It's hard to believe it's been just a little over a year since the Kindle was made available to Canadians. Even less -- seven months -- since the iPad arrived here. In virtually no time at all, tablets and e-readers have gone from being the niche toys of eager early adopters to completely mainstream. What new technology will break through in 2011?
When CTV went gangbusters with its digital coverage of the Vancouver Olympics in February, it partnered with Bell to offer live mobile streaming, which didn't make a huge impact since most users weren't thinking of their smartphones as TV screens yet.
By February 2011, that will have changed significantly and by year's end, it'll likely be very common to see people on public transit or in coffee shops watching live TV or movies on a phone or a tablet like the iPad.
Canadian networks are racing to be leading-edge content providers to mobile platforms. Citytv, owned by Rogers Communications, has recently been ahead of the pack.
It was the first to offer a free app to watch shows on the iPad and recently enabled live streaming of its morning talk show "CityLine."
"What we want to do is give our customers what they want, which is access to high quality - especially prime time - content whenever they want it and wherever they want it," said Claude Galipeau, Rogers' vice president and general manager of digital media.
He said views through the iPad represent about 10 per cent of Citytv's overall streams, with most still coming through its website.
"But it's gone from - kind of catapulted from - nothing up to that point very, very quickly," Galipeau said.
"We're very, very optimistic about the future both in terms of audience adoption and, crucially, advertising dollars."
The mobile viewing platform "is a fairly high priority" for the CBC and work is being done to program apps for a number of different devices, said Bob Kerr, director of digital programming and business development.
"I think the evidence is there that people are consuming video more and more on these devices," Kerr said.
"It's something we can't ignore. I guess our philosophy is we're not just a broadcaster, we're a media company as well."
Voice recognition technology
One of the reasons some BlackBerry diehards refuse to switch to an iPhone or another touchscreen device is they can't imagine living without a keyboard. But Google bets those users would give up their keyboard if they could simply speak into their smartphone and make typing a thing of the past.
Two weeks ago, Google announced it had acquired speech technology company Phonetic Arts and cited "Star Trek" as an inspiration for its voice-recognition plans.
"In 'Star Trek,' they don't spend a lot of time typing things on keyboards, they just speak to their computers, and the computers speak back. It's a more natural way to communicate," says a blog post from the company.
"It's often most useful to interact with services by talking and listening rather than typing and reading ... so we'd like to get to a point where spoken input and output are ubiquitously available, added Google's manager of speech technology, Mike Cohen, in an interview.
Today, you can already try talking into a phone that runs on Google's Android platform, or runs Google apps. It already works fairly well for a short string of words or for ordering your phone to launch commands. For instance, you can tell your phone: "Listen to Radiohead 'OK Computer,"' "Call Mom," or "View map of Vancouver," and it will do just that.
About 25 per cent of searches on Android phones are now being launched by voice, Cohen said, and considering it doesn't always make sense for users to speak into their phone - in loud public places, for example - it's an impressive number.
"Voice search is working quite well and a pretty large proportion of people are quite satisfied with it. Things like dictating long emails and stuff like that is harder but I see improvements happening there (in 2011) that should be visible."
One very cool potential use for the technology is making instant translations available through the mobile web. Google is experimenting with letting a user speak to their phone in their native language, have it translated into another, and then played out loud to help travellers communicate with locals.
"It's a very hard problem but in many instances it works quite well," Cohen said.
"Obviously there's a lot of active research in improving the speech recognition and text-to-speech synthesis and improving the translation ... but we're working on all the pieces of that and over time you'll see that improve."
Other recent examples of voice-technology innovations include a feature in Microsoft's Kinect to control the gaming device by voice, a Canadian Tire product called VoiceItAll to listen to, or dictate emails or tweets on a phone, and AT&T has hinted that it's working on implementing voice controls in PVRs and TV set-top boxes.
The iPad was one of the hottest tech devices of 2010, even though it carried a hefty price tag that placed it outside the impulse-purchase range for many consumers. But a glut of tablet competition is due to flood the market in the months ahead and should push down prices - at least for devices trying to rival the iPad.
"I think we're going to see a lot sharper pricing," said tech consultant Mark Evans.
"I think Apple has reaped some pretty healthy profit margins by essentially being the only game in town and when you have other viable competitors that's obviously going to change the competitive landscape."
Vito Mabrucco, managing director of IDC Canada, agreed and expects 2011 to be a "break-out year for tablets."
"Consumers and businesses will benefit from added competition, lower price points and better functionality," Mabrucco said during a recent conference call.
"Everyone wants one whether they know why or not - well done, Apple."
Evans expects tablets will be seen virtually everywhere by the end of the year.
"I think it's going to change the way we consume information, content, and as more competition arrives on the scene I think it's going to be a lot more ubiquitous, lots of different kinds of people are going to be using tablets in lots of different kinds of ways."
Will 3D TV finally catch on?
Many thought the theatrical release of "Avatar" at the end of 2009 would spark a new wave of 3D mania and lead to sellouts of new TVs and glasses. "Avatar" did its part, going on to becoming the highest-grossing film of all time, but it's still rare to hear of people taking the 3D plunge at home.
The hype around 3D TVs hasn't lived up to the excitement that surrounded the launch of high definition, said Hugh Thompson, founder of Digitalhome.ca, which has about 90,000 tech-savvy users that post on the site's forums.
"It's not even close, honestly," Thompson said. "3D TV has generated really not that much talk."
That may start changing in 2011, as the price premium to buy a 3D-ready TV over a standard set is dropping. A big box store recently had a lower-end 50" 3D model on sale for $800.
It's also expected that more 3D programming will hit the airwaves in 2011, compared to the handful of experimental broadcasts that aired this year. But that's not necessarily a sure thing.
At a conference in October, an ESPN executive was quoted as saying the end of its one-year 3D experiment will wrap up by mid-2011, at which point the special broadcasts will be re-evaluated.
"We committed to a full year of trial of ESPN 3D and we're preparing for a second year, but whether this is something we repeat or continue or cut is something that at this point we have very little indication on one way or another," said senior director of technology Jonathan Pannaman, as reported by trade publication TVBEurope.
"We're still not sure what makes sense for 3DTV and we don't yet see a proven return on investment."
Jason Wren, a 38-year-old high school teacher from the Ottawa area, has a cautionary tale about buying too early into emerging technologies. He picked up a 3D TV in the technology's infancy, in 2008, before broadcast standards had been set. When they were established, his television was effectively rendered obsolete. He had to research a fix online and buy a converter box that gave his TV some extra life. But he couldn't even get it in Canada and had to order it in the United States.
"It's been an adventure," Wren said. "Getting in early on something can be frustrating."