Six tech trends to watch in 2008

Phone companies are on the run, and – look out! – Apple is plunging into movies. Privacy, meanwhile, is out the window. And watch for the emerging battle of the software titans: Microsoft vs. Google.

By , Columnist

When it comes to predicting tech trends, I think back to a luncheon I attended a dozen years ago. There, a prominent reporter for a major New York newspaper told me that the Internet would go nowhere. It would never be a threat to newspapers, he said.

I wonder how he's feeling about that prediction now.

But whenever a new year starts, film and music columnists look backward, and business and tech columnists look forward. So, putting myself in a forward frame of mind, here are a few thoughts about where we may be headed in 2008:

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1. Apple moves into movies.

After my brothers got out of college, they managed a record store. But I doubt they spend much time going to a store to buy music anymore. The iPod has made that the 21st-­century equivalent of taking a horse-and-buggy ride.

And now, starting in mid-January, Steve Jobs is getting into the movie business. Apple will rent movies from Fox at its iTunes digital media store. Apple is not the first: Microsoft and Amazon already offer online video rentals. But Apple has a built-in user base of more than 100 million people worldwide who own iPods, many of them the newer version that features video as well as audio. Advice to Blockbuster and Netflix: Be afraid, be very afraid!

2. Fewer copyright protections restrict digital music.

It makes me furious that the music industry threatened and bullied people about downloading music online, and now it apparently aims to abandon the effort to protect its copyrights.

Last Thursday, Warner Brothers said it will sell songs and albums without anticopying protections on Amazon's new digital music service. Apple's Steve Jobs (there he is again) called on all music companies to drop DRM (digital rights management) protections earlier in the year. EMI was the first to do so on iTunes.

Now all the record companies are thinking about it, but with a twist. They will sell the music without DRM protection on every digital music service except iTunes, in order to give Jobs's competitors a boost. Ain't competition grand?

3. Phone companies face a growing assault from free alternatives.

In years past when my wife, a Middle Eastern historian, traveled to that part of the world, my phone bills would skyrocket. The kids would want to talk to her at least every other day, and there were always household business matters that couldn't be handled via e-mail. It was not unusual for me to pay an extra $200 to $300 a month.

But when she spent a month in Turkey this past summer, I didn't pay a penny extra in phone charges thanks to Skype, an online-based "phone" service. Skype users can talk to each other all over the world for free if both use the program. (You can use Skype to call a landline, but that costs money.) Not only did we talk every day and sometimes for as long as an hour, we also got to see her while we did it – video calls are free, too.

Do the math. No wonder phone companies are scared.

4. Social networking continues to grow.

Do you know anyone under the age of, oh, 35, who doesn't have a Facebook account or a MySpace page? (Most of the current presidential candidates do.) Not to mention the Second Life folks. Social networking will continue to grow rapidly in 2008. But I think people will tire of so many offerings and settle on one or two main places. And they'll want software that can manage their multiple online identities for them.

But smaller, more vertical social networking will flourish as well, like jango.com, which connects music fans with similar tastes or like linkpats.com, which links expatriate communities worldwide.

5. Privacy is in free fall.

You're going to have less privacy next year, that's all there is to it. I canceled my Facebook account when its operators tried to rather surreptitiously track the Web travels of its members – and even nonmembers. But the horse is already out of that barn. Advertisers are drooling at the possibility of knowing what you're doing online … all the time.

More phones have GPS locators. (About 20 percent now, 50 percent within five years.) On one hand, you'll soon see mobile features that will let you "track your friends" (more social networking). On the other hand, every time you get too close to a Macy's or Target store, you'll receive a coupon on your cellphone that is only good if you come in now. (Remember that scene of Tom Cruise walking through the mall in "Minority Report"? Something like that.)

While most of these changes will be enacted in the name of business, government agencies are just as interested. If you have an Internet account of any kind, you can be watched. Records of your online activity can be turned over to law enforcement; they don't have to tell you, and you'll have no way to stop it.

6. Google battles Microsoft for control.

One last trend, and in some ways the most consequential one: Google and Microsoft will intensify their struggle for control of your desktop software. It'll make Mac versus PC look like a walk in the park.

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