With the year's end comes the traditional sleigh-full of "best of" news pieces covering all variety of subjects. Our monthly technology review annually offers the same, but this is more of a technology "milestones" of the year -- a quick look at some of the gadgets and gismos and technologies that have touched our lives and may change our lifestyles.
My pick for gadget of the year would have to be Apple's iPod and iPod mini. It didn't come out this year, but by the beginning of December more than 9 million iPods were sold and most industry-watchers believed that number was going to far exceed 10 million by Christmas morning. What's more, these sleek devices have sparked a war among electronics manufacturers and rightfully had many of them rethinking the clunky space-junk design of many consumer electronics products. People are willing to pay more for wearable devices that don't look like something of Battlestar Galactica. Soon enough, we won't necessarily pay a premium for elegant design as manufacturers compete for the space in our pockets.
But the real revolution Apple has created isn't in the way we carry music, but the way we purchase it. Apple announced earlier this month that their iTunes music store customers have now downloaded over 200 million songs (They were at the 150 million-song mark in mid-October!). Some industry watchers have gone so far to say that if the company's star continues rising at its current rate, it may well sell 1 billion songs by the end of next year.
The company refuses to say how many users iTunes has, but the numbers are still significant. Apple has changed the way we buy music and, for musicians whose catalogs are available for download, significantly reduced the amount of money lost to pirating. My prediction is that, as bit rates gain speed, the next business to move to the Internet will be the neighborhood video store. (Hello, Blockbuster?)
Speaking of downloading from the Internet, 2004 was surely the year the world became wireless, or at least began making huge strides toward becoming so.
While there's no data available as to exactly how much area became covered with Wi-Fi networks this year, based on sales of Wi-Fi hubs, it's believed that overall coverage has grown exponentially more than any previous year. Airports, hotels, cafes and now even homes are going wireless as the price of the technology has dropped. More significantly, whole cities are planning wireless access areas (including Taipei's Shinyi District). Where not long ago people would have to search for a wireless access environment, they're now more likely to be sitting in one already.
As the virtual world has expanded, so has the world of materials. A Virginia-based company called NanoSonic has solved what could be described as the materials chemists' version of the riddle of the Sphinx: What material can conduct electricity like a metal, but stretch like a rubber band?
The answer, of course, is Metal Rubber, a filmy brown material that can extend to three times its original length and conduct electricity as well as a bar of steel. Already Lockheed Martin is using it to create airplane wings with more flex, but scientists believe it could have applications in medicine -- artificial muscles, for example, or more life-like prostheses. On a larger scale consumer basis, we may begin seeing cellphones and laptops that bounce when dropped.