Ten years ago, cell phones were just phones. The fanciest ones had a camera. Today, handsets have become smartphones -- full-fledged computers in our pockets, running circles around most desktops from 2005.
You know how it goes: In technology, everything becomes better, faster, and cheaper all the time. Yesterday's science fiction is today's mainstream gadgetry -- and tomorrow's outdated museum exhibit.
So what's coming around the bend to change our lives in the next 10 years? We asked a panel of Motley Fool contributors with a deep vision of future technologies, and this is what they found.
Keith Noonan (IP cameras): The idea of Internet-connected cameras in every home may conjure some scary, dystopian images, but if the fear of Big Brother doesn't stand in the way, the technology could revolutionize home management and security.
Internet protocol cameras, or net cameras as they're sometimes called, include a wide range of Internet-connected video-capture devices. However, the term "IP camera" is most often associated with security devices, and some of the biggest names in tech and telecom are invested in making them a fixture of the modern home. These devices offer the ability to monitor the homestead from remote locations and can allow users to check in on children or pets in addition to making sure that all is safe and quiet on the home front.
While home security is most associated with industry stalwarts such as ADT, companies including Time Warner Cable (UNKNOWN:TWC.DL), Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA), and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) are also competing to provide these emerging monitoring services, and each company's infrastructure strengths look to facilitate the adoption of consumer IP cameras over the next decade.
Comcast and Time Warner Cable are already bundling their IP security hardware and services with smart home technologies such as remote thermostat control. As the largest cable and Internet service providers in America, the two companies are mining a large base of potential customers for cameras and monitoring services, and smaller cable and Internet companies are also hoping to capitalize on the tech. Meanwhile, Google's Nest subsidiary currently offers its Net Cam at $199 without a subscription requirement, though its features can be augmented with a $10 monthly subscription to the Nest Aware service.
With IP cameras being a natural fit for smart home integration, and with tech and telecom powerhouses promoting their adoption, the devices look to have a solid shot at becoming a household standard.
Anders Bylund (Self-driving cars): Right now, carmakers and tech giants are changing transportation from the ground up. I mean, a revolutionary overhaul. Our kids and grandchildren will hardly recognize the cars of 2015 as a valid way of getting from point A to point B. It's that big, and it's that imminent.
I'm not talking about battery-toting electric cars (tomorrow's vehicles might be powered by fuel cells, solar panels, or natural gas, to name a few gasoline alternatives). And sure, the designs will be different -- you wouldn't be caught dead in a 2005 Camry today, right? -- but that's not the point.
It's all about self-driving cars. The vehicles of tomorrow will let you sit down, dial up a destination, and then kick back with a book until you get there. In spite of the completely computerized controls, your trip will be very safe. Actually, that's thanks to the computer at the wheel, not at all in spite of it.
Think I'm kidding? I'm not.
Google's early prototypes of next-generation cars don't even come with a steering wheel. Big G is already taking these things out into live traffic with no manual control at all. With the full knowledge that machine-powered crashes would lead to big legal issues, the company feels confident enough to give these early models a loose leash.
That's today, in 2015. Google would be the first to admit that the systems aren't perfect yet. So the self-driving cars have a 25 mph top speed and are programmed for extremely defensive driving, exposing themselves to minimal risks until the system programmers have figured out how to deal with every conceivable situation. But imagine how much better these tools will be in 10 years. It's like moving from a Palm Treo to an iPhone 6, or from VHS tapes to Blu-ray and online high-definition streaming. Car-driving tech will move ahead that far, that fast.
Let's cut to the chase.
The move to automated driving isn't just coming -- it's inevitable.
More than 90% of motor-vehicle accidents are caused by human error. Ninety percent.
Remove the human factor from that equation, and a ton of American lives will be saved. Consider that 32,719 people died in U.S. car crashes in 2013. If human error weren't a factor back then, more than 29,000 people would have been spared. Automated systems might never become 100% safe, but even small reductions in these accident statistics will translate to thousands of lives saved.
In short, there's no way around it. Handing the wheel to a computer will save lives, slash insurance costs, and give you more time not navigating through rush-hour traffic. By 2025, this technology will already have gone mainstream in a big way.
Tim Beyers (Fiber or gigabit wireless): Bandwidth consumption is growing so fast that existing cable networks are going to have a hard time keeping up. My guess is, by 2025, we'll be replacing them with either gigabit wireless, fiber, or some other network technology that's several times faster and more efficient than the infrastructure we have now.
We need it to stream entertainment. Networking-gear maker Arris (NASDAQ:ARRS) recently polled consumers around the globe and found that nearly two-thirds have trouble with their Wi-Fi networks at home. That's a startling number, especially when you consider that, in March, Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) and YouTube accounted for over half of downstream U.S. Internet traffic during peak hours.
What happens when rivals offer more compelling streamed content? What happens when consumers finally adopt ultra-high resolution 4K screens? Fatter pipes are needed to pump all this content to our homes, and upgrading the aging cable infrastructure isn't likely to cut it.
In the meantime, a growing number of communities are getting the benefits of gigabit connections thanks to Google Fiber, forcing big-name telcos to rush their own efforts to deploy alternatives. At the same time, efforts to build a fifth-generation -- or, "5G" -- wireless network are already under way, with at least one international working group, The Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance, targeting deployment by 2020. Not surprisingly, Google is also among those leading the effort to create 5G networks.
Who gets there first doesn't matter. What's important is that, by 2025, broadband networks won't look anything like what we have now.
The telcos that accept this have a future; the ones that don't ... don't.