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Everybody is talking about mobiles. If the trends in 2011 were anything to go by, 2012 will revolve around mobile phones and tablet computing. So making predictions and talking about what there is to look forward to is pretty easy if you just want to stick to safe topics. Of course, with Solar Maximum all set for 2012, major solar storms could make it a tricky year for the mobile. So I’ve decided to take a look at non-mobile related technology to see what other positive things we should look out for.
1. Cheaper hardware
Flooding in the far-east made 2011 a very tough year if you were interested in buying cheap hardware. In particular, hard disks were drastically affected after Thailand was heavily flooded. That halted production for a good portion of the world’s major hard disk manufacturers. For the first time in a few months, hard drive prices are finally coming down again. While we’re not through the storm yet, it does look like the worst is over and manufacturers are starting to step up production again.
In a similar vein, if you’re into electronics, the Raspberry Pi is due to be released and we should see the boards in the general public’s hands early in 2012. What does this have to do with cheap hardware? Well, at around $25 per board, it’s probably one of the cheapest functional computers around on the market. For people who have toyed with Arduino a bit, the Raspberry Pi is interesting because it includes so many useful chips already built into the board, and its comfortable running a standard linux kernel. That means that you can get down to some pretty interesting hacking straight off. But 2012 is going to see a lot more competition in this area. Recently, Rhombus Tech announced that it is working on another ARM based board, built on top of PCMCIA architecture. It’s designed to be around three times faster than Raspberry Pi and Rhombus estimates that they can go to market at around $15. That’s 40% down. I expect that 2012 is going to see a flood of competing hardware chasing down prices and opening up a whole new world of innovation.
2. Operating Systems
With Windows 8 coming to market midway through 2012, it’s time to start thinking upgrades again. New versions of the major operating systems are always interesting because they often bring a bunch of new features (and bugs) that create good news stories. I promised I wouldn’t get into mobiles and tablets, so I won’t spend any time talking about the fact that Windows 8 will be the first Microsoft operating system to have support for ARM processors. More interesting is the new Windows-To-Go feature, which will allow you to boot the operating system off a USB stick. To be fair, the Linux community has had this sort of functionality for a while, but it finally means that you won’t need a Knoppix install to attempt to recover things on a faulty Windows hard disk. It’s also a blessing to Windows users, who will be able to carry their chosen Operating System around with them when they travel.
Also interesting is the Metro UI that will change the way that you interact with your computer. From my experience, major UI overhauls tend to upset a lot of users, so 2012 is bound to feature long whinge-sessions about how Microsoft has just made things even more confusing. With that out of the way, new UIs also bring with them a tide of interesting approaches to how users access applications and data. Most Operating System developers will be keeping a close eye on new innovations and on what features users rave on about.
For Linux users, the Gnome desktop environment is going to be focussing its development efforts on accessibility through 2012. While there’s not a whole lot exciting in its project roadmap, it does look like there will be some improvement for users with disabilities. They’re also looking to spend a lot of resource on WebKitGTK+ to make ARIA and HTML5 function properly with GTK apps. That includes a port of the Evolution mail client to WebKitGTK+ in order to make it more accessible.
From Apple, we can only make a few wild guesses. Early in the year, rumours had it that Apple is looking to merge MacOS X with iOS in 2012. That wouldn’t be too surprising, since it would allow them to consolidate their development efforts and easily port applications to work on different devices. However, that rumour has been pretty cold for some time now. A newer rumour suggests that Apple may build TV functionality straight into the iMac before they get around to releasing the long-awaited Apple HDTV. For now, the only thing that is clear is that Apple is working on supporting ultra high-resolution displays offering greater pixel density that will offer a similar increase in image quality to what you get on an iPhone through the Retina display.
3. Games Consoles
For gamers Sony plans to finally release its next hand-held games console, the PlayStation Vita, globally early in the year. The device has already been launched in Japan, but has received an initial slew of complaints suggesting that the global launch may turn out to be a bit of a damp squib. Don’t panic, the new Nintendo Wii U is due to launch in March soon after. Nintendo is also moving toward greater portability, and the new Wii U will feature a hand-held console that connects to the main set-top box wirelessly and includes its own screen. Currently, Nintendo is keeping pretty quiet about what other features we can expect from its next console, but that just leaves us with more to look forward to next year.
Rumours are out on Microsoft’s Xbox 720 which will replace the Xbox 360 and bring a whole range of new features that are well worth looking out for. Although most punters are putting the release date anywhere between 2013 and 2015, there are noises that we may see it first in action at E3 2012. This is going to be pretty game changing stuff. The Xbox 720 will be bundled with Kinect 2, which will offer improved motion sensing and voice recognition. Kinect 2 will not use USB 2.0 to interface with the console, as Microsoft has found this somewhat limiting in terms of bandwidth. The new design will most likely allow Kinect 2 to be able to pick up anything from simple finger movements to basic lip-reading. It will be interesting to see how game developers take advantage of this. Whatever happens, games developers have already begun their work prepping Xbox 720 games.
4. Quantum Computing
2012 also looks ready to herald in the era of quantum computing. Early this year, the world saw its first commercially available quantum computer, D-Wave One, hit the market thanks to Canadian company D-Wave. This 128-qubit workhorse came onto the market with the budget price-tag of around $10 million. As a general purpose computer, D-Wave One is likely to be outpaced for most user operations by your standard PC, however its quantum processing capabilities are designed to tackle heavy-duty optimization and complex number theory problems, commonly used for AI applications. To be fair, D-Wave has been heavily criticised by some scientists working in the field of quantum computing, who have pointed out that their computer is only doing a single operation, called discrete optimization. Physicists argue that D-Wave’s claimed speedup over classical algorithms is based on a misunderstanding and that their computer is likely to be no more powerful than your average mobile phone.
That hasn’t discouraged the company though. In 2012 they are looking to release the 256-qubit version of the same computer. And now they are not alone. Bristol University in the UK has announced that they have come up with a small-sized and more cost-effective photonic chip. This chip seems to be capable of performing many more complex operations and is likely to fit into an ordinary sized PC. Obviously it is a long way off from being usable in any sense outside of the academic, but it looks like we are seeing the first wave of these strange computers finally reaching the real world.
This has piqued the interest of DARPA in the US, who announced that a fair portion of their 2012 budget would be allocated to further development work on the Kane Quantum Computer. This will mostly be done under the ORCHID project, but work also continues under the QUEST program. DARPA has worked on quantum computing for a few years now, particularly with regard to quantum cryptography and their quantum key distribution network. With quantum computing gaining momentum, I expect that 2012 will bring us a variety of interesting breakthroughs that may ultimately change the face of computing forever.