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Apple in ten years

Sci-fi tech impressed in Avatar. Photo / Supplied
Sci-fi tech impressed in Avatar. Photo / Supplied

I just came back from seeing Avatar. It looked great. The story was – well, 'obvious' is the obvious word for it. But the tech was magnificent. And I saw it in 3D at the iMax, so it was engrossing despite itself.

Apart from the Auckland strange factor (two degrees of separation in this little country, folks): I saw my soccer friend Kelson Henderson piloting one of those helicopter thingies in the movie (he's an actor).

Then I had a coffee with my daughter and her boyfriend in a K' Rd café straight after (I saw Avatar with them) and we were discussing the movie and Kelson's role in it, and would you believe it? Kelson parked his car right next to us to do some last minute Christmas shopping, and stopped for a chat.

Another mate of mine is in it too: Dean Knowlsey who's a crack-shot Call of Duty 4 'MadMacs' guy.

But I digress. My dad was a librarian for a while. An avid reader, the house was always full of his books – history, novels, cook books and science fiction. I was weaned on history and sci-fi, and I've always enjoyed science fiction movies, but I always felt the tech let the movies down.

I mean, the original Alien was great, with the crusty old space ship and all. It was a great antidote to the sterile plastic of the Star Wars sets (sorry, I'm not geeky to the point I can appreciate the SW films).

It seemed to me that movie makers simply took the most modern looking thing they could possibly think of that existed now, and plonked it into 'the future'. So we got space ships with keyboard-driven computers and CRT monitors (with notable exceptions, of course). We got movies with the most weirdly futuristic cars in them – but they were weirdly futuristic present-day cars like Citroëns.

In Minority Report it seemed to me they were really thinking about the tech – those monitors that showed information hovering in space were a step forward, plus the way the screens could be physically 'pushed' with the hand.

Avatar continued with this idea, with the hovering topographical displays looking even more effective in 3D. Good stuff.

But since one of my recent Mac Planets was about Apple's past year, and while it's pretty easy to predict what Apple will do in 2010 (in a nutshell: more powerful multicore processors in the Mac Pros, new power-saving faster MacBook chips, a new iPhone model, and probably a tablet), I got to wondering what Apple would be producing in a decade.

Things change really, really fast, don't they? When the CRT all-in-one iMacs first shipped they looked like the future. Just a few years later, they look faintly ridiculous. The following 'pedestal iMac' with the LCD on a stainless steel stalk looked great, but now that seems quaint.

The upright flat-panel iMac that has broadly survived, design-wise, into this latest lineup, still looks smartly modern but if you put the very latest alongside a four-year-old model, the latest one definitely looks a lot more 'now', and better for it.

Apple patents innovations and ideas constantly. I keep an eye on these, as do many Mac watchers. For example, future Apple hardware could track the location of a user and adjust a 3D display according to their position, creating the illusion that an on-screen object is physically present.

This is known as 'head-tracking', a technology has been known and implemented for some time. But the patent application filed by Apple a couple of weeks ago suggests the Inc could employ the advanced method to allow users greater interactivity with their computers.

It could adjust the perspective of on-screen images relative to a person's own view. When examining a 3D chart, for example, shifting your head left or right could present a different angle.

Apple boosted battery life from three to four hours to a quite remarkable seven in all the latest MacBooks and MacBook Pros, and it continues to work on battery technology. Another recent patent suggests a dynamic method of coping with limited power.

Remember when LCD monitors seemed new? Now they are commonplace and inexpensive. Even TVs use them.

So what's next? There has been talk for years of screen technology that is simply a non-light-emitting surface upon which characters and pictures 'draw' instantly, animated or not. It's coming, and the Kindle eBook reader sort of suggests what's possible. This would cause a lot less eyestrain and could conceivably be a flexible material that escapes the bounds of upright monitor frames and stands. You could 'subscribe' and have your favourite newspaper download into it, for example – wherever you are, and from wherever you choose.

And after that? Something 3D, I would imagine, although then you'd have the spectacle of people sitting in cafés with animated actions going on upon their table tops or in their laps. So perhaps it won't actually be accepted and used, even if it's possible.

Talking about 'escaping the bounds' – how about flash drives? Expect spinning, magnetic hard drive technology to completely disappear from desktop and laptop computers some time in the next two-to-five years.

On-chip storage is lighter, much less sensitive to damage, uses less power and it's faster. It's currently expensive and holds less, but both those factors are changing almost daily.

Widespread adoption of on-chip storage releases hardware designers from all sorts of constraints they must currently work within – power requirements, shock-proof mountings, shielding, device size, weight (thus chassis strength) ...

If Apple does produce a tablet, do you really think it will have a clunky hard drive inside? It's unlikely. And if it's a success, on-chip storage will rapidly get cheaper and more developed.

Meanwhile, on the iPhone, augmented reality is only just starting. In the future, you could be walking around (if you choose to) within a bubble of streaming info about where you are, where your friends are, where services are, which roads are jammed, what weather's coming …

Meanwhile, environmental concerns will also have a resounding impact on power generation, storage and the designs and materials of everything we use. It's going to be an interesting decade.

So, Happy New Year and all that.

- Mark Webster mac-nz

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