lead to important mainstream technologies in the future. I do this with some trepidation, as I have learned over the years that the passage of time is the only way to truly put events into perspective. In any given year, a few highly significant events occur that will later be viewed as the first public demonstration or milestone on the road to some new, important technology. Much of the time, these events will pass unnoticed or will seem an amusing oddity until time has passed and the technology matures. Hindsight, it is said, is 20/20.

Predictions of technology trends can also be way off target. Two examples that always spring to mind are the picture phone and the moon shuttle in "2001: A Space Odyssey." The picture phone was demonstrated and widely touted as a future technology at the 1964 New York World's Fair. In that vision, we would soon all have picture phones in our homes for our communications. Well, the breathless futurists figured out that such a thing was possible, but they never realized that most people were horrified by the thought of having to get out of their bathrobes and put on makeup just to speak on the phone. Kubrick's "2001" predicted that, by the title year, we would be able to take a commercial airline "shuttle" to the moon. At the height of the space program when this film was made, who could have predicted that our public appetite for lunar travel would abruptly wane soon after we demonstrated that we could do it?

To put 2004 into perspective, let's first look five and 10 years back and see what we might have said about 1999 and 1994. You will notice some interesting trends that develop as we progress through these 10 years.

1994
Notably, the Internet was 25 years old in 1994, but was probably just entering the consciousness of most people.

Mainstream. The obvious advance in technology in 1994 was the emergence of the Web browser, Mosaic, released on April 22. It was an immediate success, followed by the release of Netscape in December. The World Wide Web had been "invented" in 1991 by Tim Berners-Lee (no, not by Al Gore), and until Mosaic most of us had to use text-based tools like Lynx to awkwardly "surf" the Web. Incidentally, the term "surfing the Web" was coined in 1994 as well. The year marked the transition of the Internet from an academic and governmentoriented network to a commercial marketplace where stores could show their wares in catalogs. Also, commercial ISPs offering browser-based Web access became more common.

People were talking about the "worms" that were a threat to the burgeoning network. Better known as viruses, these worms had been able to bring the early Internet to its knees on several occasions, first in 1988.

For the techies. Many Internet locations weren't Web sites, but had a "gopher" menu, a hierarchical list of their content which could be searched across all gopher sites with a tool introduced in 1994, named "Veronica." Veronica was the distant predecessor of search engines like Google.

Another important trend was already three years old-the Linux operating system was being worked on by a dedicated group of developers. The year 1994 saw the release of Linux 1.0.0. However, the mainstream entry of the Open Source movement was still four years away.

Personal organizers/handhelds had emerged with a variety of contenders, but the Apple Newton got most of the press. It was widely acclaimed because of the simplicity of its interface, and widely criticized because of difficulties with handwriting recognition. Lost in the noise was the appearance of the Palm Zoomer (1993), a predecessor of the Palm Pilot.

20/20 hindsight. If we had been paying careful attention in 1994, we would have been able to pick up a few early trends that became very important in later years. The first banner ads (for Zima and AT&T) were displayed in 1994 on hotwired.com and the year also saw the first spam email (for a law firm, offering "green card" services). Distribution of rich audio and video media was already in place by 1994, but the appearance of streaming media wasn't until 1995.

Predictions. Those who were predicting the future were looking at ubiquitous availability of high-speed connections in homes, rather than dialup. In addition, some began envisioning the development of significant Web applications which were more than just static Web sites-Web "apps," as they are called, would eventually allow users to access the full power of software programming through a Web browser interface. This revolution in computing would be almost invisible to the average user; but would turn the whole process of software sales, distribution, and pricing on its head.

1999
There was no doubt by the beginning of 1999 that the Internet was here to stay; in fact, it was going to be the most dominant communication and collaboration media of the next decade.

Mainstream. Microsoft downplayed the importance of the Internet at first. However, in 1996 it reversed courses and entered the market with a consumer-oriented Web authoring tool, FrontPage. FrontPage allowed users to create "do it yourself" Web pages, with minimal experience or knowledge of Web page coding. They quickly followed this with the first "viable" release of Internet Explorer (IE), to compete with Netscape. Starting with a miniscule share of the market in 1996, IE was the dominant browser by 1999.

In 1999 we would have spoken a lot about the impact of eCommerce on B2C (business to consumer) relationships. Catalog-type sales were becoming quite popular, along with the emergence of the Internet auction, now dominated by eBay. Online trading was part of the "froth" of the Internet bubble, with the emergence of companies like eTrade. Many people were doing their banking electronically by this time, paying bills online.

The MP3 file format was rapidly adopted in 1999 for the recording of music. The concept of P2P (peer-to-peer) also took off in 1999, with immense popularity of the grey zone of the Internet-MP3 file exchange between individuals. The record industry woke up to an enormous trend whereby young people were trading music files rather than buying them. Although not strictly P2P, Napster rocketed to popularity in this year, and in December was first sued by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Another major trend in 1999 was the personal digital assistant most frequently referred to as a Palm Pilot. The Newton and other devices had fallen from favor, but the Palm Pilot seemed to be everywhere in business settings. The ability to carry contacts, calendar, and even downloaded emails (which could be answered and uploaded at your convenience) provided an unstoppable, compelling value proposition. Palm also launched a wireless version in 1999, allowing users to connect to the Internet.

The major mainstream trend in technology in 1999 was the race to fix the "Millennium Bug." The bug was planted inadvertently by computer programmers of the past who never conceived that their programs would last until the year 2000. Companies were racing to replace and/or repair legacy systems so that the entire technology infrastructure of the world didn't implode. In the end, the problem was very effectively dealt with and the arrival of the year 2000 brought very few issues, for a very brief time.

For the techies. Web services would eventually evolve into a major factor in software development, but in 1999 it was only being discussed by the cognoscenti. It would be another year before the first standards for Web services were established, and the world of Web services began to take off. The talk of the day in 1999 was network and thin client computing-a concept where individual users' computers were to be minimal machines, with no local applications. All applications were to be located on a server (either local or on the Internet) and provided on an "as needed" basis. While the concept as originally popularized hasn't succeeded on a wide scale, by 2004 the growth of sophisticated Web-based applications has transferred the "working end" of many programs from the desktop to the server itself.

The term "blog" was first used in 1999, a shortened version of the weblog that itself first appeared in 1997. The blog is a natural outgrowth of Internet bulletin boards, usenet groups, and Web pages-all merged together and supported by specialized content management software. "Bloggers" used the software to create personal diaries of their thoughts on whatever topics interested them, from baseball to politics. The year 1999 saw the introduction of the company/blogging software known as Blogger. Now owned by Google, Blogger allowed nontechnical users to create and manage weblogs. Early blogs were of interest to a rather narrow range of readers; the 2004 election cycle changed that dramatically.

20/20 hindsight. Those in the "know" had been using a variety of search engines prior to 1999-Yahoo, AltaVista, and a "meta-search" engine known as Dogpile. During the course of 1999, a new search engine was introduced-Google. The simple, elegant, and amazingly accurate interface was astounding to techies who discovered it through word of mouth. But few predicted that this powerful search engine would change the face of the Internet and enter the common vocabulary as a verb. Five years later, Google has become a hugely successful, public company that is used for just about everything-from research papers to criminal investigations to vetting blind dates. It was recently used to secure the release of a hostage in Iraq. Who knew?

The Open Source movement had been smoldering along in various forms until '98-'99. During this period, Netscape, which had failed dramatically against the Internet Explorer juggernaut, opened its source code to the public. Shortly after this, some of the major players in software, from Oracle to IBM, put their weight behind Linux, creating a very large potential market not only for the operating system itself, but for the many enterprise applications that would be developed for it. From Web servers to enterprise class databases, the open source movement was about to be embraced by business as an inexpensive and viable alternative to commercial software.

Advertising was everywhere on the Internet in 1999, with the now ubiquitous pop-ups and spam beginning to reach a critical mass.

Predictions. By 1999, wireless local area networks were common in major corporations, and were becoming affordable and technologically accessible to the home user. It was not too difficult to predict that such technology would be widely available in five years, from university campuses to coffee shops.

Our history is complete, and we will now turn our attention to the current year. And what a year it was.

2004Mainstream. From the perspective of the mainstream, the Internet is still the biggest story in technology-a decade of the Web browser era and still going. Searching has become the organizational tool of choice for the Internet, given the power of the Google engine. Organized directories have all but been replaced by the organizational power of a Web-wide search. The Internet has progressed from the new and exciting (1994) to a tool of enormous potential (1999) to an indispensable part of the work and leisure life of most in the United States and many elsewhere. Email is still the most used technology, with the Web and Web browsers not far behind. In 2004 ecommerce on the Web is old hat; Amazon and eBay are venerable institutions.

Communication between people through technology has evolved from email through text messaging (especially in Europe and Japan) to instant messaging (IM). Work collaboration groups have begun to use IM applications for instant, informal communication. Parents keep in touch with their kids in college through IM, and IM can now follow us to our phones/messaging devices. But, the world is still divided into multiple camps since IM hasn't been standardized. AOL IM can't talk with Microsoft's version, and neither talk with Yahoo's. But don't dismay-Trillian (http://www.trillian.cc) speaks to them all and is free.

Open source has definitely made it into the mainstream in the corporate world. Linux, Apache, MySql, and Tomcat are strong open source products that provide the underlying software, operating system, and databases for many major commercial Web sites. They are fully featured, stable, high-performance, and high-quality products that have a huge support network of experienced and committed developers. There is certainly more to come in open source, especially for the most widely used applications, which have large numbers of committed developers willing to do the job. Open source doesn't arrive like manna from heaven; it is produced by the sweat and toil of an army of developers.The Palm Pilot model has been revolutionized by reliable wireless access to the Internet. While the traditional Palm device is still used, many have opted for devices that contain the Palm applications, but are integrated with a cell phone and wireless connectivity. The Blackberry device, which uses a pure keyboard data entry paradigm (as opposed to the pen-based Palm) has had a major impact in the market and is very apparent in many business settings. The Blackberry appears to have accomplished for wireless PDAs almost the same thing that the original Palm Pilot did-a simple, pleasant user interface that just plain works.

The wild and wooly days of music file sharing were tamed by specific lawsuits against major abusers (mainly students). Most of the file sharing market has converted to a legitimate market with Apple and Microsoft (and the original Napster!) leading the fray. Both have Web sites serving music for a small fee per song. The dominance of reliable, handheld devices for playing these tunes has driven this market. Interestingly, the next big thing in music appears to be wireless music players for the home. These provide streaming, stereo quality music to be played through a home stereo system from files that reside on a home computer. This is likely to evolve into a home server for media-music, videos, photographs-with wireless feeds to the appropriate home device and updates through the Internet.

The blog has made it to the mainstream in 2004, thanks to the United States presidential election. Thousands of blogs are extant on the Internet, capturing the daily thoughts and readings of a variety of pundits and thought leaders. As the Web browser did with advertising and sales, the blog has become the great democratizer of opinion. Regardless of whether a blogger is a famed, published commentator, or a virtual unknown, a blog will become popular based mostly on the opinions expressed within. During the nominating conventions leading up to the conventions, the bloggers were invited to attend and report on the convention as mainstream journalists. A turning point in the impact of the "blogosphere," as it is called, occurred when documents concerning the President's National Guard service were exposed as fraudulent by a dedicated group of otherwise uncoordinated bloggers. These Web sites were able to investigate and debunk the fraudulent documents in a matter of days, while the mainstream press lagged days to weeks behind. The result, most believe, is that the process of journalism has permanently changed. But the blog hasn't even started to reach its true power.

For the techies. Organization of information has become a critical issue, both on the Web and on the desktop. The two opposing philosophies are organization by hierarchy-the familiar tree structure of folders and subfolders, versus organization by search-the also familiar paradigm of the effective search (a la Google). On the Internet, the original dominant methodology was the highly structured and characterized hierarchy. An example is the old Yahoo Web directory, which still exists but is not nearly as popular as it once was. The Web directory required a very structured approach to "filing" and a similar approach to "retrieving" the information.

Furthermore, it requires an astounding amount of maintenance. Finally, many Web sites just can't be adequately characterized into such a hierarchy. It is not surprising, therefore, that a highly effective search engine such as Google has all but captured the organization of information on the Web. Since Google can be updated "automatically," it is viewed by most as the fastest, most accessible method to bring order to a highly dispersed, chaotic universe of Web sites.

The battle of organization has finally reached the desktop. For the most organized among us, the folder/subfolder organizing system works quite well, but for others the filing and retrieving of documents requires more discipline than they have. While Microsoft always offered searching as part of the Windows operating system, the entire process is quite distasteful and ineffective at finding documents. Although Microsoft promises a new, powerful document search capability in a future version of its Longhorn operating system, this capability is likely three years away. In the interim, there are new and powerful alternatives. I recently wrote about LookOut, a free utility that plugs into Outlook and allows powerful searching of emails and files. Google recently introduced a desktop version of its search engine that indexes, searches, and retrieves links to files on the local computer just as it does on the Web. My verdict-the Google desktop search-is not the answer. The most powerful tool that I have found is available today-X1 (http://www.x1.com). This amazing utility indexes your emails, contacts, attachments, and files. It allows you to search instantly and view and/or launch your searched documents all within the application-regardless of whether they are Word, Excel, pdf, or PowerPoint presentations. Many who have tried this tool use it almost exclusively as the window to their computer.

One of the essential functions of business technology is to "grease the skids" for group collaboration. In the past this has meant using tools like eRoom, Lotus Notes, and other enterprise applications. This year has seen the emergence of two tools that are likely to make it into the mainstream over the next few years. One has already been mentioned-the blog. Rather than the political blogs we have already discussed, think about the "project blogs." These are group collaboration blogs where the bloggers are all members of the project team. The blog requires no technology expertise, little maintenance, and can establish an easily maintained repository of project knowledge. Most project blogs are likely to remain quite private, within the confines of an individual company. However, some may serve to involve customers as well. A good example of such a blog is one set up by the Microsoft "Longhorn" team, working on the next version of its operating system: http://www.longhornblogs.com/.

The Wiki is another group collaboration tool used by techies that is likely to enter the mainstream. The Wiki (meaning "quick" in Hawaiian) refers to a specialized type of collaborative Web site using Wiki software. These sites are maintained by a group of collaborators, and can be edited by any one of them. While a blog is a continuous "diary" of sorts, with each contribution listed above the last, the Wiki is a "finished" document that is being continuously edited. The Wiki tools allow for basic editing of the format, without the need for in-depth knowledge of Web (i.e., HTML) editing. A perfect use for the Wiki would be a collaborative document, like a requirements document or a clinical protocol. It is a completely different paradigm than the edit/review functionality in Word, but it works. Good evidence for the power of the Wiki is the Wikipedia, a huge encyclopedia put together just through the collaboration of anyone who wants to. That's right, anyone. The articles are very accurate and up to date. Give it a try with your favorite topic, http://www.wikipedia.org.

One of the secret weapons of blog readers is RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication. RSS consists of an XML file that lists the contents and brief summary of a Web site, typically one that is frequently updated. For example, a blog or a news Web site might have every new entry or news story added to the RSS file as it was added to the site. By using an RSS reader (e.g., http://www.sharpreader.com) anyone can follow new additions to the Web site simply by glancing at the reader, rather than actually visiting the page. Using an RSS reader, it is possible to follow dozens or even hundreds of Web sites daily with ease. Stories or entries that aren't of interest (based on the title or summary) can be easily ignored, and anything interesting is just a click away. RSS syndication is showing up everywhere nowadays, from Reuters the New York Times, and most every blog on the Internet. It is likely that RSS or similar technologies will become a very important technology in aggregating and managing many disparate sources of information. In fact, the major email and Web browser programs are recognizing this and incorporating RSS readers in future versions.

Speaking of Web browsers, it appears that the browser wars are back. As mentioned earlier, early Web browsers were almost entirely Netscape, but with the introduction of Internet Explorer, the market dominance market presence of Netscape disappeared. The release of the source code for Netscape seemed almost a death knell. Not quite. In fact, open source Netscape (aka Mozilla) continued to be worked on, and a lighter version of the Netscape browser known as Firefox has been released. It is light, fast, and has a number of excellent capabilities. The most significant advantage is tabbed browsing-the ability to have two, five, or 10 or more Web sites open "simultaneously" and to be able to flip between them. Firefox is rapidly gaining market share, although fewer than 10% of Web surfers are currently using it. One major advantage is that, for the moment, Firefox users are virtually exempt from spyware and popups. Other browsers that are also being used are Safari (aka Konquerer, from the KDE user interface for Linux), and Opera. It would not be surprising to see significant competition in this market in the future.

In addition to browser wars, the very techie types speak of a major war of "development environments." Commercial software is developed using certain computer languages, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. The most popular language for current development is Java from Sun in what is called the J2EE environment. J2EE enables rapid development of software which includes the robust tools necessary for modern programming-including access to Web services and databases. The competing development language from Microsoft is C# in a .NET environment, which provides similar tools. There are many arguments for each that are well beyond any discussion in this forum. However, the choice between these two dominant environments is something that is worth noting, even for the nontechnical.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) is one of the hot trends of the year. Using small devices that are transponders (e.g., they receive a radio frequency (RF) and subsequently transmit their own RF signal), RFID provides a way to tag and label anything. It can tag pharmaceutical packaging by the palette or by the vial, and provide key information on data of manufacture, packaging, originating plant, etc. RFID can tag people-very recently the FDA approved the implantation of a small identification device the size of a rice kernel subcutaneously. RFID is much more than bar coding, since it can be detected at a short distance, and without the direct contact of a reading device. It can provide identification information and location information. For example, RFID can be used for tracking personnel within a building. The major issue for RFID is bringing down the cost of the transponder to one consistent with inexpensive manufacturing. When that happens, you are likely to see every item you buy in a store from groceries to clothing be RFID tagged and tracked from manufacture to purchase at a retail store. The implications for pharmaceutical manufacturing and for clinical trials are significant.

Predictions. Wireless has, as would have been predicted in 1999, become available in homes, airports, hotels, and coffee shops. Going forward, we are likely to see even more extensive availability, and likely for very low cost. My home town has proposed to blanket the entire region with very inexpensive wireless Internet access. Others are looking into how to do this nationally and internationally.

The convergence of the cell phone, the personal digital assistant, and the computer will continue. Before long we will have fully functional personal computers that we can carry, use as telephones, and as PDAs.

RFID is destined to become a very important technology over the next few years.

Finally, the Linux desktop will soon achieve the usability and functionality of the alternative Windows and Macintosh desktop. Over time it is likely that Linux desktops will begin to appear at corporate workstations in increasing numbers. The stability of the platform and the very favorable cost considerations may provide an opportunity for corporations to move away from the commercial desktop environment.