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Tech in 2011: Who knows what's next?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:00 UK time, Friday, 31 December 2010

It's time for me to look into my crystal ball and tell you what's going to happen in the technology world in 2011. Actually, let's scrub that. Predicting the future is a mug's game: just ask the man with the personal jetpack eating his lunch in space-age tablet form. Instead, in the manner of circumspect (or desperate) journalists everywhere, I'm going to ask a series of questions about the year ahead.

Will TV and the internet finally get married?

The keenest technophiles will say this has already happened: they are using all sorts of clever little boxes to stream internet content to their televisions. But the consortium behind YouView - the BBC, ITV, and Channels 4 and 5 - is betting that when its set-top box is finally launched in 2011, it will give web-connected TV mainstream appeal.

Virgin Media, BskyB, and Google all have similar ambitions, so if by the end of the year we are not getting used to having television delivered via our broadband connections, then something will have gone terribly wrong.

Will Facebook float?

The latest valuation of Facebook put its worth at around $45 billion, but for the investors who funded the social network in its early years, that is still virtual money. Making it real would mean an IPO - a stock market flotation - which Mark Zuckerberg has always resisted. So far, Time's Person of 2010 has been right every time he has rejected the advice to sell up or at least float his baby. But with the markets looking pretty healthy, might he finally decide it's time to cash in before the latest tech bubble bursts?

Don't bet on it - but it could be a great time for another social network, Twitter, to cash in before the questions about its business model become impossible to answer with a straight face.

Will iPad 2 keep Apple ahead?

As ever, Apple has said nothing about a new iPad, but there is plenty of evidence that a second version of the tablet which rocked the tech world in 2010 will have its second coming in 2011.

When it is unveiled, iPad 2 is likely to be thinner and lighter than its predecessor and to feature a camera for video calls. By then there should be a clutch of Android tablets - and the odd Windows slate - with similar or better functionality. They are also likely to undercut the iPad, which experience shows will stay around the same price at which it launched.

But don't bet that Apple's device will be toppled from its perch. The aura of cool around the iPad - however much it may be despised by some of the digerati - is not going to fade soon, and there is a vast reservoir of untapped demand for the tablet from a less techie audience which will not accept a substitute.

Mind you, when it comes to e-readers, here's one confident prediction: Amazon's Kindle will prove a far more popular place to buy and read e-books than the iPad.

Will location, location, location finally matter?

The word "location" seems to pop up in just about every press release from a technology firm. I've just deleted one about a "location based events app with a Social Game", having decided there were at least a couple too many 2010 buzzwords in that sentence.

Location-based services have been the next big thing in the mobile world since I-don't-know-when. The promise has been of a goldmine for retailers and operator in a future where mobile phone users are bombarded with messages from merchants as they walk past their doors with their location-aware handsets.

In 2010 Foursquare - a location-based social game - started to show how that vision might work, albeit for a niche audience mainly made up of sociable young New Yorkers.

But unless 2011 brings us a huge advance in the performance of mobile networks, coupled with a transformation of consumer behaviour, I think this is a revolution that may be postponed once again.

Will Google get sociable at last?

From Orkut to Buzz, Google's experiments with social networking have failed to catch fire. With so much web chatter about the threat Facebook now poses to the search giant, it looks certain that Google will feel obliged to try again with a networking initiative. But this interesting post on another social network suggests that it's just not in Google's DNA to get sociable.

"I worked at Google in 2005 and briefly on the Orkut team. I encountered an environment that viewed social networking as a frivolous form of entertainment rather than a real utility, and I'm pretty sure this viewpoint was shared all the way up the chain of command to the founders.
"At that time, hardly anyone at Google actually used Facebook, so they just didn't understand what people were getting out of social networking products. Incredibly, many people on the Orkut team did not use their own product (let alone Facebook) outside of work. By contrast, everyone I know who worked at Facebook was a passionate user of that product."

Will asking - and answering - questions be the next big thing on the web?

The post above was on Quora, a new social network devoted to the asking and answering of questions, and it came in response to the question "Why haven't major companies like Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo succeeded at social networking?" It's hardly a new idea - from Yahoo Answers to, web services promising to build a database of useful answers have been trying and generally failing to catch on for more than a decade.

What's different about Quora is the social aspect, the focus on technology and the quality of the responses. Because it has been colonised by early adopters from Silicon Valley, you are quite likely to find knowledgeable people answering your questions, and on occasion company executives giving some real insight into what is going on inside their businesses.

While it's been around for more than a year, in the last couple of weeks of 2010 Quora seems to have caught on in a big way, with leading tech bloggers enthusing about it, much as they did with Twitter in 2007. The problem for this young business is that it may now suffer from the reverse of a network effect. The more people join, the less useful it may get, as all sorts of ignoramuses - like this blogger - clutter up your feed with poorly thought-out questions and answers.

But maybe I should simply pop over to Quora and ask it whether it will be huge by the end of 2011? In the meantime, a Happy New Year to all readers of this blog. If you have some questions and answers about next year's technology news, do feel free to comment below.

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