Bill Gates: The hi-tech future is now

It's notoriously difficult to predict trends, as Bill Gates has discovered to his cost. But, as the Microsoft boss opens the Consumer Electronics Show, what should we be looking out for?
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The Independent Online

Gannon and Gage Swanston are already pioneers of the 21st-century media era at the tender ages of seven and four. When they visit friends' homes, they don't understand why SpongeBob SquarePants can't be put on hold while they go to the bathroom or get a glass of milk from the kitchen. In their house, as in a quarter of American homes, programmes are managed by TiVo, a device that allows the brothers to pause, replay or store shows at the push of a button. "They will never know a time when TV was one way," says their father, Matthew, the director of business analysis at the Consumer Electronics Association. "This will be the first analogue-free generation. They'll be intolerant of their content being trapped or delayed."

One happy consequence is that when the weather is fine, the boys prefer to play outdoors, knowing that their favourite programmes will be waiting for them later. It's a far cry from the mid 1960s, when I was their age, and a delayed trip home from Grandma's meant that I missed Thunderbirds and my parents endured an unexpected back-seat tantrum. In those days, television had only two channels, and if you missed something, it evaporated in the ether. The telephone, with a proper dial, sat on a table in the hallway. Music was a collection of scratchy 78rpm classical records. Clocks and watches had to be wound up every day.

Even a decade ago, things were dramatically different from today. The internet was still a novelty and debate raged over whether business could or even should try to colonise it. More of my colleagues had pagers than mobile phones. DVDs existed, but Blockbuster was still stocked to the rafters with video cassettes. Now, even the Queen is on YouTube.

What, then, will things look like a decade from now, let alone in 2048? The short answer is that even Bill Gates doesn't really know. The Microsoft boss became the richest man in the world by placing a winning bet on the future of personal computers in 1981 when everyone thought mainframes were the way to go. But even with the backing of a $7bn-a-year R&D department, he's made some howlers.

At the annual Consumer Electronics Show (which he opens this weekend in Las Vegas), Gates has for a decade provided a glitzy peek into his digital crystal ball. Among the many announcements he's made that you almost certainly don't remember was Bob, a $100 program launched in 1995 that replaced desktop icons with cartoon characters in a virtual house. In 2002 he predicted that "entertainment would never be the same" thanks to Mira, a wireless touch screen that you could carry around the home with you. And if the pronouncements from on high at the CES aren't enough, there's his famous declaration at the 2004 World Economic Forum in Davos that the problem of spam would be solved within two years. You can understand why, when he steps down as chairman of Microsoft later this year, he'll also be giving up his starring role at the mammoth trade show. His last appearance will be tonight at 6.30pm Pacific Time (1.30am GMT tomorrow).

Even predicting what will be revealed at the CES this week is a mug's game, except to say that the volume of announcements will be huge. The Las Vegas Convention Center, the Sands Expo and Convention Center, the Venetian and the Hilton will play host to 2,700 exhibitors from around the world, not to mention celebrities such as Yoko Ono, Kevin Costner and a gaggle of rap artists, Rick Wagoner, the chairman of GM, and even the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame. Britain's delegation numbers 41, with companies ranging from Airsound of Torquay to Zetex Semiconductors of Oldham.

Rumours about deals between content companies, service providers and hardware manufactures are widespread in the industry press, but official confirmation, particularly of new gadgets, is scarce. "It's an intensely competitive industry," says Swanston. "They sit on things until the last minute. Then it's like a fashion show. They put out a lot of designs and the ones that pull crowds and get a lot of questions determine what's going to stick. Some products never make it."

Even so, with the able advice of Mr Swanston and an IoS research budget of, admittedly, slightly under $7bn a year, here are 10 predictions of the sorts of products and trends you're likely to see downloaded from Las Vegas to Dixons and Currys in coming years. If, however, your "triphibian atomicar" or "ultrasonic cycloplane" don't materialise in the shops by 2018, don't blame me, Matt or Bill, OK?

1 Led by Apple's success in making hardware as stylish as the music, videos and games it hosts, the industry is scrambling to look cooler. Samsung is working with Armani, and LG has formed a partnership with Prada, while Dolce & Gabbana added its touch to a limited-edition Motorola Razr phone. "Japan is almost becoming the new Italy in terms of style and fashion," says Swanston. "They're not ashamed of their technology. They're proud of being geeks." So how long can it be before we get a Kate Moss laptop?

2 The phone, already the most important fashion accessory for many people. In America, which has always been behind the curve on what they call cellphones, hormones are being stirred with talk of mobile video conferencing, apparently unaware of the technology's commercial belly flop in Britain. Pundits talk of the kind of wristwatch videophone seen in Warren Beatty's 1990 film Dick Tracy. More plausible is the idea that while people want to carry around a single device, with lots of functions, they won't all want the same options. Some will choose to combine their phones with MP3 players, web browsers or cameras. But few people will want a phone that can do everything. I, for example, used the video camera function on my 3G phone exactly once, to record a five-minute clip of my pocket.

3 Batteries. Boring, admittedly, but crucially important. While the rest of the technology has been getting smaller, lighter and more powerful by exponential leaps, battery technology has been, by comparison, plodding along. "Battery tech has been slowing down the industry for years," says Swanston, adding that it's one reason people still carry more than one device. "I don't like killing the battery on my phone playing music or video." That will probably change over the next five to 10 years, but don't expect it to come with a lot of hype.

4 Robots are finally emerging from decades of industrial slavery, and years in the toybox. Robot cars successfully navigated their way around mock city streets for the US army last year. And in Las Vegas, their domestic cousins will be demonstrating skills such as vacuuming, lawn-mowing and pool-cleaning. Rosie, the Jetsons' mechanical maid, must surely be on her way to a kitchen near you. And no worries about her visa status.

5 Televisions the size of your wall. Any wall. "Architects are going to have to redesign homes with fewer doors and windows to make room for them," says Swanston. Just a few years ago, screens were all CRTs, the last surviving dinosaur from the age of the vacuum tube. Now consumers have a choice of flat-screen devices using technology such as plasma, liquid crystal, LED and digital light processing, which involves microscopic mirrors mounted on chips.

6 E-books. We're out on a bit of a limb with this one, since early versions failed to take off, but the companies seem determined., and Swanston is convinced. "The industry is coming back to the written word. Amazon's new ebook, Kindle, looks and feels like a real book," he says.

7 PCs will look less like PCs. The Microsoft Surface, for example, is embedded in a table top like a sink in a counter. The beige box is already on its way out. What will replace it is harder to predict, but the iMac is not the last word.

8 Internet gaming. Connecting players around the world sounds like a great idea, but in practice the lag in transferring data drives players mad. You really don't want to get frozen in mid-swing when the dragon you're fighting is taking a deep breath. Higher bandwidth and better data compression will soon make this a viable option, though.

9 WiMax. Like Wi-Fi but over a much wider area. This technology promises to rival phone lines and cable for delivering broadband to the home. Expect opposition from those who fear it will damage their health.

10 The wired home. A perennial whose time to bloom may have arrived. ZigBee, for example, is an alliance of companies promoting a common standard for wiring up a house to automate everything from the hall lights to the fridge. Expect Sarah Beeny's Property Ladder and the like to feature hi-tech rewiring, making it the central heating of the 21st century.