May 21, 2007 By Wayne Hanson
David Pogue, New York Times technology columnist, CBS correspondent, author and -- as those who attended his keynote presentation last week at GTC found out -- a sit-down comic and pianist, said that trying to predict the future of technology is stupid. Western Union said "the telephone has too many shortcomings as a means of communication," IBM predicted maybe five computers would be enough for the world. And in 1981 Bill Gates said 640K of RAM should be enough for anyone. Actually, said Pogue, he didn't say it, it's a myth, "but it is awfully fun to pretend he did." Then Pogue presented five technologies for the future.
Prediction Number One: Free Land-Line Telephone Service
Land line phone calls will be free, because of VoIP such as Vonage, Skype and others, said Pogue. Today, you can plug an existing phone into a box that plugs into a cable modem, $15 to $20 per month, for unlimited calls, no taxes or fees (he hesitated briefly noting that perhaps he should avoid making that point to a government audience.)
"That box is your phone number," he said, "plug that into the cable modem and you receive your calls anywhere in the world." It has every feature known to man, because it's only software. 250 million people have downloaded Skype software and can call other Skype users anywhere in the world, over the Internet for free. He said free several times to make sure the audience got it. "Free as in 'nothing!'" And for two cents a minute you can call to a regular phone anywhere in the world. "I would not invest in telephone company stocks," he said. He did say that AT&T is starting its own VoIP service.
Pogue said that there are a few problems with such services -- such as needing to use a headset and thus, "looking like a dork."
Pogue used Futurephone as an example of some interesting new business models that have popped up. The company was offering free phone calls to any overseas country as long as the callers wanted to talk. The user called into an Iowa access number and then dialed the country code. That's it. The service was fantastic, said Pogue, but no one could figure out how it was funded. "How do you make money off of free?"
The answer was that the federal government supports rural telephone exchanges for a fraction of a cent per minute. Iowa, for some reason, gets three cents per minute. So Futurephone went to Iowa, increased telephone traffic by a huge amount, split the subsidy with the telephone exchange and everybody was happy. Well not everybody. AT&T got them shut down, said Pogue, and the legal wrangling is under way.
Prediction Number Two: RFID
RFIDs are reflective transmitters the size of a grain of sand. They are basically unregulated and each has "18 thousand trillion possible codes," according to Pogue. A library that embeds RFID chips into books and library cards, allows the user to simply pick up books and walk out past a reader and everything is logged. "The University of Nevada has RFID in all books," he said, "and the first time they scanned them all, they found 500 supposedly lost books that were just mis-shelved."
But RFID chips have no power supply, and remain live forever, so someone could scan your trash, said Pogue, and find out a lot about you.
Prediction Number Three: Ala Carte TV
Akimbo, said Pogue, was the worst thing he every reviewed. It was a great idea -- a set-top box through which viewers would supposedly have access to every TV show ever aired. But none of the networks was willing to play ball. It ended up having Turkish