Apple's iPhone is now with us, and it's an obvious choice for product of the year. But other trends and products have emerged in the gadget world in 2007 that could have a bigger impact on your life.
Some of the new trends and products will lead to newer, better services, and some provide new ways of interacting with information. And one trend that has long been with us in the technology world - better products for less money - has reached gale force for some types of electronic toys.
Here, then, are some of the trends and products of 2007 that could change your life.
Even without the iPhone, the first half of 2007 was a stellar time for new, innovative devices.
"There are some really cool phones coming out, but they're struggling for attention in the shadow of iPhone," said Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis at NPD Group.
Arguably, of course, this glut of excellent devices is in reaction to the iPhone, but that doesn't make them any less attractive. These new phones have either strong built-in music capabilities or a host of other features that consumers will find useful. One such phone is the Nokia N95 (see our Nokia N95 review), which has been available in some parts of the world since late last year but is just now rolling out in the UK. With GPS, Wi-Fi, music, video and a 5Mp camera in one well-designed package, Nokia's N95 iPhone killer does it all.
"I just got an N95, and from a gadget freak's point of view, it's really something," said Neil Strother, an analyst at JupiterResearch. "It has a 5-megapixel camera, which is more than the camera my family uses. If this isn't a glimpse into the future, it's a glimpse into some pretty cool technologies."
The Prada went on sale earlier this year in the UK, and immediately drew comparisons to Apple's iPhone because it too has a touchscreen display that takes up most of the front panel. "The Prada looks like iPhone's younger brother," Rubin said.
The Ocean is even more impressive, according to Derek Kerton, principal of The Kerton Group, a telecommunications consulting company.
"It's a great phone with double sliding keyboards," Kerton said. "But one of the coolest things is the easy search. Here's every step in a search: First, open the keyboard. Then type a search word, hit enter, and it immediately launches a search on the [3G] network and responds with a browser with tabs that include Wikipedia, Google and Amazon. Basically, in about eight seconds, you have the answer you want."
SanDisk tried mightily to match the iPhone hype with its Wi-Fi-enabled Sansa Connect media player but didn't succeed. Still, the Connect is a fascinating device that foretells the day in which mobile media players will be seamlessly integrated with the internet, making media available virtually any time, anywhere while you're on the move.
"Sansa Connect has been the most interesting product introduced in 2007 so far," said NPD's Rubin. "It's probably the best implementation of web services I've ever seen on a consumer electronics device."
Specifically, the Connect is tightly integrated with the Yahoo Music Unlimited subscription music service. Non-members can still connect to that service using the device's built-in Wi-Fi and listen to internet radio. Members can not only listen to internet radio but, if they like what they hear, download the song, the entire album or a playlist of similar songs. Members also can send songs and playlists to friends directly from the device using Yahoo Messenger.
Microsoft was the first with a wireless media streaming device, but SanDisk’s effort is a lot more impressive. With Microsoft Zune, you connect only to other Zune users who are near enough to connect directly via Wi-Fi. By contrast, Sansa Connect uses Yahoo Messenger to look for friends who are connected anywhere using a laptop or desktop computer or another Sansa Connect.
Unfortunately, SanDisk’s model is not due for release in the UK anytime soon.
A new interface emerges
One of the most intriguing aspects of the iPhone is its multi-touch interface, in which fingers are used to open, close and launch applications and media. In addition, Microsoft recently introduced its Surface user interface, which does the same thing on a larger scale.
As we reported last month, one example of how Microsoft plans to use the technology comes in the form of a ‘coffee table’ computer. The device – called ‘Milan’ - uses wireless auto sync and touchscreen technology to allow users and devices to interact with files and applications using a flat, table-top screen.
Microsoft said it expects to release computers for public places such as hotel lobbies using that interface later this year.
That means that this new type of interface, which the iPhone will surely make more popular, portends a shift from the standard text-and-icon fare of Windows and the Mac operating system to a new way of computing.
"This is a step toward natural and direct manipulation of information," Rubin said. "It presages new ways of working with information."
Never get lost: GPS everywhere
Competition is driving down GPS prices, and the technology is being built into mobile phones. The bottom line is that GPS is becoming more available and less expensive.
Another trend, exemplified by the recently introduced BlackBerry 8800, is GPS built into mobile phones. That has enabled mobile operators to start supplying mapping and location services.
Also on the horizon is the Dash Express from Dash Navigation, which could further change the GPS market.
"It'll have a cellular modem built in so you can use Yahoo Local and type in 'burrito' and get back a list of Mexican restaurants in the area and how to get to them," Rubin said. "Plus, you'll be able to type in an address on your PC and send it to the device so you don't have to enter it right into the device, which can be a hassle."
The Dash Express will also enable users to upload traffic-condition reports that will be available to other users in the area. It is expected sometime this year.
Flops or slow movers
Of course, not all hot trends or products make it. Here are four highly touted products or trends in which doubt is starting to creep in.
"It's a solution in search of a problem," said JupiterResearch's Strother. "It's kind of like disconvergence - it's one more gadget to put in your bag and bring a power cord for." The device is expected this summer.
Even Steve Jobs is back pedalling on how successful Apple TV will be, recently calling it a "hobby" for the company, not a serious product like its computers or iPods. The idea behind it - collecting media from computers in the home and the internet and playing them on TV - is solid, but it may not yet be time for it.
"There's a lot of moving parts in [the Apple TV] ecosystem," Rubin said. "You need the broadband connection, the network and a lot of other pieces." Plus, downloading video from the internet hasn't yet caught on the way downloading music has.
Plus, far more attention needs to be directed towards its UK features. It won’t work with a significant number of today’s UK television sets and, the lack of iTunes video content is another minus point.
Joost has been a high-profile website that says it will offer TV combined with the internet.
"There isn't enough content yet, not enough reason to go there," said James McQuivey, principal analyst at market research firm Forrester. "Until there's a Joost box connected to my TV that brings me a large selection of video, I don't see what the fuss is all about."
Mobile operators are eager to squeeze more revenue out of their networks with television delivered to mobile phones. Kerton noted that some of the new mobile TV technologies in the US, most notably Qualcomm's MediaFLO, which Verizon and, soon, AT&T will use, are quite excellent.
"The pictures are clear and beautiful," Kerton said. "But there's a lot more to successful mobile TV than good image quality, and it remains to be seen how successful this will be."
Certainly, the likes of Virgin, with its Lobster phone, have so far failed to set the world alight in the UK.