They start as a mild tremor at first: rumors of an Apple Phone and rumblings about Web 2.0, whispers about touch interfaces and flash storage. Then, in what seems like an instant, there is a tectonic shift that shakes up an entire product category -- or even the industry as a whole.
When the iPhone was released in 2007, everyone knew it would be an important milestone as a touch device. Few predicted that it would be a game-changer in terms of defining the entire category of touch-based phones -- or that it would sell 50 million units and garner just over 1% of the worldwide smartphone market in a relatively short time.
There are other products out there that have the potential to be as (or more) significant as the iPhone. Here are 10 emerging technologies that are already causing a tremor and could ultimately become just as important.
1. Sensor technology
Sensor technology is a game-changer because it means any physical object -- a bridge, the loading dock at a warehouse, the clothes you wear or even your own skin -- can communicate with a network.
"Part of understanding the world is being able to instrument and measure it," says Rob Enderle, a consumer analyst. "Often we do things that we believe will help but may ultimately do more damage than good. For instance, the energy used by a hybrid car, and its environmental impact, may actually be worse than an efficient gas car if all factors are taken into account."
Hewlett-Packard is developing an early prototype called CeNSE (Central Nervous System for the Earth), which uses microscopic sensors to communicate situational awareness about a city ecosystem. For example, a sensor on a bridge could report unusual vibrations back to a central command and first responders. Sensors in a home could report high levels of mercury, lead or pesticides.
"I believe that sensing is the next Internet in terms of driving demand for computing and services," says Stan Williams, inventor of CeNSE and an HP senior fellow. "Very-low-cost and high-performance sensors are now becoming available. They will make possible real-time monitoring of our infrastructure to both optimize operations and prevent catastrophic failures, saving money and lives."
Qualcomm is also developing sensors as part of its Smart Services initiative, while a company called Kovio is developing wireless chips with circuits that can be "printed" like newspapers. The tags are about the size of a penny but can work with a mobile phone to interact with other objects, such as a movie poster on the wall of your teenager's room. The phone could give you information about the movie's schedule, for instance.