As the tentacles of recession begin to get a sucker-hold on the UK economy, resellers would be wise to turn their thoughts to the future. The next recession, whenever it comes, will also be a time of renewal. From amid the doomed dot coms and vanishing VARs will emerge the leaders of the next wave of growth. The successful players in the channel will be those who focus on the very latest technologies: technologies which remain unsullied by commoditisation, combining 'must-have' appeal with the sort of arcane mystique that's vital for maintaining margins in the value-add game.
The best place to start looking for these future technologies is the IT industry's equivalent of a crystal ball: the thriving ecosystem of pioneering small companies and research laboratories. But finding exciting, emerging technologies is only half the story. To be successful, you need to take a leap of imagination (and, in many cases, faith) to work out how people and organisations will want to use those technologies. So, to give MicroScope readers a head start, we have selected our top ten 'make-it-big' technologies for the future and offer some tentative suggestions for potential killer applications.
If it works, nanotechnology will be truly revolutionary, allowing us to build matter from the atom up. According to nanotechnology guru Eric Drexler's Foresight Institute (www.foresight.org), "experimental work has already resulted in the production of molecular tweezers, a carbon nanotube transistor and logic gates". IBM is already using nanotechnology to create read heads for advanced storage drives. However, it's unlikely we'll see too many high street OEMs of nanosystems in the foreseeable future. That said, it may not be light years before large nanotechnology manufacturers are offering to build systems to order from resellers' designs. Some applications have already been widely touted, such as the use of nanobots in healthcare and preventative medicine (fat-to-muscle converter bots, anyone?) - and nanoprobes that we can send into space. But, given that it's invariably sex that kicks off any new market (look at the Internet), we reckon anyone focusing on nanoprobes of a more intimite nature is onto a surefire winner.
Since the lion in Bwana Devil leapt out of cinema screens half a century ago, 3D visualisation has had a bumpy history. Invariably requiring viewers to wear headache-inducing glasses, the technology once hailed as the saviour of cinema has been viewed as just as much of a joke as the films which have used it. In the 1990s, 3D virtual reality was bandied around as the next big thing, but the silly glasses remained - only this time they were bulkier and had cables poking out of them. Although the grail of 3D holographic projection (à la R2D2 in Star Wars) has still not been realised, companies such as Laser Magic (www.laser-magic.com) have come up with a number of ways to produce the illusion of moving 3D images without the need for glasses. These include the Laser Tank, where laser-generated images are projected into a container full of reflective liquid, and the TransScreen, which displays projected images that appear to float in 3D space. The company cites trade show attention-grabbers and theme park attractions as potential apps. Then there's 3D videoconferencing, although it is doubtful a third dimension will inject much life into this already-flat market. No, the killer app could be something completely different. As the cuddly corporates of tomorrow try to reduce the stress-levels of their overworked staff, what better way than to dedicate a floor of their building to a corporate 'holodeck'? Here, employees could wind down with a quick game of holo-Doom or half an hour on a tropical beach. As well as wads of cash to be made from the initial design and installation, there's plenty of scope for repeat business by developing new holo-scenarios for your customers.
If holography isn't tangible enough for you, another technology replete with possibilities is 3D printing. MIT's Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity is developing a process for the rapid production of parts in any material direct from a CAD model (see web.mit.edu/afs/athena.mit.edu/org/t/tdp/www/index.html). As well as the obvious uses in design and manufacturing, 3D printing will have far-reaching consequences as the technology matures and comes down in price. 3D scan-and-print bureaux will pop up all over the place. Entrepreneurial inventors will be able to produce prototypes of their budding designs. You'll be able to '3D fax' objects across the globe in a split second. However, the real killer app is not likely to arrive until 3D printing meets nanotechnology a good few years down the line. Only then might we really see a Star Trek style replicator that can reproduce any object perfectly. That really would be a licence to print money.
Sony's robotic dog AiBo has been a huge success and spawned lots of cheap imitations, but robo-pets are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to potential applications for this rapidly-improving technology. Today's cutting-edge robots can climb stairs, run for hours without needing to recharge their batteries and perform menial tasks without complaining. Companies such as iRobot (www.irobot.com) are leading the field with a wide range of commercially available robots, including a baby and a mobile robot with built-in Webcam. According to the company, the Avatar-Pro is "aimed at providing corporations with a Web-accessible, mobile telepresence". But as robots become more varied and customisable, there will be opportunities for resellers to develop their own applications. For instance, for less than an office junior's annual salary, you could offer customers a mobile fax/photocopier that also brews real coffee and wouldn't complain about nipping out of the office to get the boss a sandwich. Not only that, but it wouldn't gawp at the marketing director's breasts or spend half the day texting its mates, nipping out for fag breaks and reading the Sun in the loo.
Odour-sensing technology has been around for some time. Electronic noses for sniffing out explosives have been in use at major airports for over a decade. Two years ago, Britain's Cranfield University (www.cranfield.ac.uk) unveiled Diag-Nose which can detect urinary tract infections by smell and many academic institutions around the globe are on the scent too. But olfactronics remains a largely untapped market for resellers. Possibilities abound, from developing automated sniffing systems for manufacturers of fine wines, spirits and perfumes, to deterrent fart alarms that pinpoint offenders - ideal for use in confined spaces such as lifts and public transport. Indeed, if you're a good negotiator with a smattering of Japanese, how about being the first to initiate a partnership with Sony's AiBo division to create the world's first robot sniffer-dog? Then perhaps the police will be able to retire some of those poor, coke-addled canines.
As many resellers caught out by commoditisation in the past will tell you, selling services is far safer than flogging hardware or software. And one of the killer services of the future could well be anti-marketing. Already, users are responding to the Net's over-saturation with advertising by installing ad-blocking software from the likes of Junkbusters (www.junkbusters.com). As digital TV and the Internet converge, such software will undoubtedly gain in popularity and advertisers will be forced to turn to the harder-to-block techniques of viral marketing to get their brand messages across. This opens up a huge vista of opportunity for companies to offer anti-viral marketing services. Using a combination of neural network pattern-recognition technology and regularly-updated viral campaign definition files, AVM service-providers could build a healthy revenue stream. And since the viral marketeers are unlikely to give up that easily, we're sure to see an ever-escalating marketing/anti-marketing 'arms race' which should keep businesses on both sides of the fence happy and profitable for a long time to come.
The fact that computers are becoming ever more powerful will come as no surprise to anyone in this business. But Moore's law could begin to look like a gross underestimate if current developments in ultra-high-speed computing come to fruition. Already, Utah-based Star Bridge Systems (www.starbridgesystems.com) is selling its HAL 'hypercomputer' - a machine based on FGPA (Field Programmable Gate Array) chips which can be reconfigured on the fly, rather than a conventional CPU. The result, it claims, is a desktop box in the region of a thousand times more powerful than current PCs. Then there's quantum computing (see www.qubit.org/QuantumComputationFAQ.html), for which the ultimate goal seems to be to produce machines so powerful that they will be able to come up with solutions before they've even been given any problems. For resellers, all this is manna from heaven - a whole new computing revolution. But take advantage while you can - we all know within ten years they'll be giving the things away. As for killer apps, our bet is users will quickly tire of such whiz-bang machines. Retro interface porting will be where it's at - allowing people to run all those old Windows apps reassuringly slowly and unstably.
Not all resellers of the future will want to target big businesses. The home market could provide a lucrative niche for companies successfully able to integrate the latest technologies with a working knowledge of joinery and interior design. Over the pond at MIT's Media Lab (www.media.mit.edu), researchers are working at the cutting-edge of MDF and microcircuitry. Michael Hawley's Counter Active is a kitchen unit fitted with an overhead projector and field-sensing array under the counter. The result? A kitchen that can teach you how to cook. Meanwhile, in another part of the lab, Ted Selker has been working on a talking trivet and oven mitt that tell the user when food is at precisely the correct serving temperature. And what with big-name manufacturers such as Whirlpool and Electrolux moving into Internet-enabled appliances like fridges and washing machines, there should be plenty of integration and support work for e-kitchen resellers. MIT's Selker has even developed an electronic bed with integrated multimedia capabilities. Among other things, it will project a sunrise onto your ceiling when it's time to get up. Ideal for basement flats and nuclear bunkers everywhere.
Since the world and his wife has muscled in on the IT business, it's only fair that IT resellers be given the chance to show what they can do on other industries' turf. Take the motor trade, for instance. New cars are already designed by computers, manufactured by robots and contain more microcircuitry than your average PC. Why should it be left to techno-illiterate wide boys and wrench-wielding grease monkeys to sell and maintain them? MIT's Media Lab (www.media.mit.edu) is already working with Volvo on the 'smartcar', which will recognise what the driver is doing, predict what he or she is likely to do next, and "assist" to make driving "a safer, easier, more efficient and enjoyable experience". But who's to say the out-of-the-plant personalities of these intelligent cars will be what the driver really wants? For example, a Southend-based City trader buying a Porsche is hardly going to want a prissy motor that slams the brakes on whenever he puts his foot down or locks the steering wheel if he tries to swerve in front of someone.
Whatever your views on environmental issues, the world's fossil fuels are running out fast. And as Silicon Valley has found out to its cost this year, your average UPS can't cope when it comes to prolonged outages. George Bush thinks nuclear power is the answer - but others believe improvements in green technologies such as solar, wind, wave and even clockwork energy will prove more empowering, not least because a decentralised model of electricity generation would free businesses from their reliance on a stumbling national grid to keep their IT up and running. Even overcast Britain receives 750 times more solar energy than its annual electricity consumption, and the efficiency of panels is rising as fast as their price is falling. You can even run a laptop using a small, roll-up solar mat. Companies like Solar Century (www.solarcentury.co.uk) are leading the way in the UK, but no one has yet targeted business from the IT angle, integrating corporate systems with their own source of power generation. And since many of those former tree-hugging, dreadlocked students are now besuited corporate IT managers, it may be an easier sell than you thought.
This was first published in October 2001