"Real" 4G Mobile broadband. Verizon (NYSE: VZ) recently launched its 4G LTE network (via laptop modem cards). The Verizon network speed drawfs the "4G" networks being advertised by Sprint and T-Mobile. Verizon's 4G will be users' first taste of true mobile broadband and will further drive mobile data usage and the percentage of time users spend on the mobile Internet. The first 4G LTE handsets will be introduced mid-year and will be lighting fast compared to 3G models. Verizon's 4G deployment combined with its rumored access to the iPhone market will place substantial pressure on AT&T (NYSE: T) to accelerate its 4G rollout with exciting new (likely Android-based) handsets.

Speech recognition. Voice input into mobile devices will start to become more mainstream. Companies like Audience are enabling the reduction of background noise on handsets, driving much greater speech recognition accuracy. At the same time, the Android platform has legions of end users effectively "training" Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG) speech recognition engines (in multiple languages) via Google's voice search. Speech recognition quality will get better and better, and voice input will start to feel more intuitive and efficient compared to touch screen typing.

Solar industry progress. After a two-year drought of capital access and valuations challenges, a number of solar start-ups will have weathered the storm and start to show real progress on commercial deployments, manufacturing capacity and competitive costs per kilowatt hour. While it is unlikely this sector will be positioned to see new IPOs, a few early winners will emerge and bring new investor enthusiasm to the sector.

"See what I see." Apple's Facetime technology will expand its footprint and be enabled across multiple devices and beyond just WiFi. While video conversations will be common, the more mainstream use will providing a video window to another person to "see what I see" -- e.g., a concert, a document, a product, a meeting, etc. These video interactions will start to become commonplace.

Biotech M&A. Biotech sector deal making should heat up as the large pharma companies face increasing pressure to fill their R&D pipelines and mitigate the impact of drugs going off patent. While the IPO market for biotech may remain lukewarm, there should be more and more big deal-making for attractive clinical programs as well as acquisitions by the large players.

[Editor's Note: This is part of a series of posts from Xconomists and other technology and life sciences leaders from around the U.S. who are weighing in with the top surprises they've seen in their respective fields in the past year, or the major things to watch for in 2011.]


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Steve Hall is a managing director at Vulcan Capital and heads all early-stage venture capital investing.

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