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Last Updated: Monday, 30 August, 2004, 10:58 GMT 11:58 UK
Peering beyond the technology hype
Dot.life - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Jo Twist
BBC News Online science and technology staff

Apple iPod
The iPod and iTunes triggered the growth of music players
It is extremely difficult to predict which technologies will become part of everyday life in the future.

Some of the best known innovations, like the net, have swiftly become part of the furniture for millions, even though many said it would only benefit academic research and governments.

Similarly, few predicted text messaging would take off the way it has, with millions of thumbs across the globe twitching away every day.

Sometimes, according to Gartner technology analysts, a gadget, gizmo or technology just needs one good idea - a trigger - to catapult it into something that even dads have heard of.

But other times a whizzy idea sinks into oblivion, only to be reborn when the other factors come into play.

Hyping it

To keep a track of how successful technologies become, through embryonic twinkle to petulant teenager, Gartner has devised what it likes to call the "Technology Hype Cycle".

"Some years ago a number of analysts observed there was a pattern of new technology," says Laura Behrens, analyst at Gartner.

"Something new would happen, there would be tremendous excitement, followed by disillusionment. Then some of those would eventually become well understood in their markets.

"This happened with such regularity that they could do this model."

On a curve of development, the Hype Cycle tries to predict where technologies are heading: into our pockets and living rooms, or into the Betamax graveyard.

It starts with the "technology trigger", where a breakthrough or event generates publicity, exposing the gadget or technology to a wider audience.

AT THE PEAK OF EXPECTATIONS
Woman using a laptop
Digital photo printers (5 to 20% market penetration)
Satellite radio (1 to 5% market penetration)
Digital camcorders (5 to 20% market penetration)
High-definition TV displays eg plasmas, LCDs (5 to 20% market penetration)
A "peak of inflation" follows where great things are expected. Inevitably, this leads to the "trough of disillusionment".

This is not a Middle Earth battle ground; it is where technology goes to wilt when it fails to deliver its promises.

As people start to learn more about the technology, it starts to struggle up the slope of enlightenment. The final stage is the "plateau of productivity" when it becomes mainstream.

The best example is the Apple iPod and the iTunes online store, which triggered an explosive growth in what used to be called "MP3 players".

"Their impact has been greater than anyone thought," according to Ms Behrens.

"They [digital music players] have been very much driven by the success of iTunes - that has driven sales of iPods and driven other players and services."

There are now more players, people are more familiar with the technology, and there are more services to buy music from than there would have been.

iPods even changed what these new fangled players that use no tapes or CDs are called.

"A year ago we called them [MP3 players] - we said it would take four to five years for them to reach the plateau of production," says Ms Behrens.

"Now we have called them digital music players and they are just beginning to climb out of the trough disillusionment.

"We forecast they would reach the plateau in five to 10 years in 2003, but now, we are saying they will reach plateau in two to five years."

What to expect

Sometimes, according to Ms Behrens, a technology can be so hyped it may never meet expectations.

The idea may be all well and good, but the timing of its release might not be right, or the way it is sold or priced may be a turn off.

Then there are other issues, like not having a fast net connection to take advantage of, or indeed, not having an iTunes for your iPod.

JUST ABOUT MAINSTREAM
Sony digital music players
Digital TV (20 to 50% market penetration)
Digital cameras (20 to 50% market penetration)
DVD players (20 to 50% market penetration)
Home theatre (20 to 50% market penetration)
Games consoles (20 to 50% market penetration)
If the iPod was a trigger that fired music players into the mainstream, the home is where the next big Trigger Battle will take place, says Ms Behrens.

Digital media centres, which give you everything you might need to entertain you in your living room all in one box, are lounging like lazy teens on the technology trigger slope.

They are on the verge of having a great deal expected of them.

Whether they become as essential as TVs in homes will be dictated by whether they are PC-based, or separate smart devices scattered around the home, linked up by a network.

"We think that they will develop and morph and look very much different than right now," she explains.

"There is lots of promise there, but also a holy war between PC companies and consumer electronics companies about who or what will be the brains of that media centre.

"Are all the other devices essentially slaves to the PC - which is the Microsoft vision - or do the functions become spread out to smart consumer devices through the home?

"Another vision is all that will live in games consoles - that would be the portal."

To Ms Behrens, clearly the ultimately successful box is yet to happen.

Infinity and beyond

Looking ahead to the next two years, what is clear is that much more power than a remote control will be in our hands.

"We really think that digital photo printers, HDDTV (high definition digital television), and camcorders will move very swiftly - they are still on downside of disillusionment, but they will move through quickly"

Personal video recorders and digital music players are also moving very swiftly along the curve.

"Personal video recorders are moving so quickly because they are being built into practically every box that does digital TV in the US."

This development, Ms Behrens thinks, will revolutionise the way people watch TV. Watch this space.

Gartner's Technology Hype Cycle, 2004




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