I can't promise you the year ahead is going to be an improvement over the scary one coming to an end, but one thing you can count on is plenty of news in technology. A lot of the hottest developments in 2009 will come in an area that has been relatively quiet in recent years—personal computer software.
Both Microsoft (MSFT) and Apple (AAPL) are planning major releases of operating systems in the coming months. The Microsoft product, Windows 7, isn't officially due out until the very end of the year or early 2010. However, in a strange and welcome departure from tradition, Microsoft appears to be on track to ship the software early. Computer manufacturers report that they expect to include the newest Windows on their laptops and desktops next fall.
I have been using an early test version of Windows 7 for a couple of months. It does not break a lot of ground; it seems more like the software Vista should have been. That sounds disparaging, but it isn't meant to be. Vista, which launched in early 2007, has solid foundations but suffers from a bunch of really annoying behaviors, such as constantly asking permission to perform trivial tasks and extremely slow network file transfers. These have given Vista a dismal reputation.
With Windows 7, Microsoft has built on what's good, eliminated many of the irritants, and generally avoided the kind of overpromising and under-delivering that doomed Vista. A new, closer-to-final test version is due in mid-January. I'll continue to report on this software as it gets closer to launch.
We know a lot less about Apple's Snow Leopard. One of the few things the secretive company has said about the operating system, its sixth major version of Mac OS X, is that it will be optimized to use multiple processors. That's a big deal in a world where software still isn't taking full advantage of today's most powerful chips. Initially, this advance will mainly benefit power users doing such processor-intensive tasks as video rendering or high-end design work, but there will be new features for the rest of us, too.
One of the great surprises of 2008 was the success of mini notebooks, also known as netbooks. Taiwan's ASUS blazed the trail with its popular EeePC, and most other brands now have some version of these compact notebooks, which offer 9-in. or 10-in. displays and are priced from around $350 to $700. One possibility is that these products, equipped with modems that allow the owner to use wireless data networks, will be sold like handsets, with carriers offering steep discounts on netbooks in exchange for a service commitment. Such subsidies are catching on in Europe. In Britain, Vodafone offers a Dell Inspiron Mini 9 free with a two-year, £ 30 (about $45) monthly contract. In the U.S., RadioShack (RSH) has just announced that it will sell an Acer Aspire One mini notebook for $100 with a two-year AT&T (T) contract starting at $60 a month.
The coming year is likely to see new efforts to promote another type of mobile device: a touchscreen tablet with a display of 7 inches or so. Intel (INTC) is promoting these "mobile Internet devices," but the Windows-based products from Samsung, Sony (SNE), and others have struggled to find a market. The wild card would be if Apple jumped in with a rumored "super iPhone," a device with a substantially larger version of the iPhone's multi-touch screen. But as always with Apple rumors, we'll know when Steve Jobs decides to tell us.
Of course, smartphones will continue to be the feature story in 2009, though perhaps the new releases will come at a less feverish pace. A lot of attention is likely to be showered on new phones from Motorola (MOT) and others running Google's (GOOG) Android software.
Palm (PALM), whose fortunes have been slipping badly, plans one last bid to regain relevance and a future by replacing its antiquated Palm operating system. And Microsoft will offer a new version of its smartphone software. It will be an interim release, however, not the long-awaited Windows Mobile 7.
The days are short, the weather is cold, and the near-term economic outlook is bleak, but there will be better days ahead. As always, I want to thank you, my readers, for your loyalty and wish all of you a happy and peaceful new year.