January is a magical month for the tech industry. Every year around this time, the entire gadget business congregates in Las Vegas to show off its upcoming wares at the Consumer Electronics Show. Apple, meanwhile, camps out in San Francisco and attempts to steal the spotlight with something revolutionary. This year seems to be shaping up as usual—everyone’s flocking to CES, and everyone’s focused on Steve Jobs, who (according to numerous speculative reports, including in Monday’s Wall Street Journal) plans to unveil a tablet computer later this month.
But let’s forget the tablet for a second. Even though I can’t wait to see what Apple is planning, I’ve got a much bigger tech wish list for 2010. Here, then, is my must-have list for the year. Please, tech industry, make me happy!
Google Voice for everyone. Last year, Google reinvented the phone—but unless you’re among the handful of VIPs who got access to the U.S.-based, invitation-only service, you probably haven’t noticed. Google Voice does several amazing things. It gives you a central phone number that rings all of your phones—when people call your Voice number, you can pick up at your office, your cell, or at your vacation house in Bermuda (and they won’t know the difference). Voice also transcribes your messages, rendering voice mail obsolete. And then there’s this: Because it routes all your calls through the Internet, it lets you call anywhere in the United States for free, and anywhere in the world for cheap, without a contract.
I’ve been using Voice since its debut—and before that I was a devotee of GrandCentral, its predecessor—and I find it indispensible. It has proved more useful than any other technology launched in 2009, including the new iPhone, Google Wave, and all those e-readers. Among other things, I can now make international calls from my cell phone for no extra charge.
Google seems to have big plans for Voice. At the moment, the service works by patching phone calls to your own phone—to make a call, you go to your Web browser (on either your PC or your smartphone) and type in a phone number you’d like to call; then Voice rings your phone, and when you pick up, you’re connected to your mom in Australia! This system (which is much simpler than it sounds) has a big advantage over Skype and other Internet-phone services: You don’t need to install special hardware or software to use it. But it has a disadvantage, too—mainly, that all calls need to go through the phone system and can’t be routed directly through a PC. But Google looks to be fixing that—executives have hinted that they’re building a phone-free version of the software that would let you make calls through your PC or mobile device (like you can do with Skype). Google also seems close to opening the service to more users, even those outside of America. That can’t happen soon enough—phone companies have long forestalled improvements on their services (making huge profits, for instance, on voice mail), and Voice promises to finally bring the innovation we’ve seen in the software industry to the phone business.
A universal e-book store. In 2009 we saw loads of new e-readers emerge to take on the Kindle. Some were promising, but none has managed to kick Amazon’s gizmo from its perch. One reason? The rivals aren’t working together.
The best thing about the Kindle is Amazon’s masterful online store—not only does it have lots of high-profile titles; it’s also extremely convenient (available anywhere with a single click) and has all the features we expect from the Internet’s most successful retailer (customer reviews, great search).
How can Kindle’s rivals compete? They can work together to create a single e-book store, one whose books would work on devices from any participating manufacturer. You’d go to this store to look for books for your Sony Reader, your Barnes & Noble Nook, your iRex iLiad, your Cool-er, or any other device. Banding together would help Kindle’s rivals in two ways. First, they’d be able to cut better deals and secure better titles from publishers (which have an incentive to try to restrain Amazon’s power in the e-book business). What’s more, they’d be able to offer a key selling point to users—no lock-in. Books from the Kindle store will work only on Amazon-approved devices; books from this universal store could be transferred to devices from many manufacturers. Who could say no to that?
Wireless syncing and simultaneous apps on the iPhone. Apple’s phone is chock full of ways to communicate wirelessly—the iPhone has Wi-Fi, a cellular chip, and Bluetooth. Yet to sync my phone with my computer, I’ve got to physically tie the two together with a cord, which I’m pretty sure is how people connected things back in the days of ENIAC. You might call me a whiner—after all, it’s not that hard to plug one thing into the other. But it’s something you have to do, whereas if the iPhone synced with my PC wirelessly, all of my music and contacts would stay synchronized automatically. Say I rip a new CD to my computer—why can’t it just send the music over to my phone, wherever it is? It’s 2010: I shouldn’t have to connect things with wires. (And what about charging the battery? That should be wireless, too—like on the Palm Pre.)
Another thing the iPhone needs: a way to run multiple third-party apps at once. Unlike on your PC, where you’ve got lots of programs running in the “background”— your IM program is just sitting there waiting for someone to send you a message, for instance—the iPhone can now run only one program at a time. Apple has long insisted that its single-task design is a feature, not a bug; your phone would slow to a crawl if you could run lots of programs at once. There’s some merit to this argument: Multitasking does seem to slow down the iPhone’s rivals. But there’s also no doubt that multitasking would improve a lot of apps. Music programs like Pandora are pretty useless on the iPhone right now, because you can’t listen to something while also, say, typing an e-mail. Apple can surely find a way to add multitasking while keeping your phone running swiftly—for instance by limiting the number of programs you can run in the background or automatically closing down programs that are hogging too many resources. The iPhone is a mobile computer, and it’s time it began acting like one.
Better multi-touch on Android. Google’s mobile operating system made its debut on several great phones in 2009, and the search company is now launching its own speedy Android device, the Nexus One. As a platform, Android represents a worthy competitor to the iPhone—it’s fast, easy to use, and far friendlier to developers looking to create third-party apps. But it’s got one major flaw: It skimps on “multi-touch” gestures—like “pinching” the screen to zoom in or out—and is therefore far clunkier than the iPhone.
This isn’t a technical problem; it seems to be a business-strategy issue. Android and the hardware in many Android phones are capable of recognizing multi-touch gestures, and some third-party apps can be navigated this way. But bizarrely, Google hasn’t added multi-touch to the apps that come pre-installed on the phone—including the Web browser and the maps application, which would most benefit from using more than one finger. The lack of multi-touch also makes typing on Android’s on-screen keyboard a huge pain—a major shortcoming in the Nexus One, which doesn’t have a physical keyboard. There’s been some speculation that Google is staying away from multi-touch because it fears litigation from Apple, but that seems specious—after all, both the Palm Pre and Windows 7 come with multi-touch, and Apple hasn’t sued. So why is Google so reluctant? Nobody knows—but until it fixes this problem, Android phones will always be inferior to the iPhone.