Technology 2012: Four tech trends to watch

Technological innovations lay at the heart of many of last year's biggest stories -- from citizen-recorded videos that fanned the flames of the Arab Spring to the social-media organized Occupy movement. So what new technologies – and unexpected uses of them – will change social habits and relationships this year? Here are four 2012 technology trends that are sure to play a role: 

1. Mobile technologies in 2012 will free us – and save lives

Matthew Clark/The Christian Science Monitor/File
A young saleswoman tells potential customers on the edge of Africa's largest slum in Nairobi in this 2007 file photo. M-PESA is one of the world's first cellphone-to-cellphone cash transfer services. Mobile technology is one of the Top 4 technology trends for 2012.

Whether we use mobile phones to broadcast baby pictures on Facebook, organize a surprise party via text messages, or sneak in a round of Angry Birds before a staff meeting, we tend to take the convenience of these pocket powerhouses for granted. But for millions in the developing world, these devices are a cheap lifeline to priceless health information.

For example, mobile users in South Africa and Uganda can receive free HIV/AIDS counseling, and guidance on testing and prevention, via text messaging on their handsets. Healthcare workers in Rwanda are saving mothers’ lives by monitoring pregnant villagers using free, government-provided cellphones. Dozens of similar outreach programs are opening a new front in the war on diseases in poor, rural areas not served by land-line Internet or telephones.

Their potential reach is vast: 64 percent of handset users are located in the developing world. And evidence shows that patients who receive information on their handsets are more likely to call information hotlines and comply with treatment.

These initiatives demonstrate the worldwide impact of mobile technologies. Using cellphones, tablets, and e-readers, people now have more flexibility to work, collaborate, play games, or watch video anywhere and any time. Nine in 10 Americans, and 70 percent of people worldwide, use mobile phones to text, swap pictures or video, and interact via social networks more often than they do to talk to one another. Children in the United States are now more likely to possess a mobile phone than they are to own a book.

In 2012, expect devices’ features and designs to match our need to roam: whether to work outside the office, watch movies while we exercise or travel, or tap into social networks everywhere in between. E-book reader prices will drop over the next five years, and device categories will blur as tablets and e-readers vie for acceptance as the ideal platform for books. Apps are now firmly mainstream and highly lucrative; an estimated 50 billion apps will be downloaded in 2012. And watch for more apps that permit mobile payments – still an emerging technology in the US market – as consumers grow comfortable making purchases and transferring money on the go.

The growing power and convenience of mobile devices will make them the platform of choice for functions once limited to home and work computers. So keep your cellphone handy – and kiss your desktop system goodbye.

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