One of the great things about a new year is anticipating which technologies will steal the show and which players will emerge as top dog in the battles for market domination. This year, I think the top technologies to look out for are application servers, wireless and innovative computer interfaces.
My first tip for top technology of 2001 has already been around for a few years. In 2001, however, the grip of application servers on the e-business market will tighten - to the detriment of some older technologies.
As for the second, this year will see the wireless market hog the limelight. The emergence of next-generation mobile networks will be matched by the invasion of offices and homes by unswitched, short-range wireless technologies. Last, the most cutting-edge, although one not new to computer science labs, will be the emergence of new computer interfaces: speech control, natural language processing and cyberbots.
Application servers are becoming core to integrated e-business development environments, and this year their hold on the enterprise software market will tighten. Before the Internet exploded, enterprise software came mainly in the form of client/server applications (also called two-tier architectures). However, Internet systems require at least one other server - the Web server between the client (browser) and the usual back-end server - which has given rise to three-tier and multi-tier enterprise architectures.
In the last few years, common functionality that can reside on the server side has driven the development of e-business applications. Application servers take a model such as COM or Java Beans, and marry it with a common container or server environment.
The advantage of having an application server is that it lets you develop Web applications easily and quickly because the utilities and services to create server-based, scalable applications reside in the application framework.
As application servers become more important to business success, so they will become more broadly used across enterprises, rather than on an ad hoc basis for specific projects. This may even be the year that application servers will take control of enterprises in a way that will threaten the use of traditional ERP software from SAP, PeopleSoft and the like.
The big names in the application server market are BEA's WebLogic, IBM's Websphere, Jrun from Allaire and Dynamo from Art Technology Group. However, I wouldn't be surprised to see consolidation among the smaller players. The key technology here is Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition (J2EE), which gives a truly open environment for developing and integrating critical e-business systems.
In addition to switched mobile networks, which will slowly roll out in the form of GPRS, unswitched wireless technologies will proliferate in businesses as well as homes. There are many such technologies and standards in this area, the most notable being Bluetooth, IrDA, Home RF and IEEE 802.11.
These cross-currents of standards can be confusing, as the technologies compete on some fronts but are complementary on others. A common theme is that all use radio technology for wireless transmission of data, and support the formation of networks and management of various devices by means of high-level software.
Although relatively new, Bluetooth has emerged as the front runner for a short-range wireless protocol. Now that there are a number of manufacturers of Bluetooth chips, 2001 will be the year when some interesting applications of short-range wireless technology appear. Also look out for more common applications, such as synchronisation of data on mobile and non-mobile devices, replacement of mice and keyboard cables, and voice transfer.
In the year 2001, interfaces other than keyboard and mouse, and indeed the 12-button phone keypad, will be tried out by users. The new interfaces will include speech, natural language and three-dimensional 'bots'.
Although speech technologies seem to have been around in the labs for decades now, they are increasingly being deployed. The difficulties of using the 12-button keypad on mobile phones, coupled with the proliferation of the mobile phone itself, will hasten the use of speech recognition and text-to-speech as a human interface to technology. Speech won't replace the keyboard and mouse for a long time to come, but expect to see useful trials in this area during this year.
Natural language involves the use of everyday language to interact with the computer. Web navigation and queries such as email complaints or customer service enquiries over the Web can be processed much more effectively where the system can understand the meaning intended by the combination of words typically used by a customer, as opposed to today's structured form-filling approach. Although it is still early to expect computers to understand generic, free-flow text, they will be developed in 2001 to handle very specific task domains such as financial call centre or IT helpdesk queries.
Characterised 3D cyber robots (or simply 'bots') will interact with Website visitors to offer a more varied experience. Bots may deploy natural language processing and speech input and output capabilities to help in tasks such as searching for something on the Internet, or comparing prices when shopping for an airline ticket.