The Best IT Products of 2007

Why wait four years to read these reviews when you can read them right now? Check out a few of the best products of 2007 before they are invented.

Variable Iconic Keyboard (VIK)
At last, a keyboard that can display information as well as enter it. While I proposed this in 1987 [http://www.princeton.edu/~howard/pie/pie.htm] it took 20 years for someone to finally build it, but the VIK is a wonderful product that changes the way we use keyboards.

Each key of the Variable Iconic Keyboard is actually an LCD display that defaults to standard QWERTY format. In use, the symbol or icon displayed on each key depends upon the font and function selected. When entering Greek prose, Greek letters appear on the keys. When entering chemical equations the keys display chemical symbols. For music, equations, Chinese, or any other special input, the keyboard displays appropriate symbols. Function keys, escape keys, cloverleaf keys, and other special keys are gone, replaced by a group of general purpose keys and keys otherwise unused at the moment that display in-context icons for just those functions that are available at any moment. For simple things such as multiple-choice questions, the keyboard only displays the possible choices (the other keys display nothing). And of course it is programmable so that any software can use it to display whatever symbol or customized icon seems best. Sure, you can still use those pictures of keyboards on your screen and you can try to remember the keyboard short cuts, but how much nicer it is to press a key that says Refresh than to remember which function key d'es that. Most of those tablet PCs now include a Variable Iconic keyboard.

The Neutrino Plus Chip
The Neutrino Plus chip finally makes real mobile computing available. Of course it is a super-low power chip that uses a fuel cell battery that lasts 170 hours [www.nec.co.jp/press/en/0309/1701.html] or so per fill up in a laptop, but it is also compatible with all mobile formats—Bluetooth, cell (CDMA, TDMA, GSM, GPRS, and UWB), Wi-Fi (802.11a thru k), the walkie-talkie standards (FRS and GMRS), and others. The chip is software upgradeable to adapt to future mobile standards. Now you can use your laptop, PDA, or other intelligent mobile device everywhere. The Neutrino Plus chip switches to the least expensive connection having appropriate quality as one moves from place to place.

The Plus in the Neutrino Plus chip is its inclusion of an FM, XM tuner/ receiver plus a 3-inch satellite TV dish. While you can poke around on the net to find creaky Web radio and TV broadcasts, with Neutrino Plus you can just tune the chip to NPR, CNN, HBO, or anything you can get from a radio, TV, or satellite. The tuners are integrated into mobile devices so that you can search on broadcasts by topic, artist, time, or other features, and when copyright allows, broadcasts can be saved for replay, editing, or e-mail attachments.

Screen Breakthroughs
The year 2007 has seen many advances in screen technology, especially for devices, such as PDAs, cell phones, watches, and intelligent jewelry that have small screens. The Origami Display Device uses a unique folding screen that unfolds from a tiny ornamental butterfly or dragon to a screen a square foot or larger, then snaps back automatically. ODDs in the shape of small squares or polygons are also available. The new Rotoli Reali scrolling screen uses quite a different approach to packaging a large screen in a small package. A typical Rotoli Reali is about 7 inches long and unscrolls to 12.5 inches, the aspect ratio and size of a 14-inch HD TV. It scrolls up to the thickness of a pencil, and with its pen clip, one can keep a few of them in a shirt pocket or toss them in a purse. One version unscrolls into a cylinder that wraps around your head to give an out of this world virtual reality experience.

Another technology, the Direct Vision screen, creates a heads up display on specially equipped eyeglasses or contact lenses. All in all, this cornucopia of new screen technologies at last gives small devices access to large screens.

The Information Summarizer
Although MS Word has had a summarize function for years (see AutoSummarize under Tools). We now have a more powerful tool integrated into our office tools, Web browsers, news watchers, and search engines. With the Information Summarizer you can view summaries of news, memos, documents, and Web sites condensed to any degree before investing the time to read the unabridged versions.

Channelized Portal Information
This year, we’ve seen major applications offered in which the sole user interface is via a portal. News services, financial applications, and self-service applications are appearing as portal channels or portlets instead of as independent Web pages. The foresighted pioneers who created enterprise portals now have a wealth of channelized information with which to populate them.

Simulations
MESA—the Multidisciplinary Educational Simulation Archive has finally gotten off the ground after a rocky start. You’ll recall that MESA is a large consortium of colleges and universities that are building reusable sharable simulations that are as easy to include in a Web site as an image. These simulations all allow customization by just checking a few boxes and selecting a few pull-down menus. Faculty members are starting to add impressive simulations to online course material that they are building themselves now that the MESA library has several hundred offerings.

The NEC Fuel Cell Battery
While discussing the Neutrino Plus chip, I mentioned a fuel cell battery that ran for many hours on a fill up of methanol fuel. This sounds at least as unlikely as the other future products reviewed here, but before dismissing any of them you should know that NEC has already demonstrated a prototype notebook PC powered by such a battery. While no one can reliably predict the future, by trying to do so we gain the opportunity to influence what it will be. Just a few years ago some of the things we take for granted today would have seemed like magic. Besides getting the payroll out and getting the e-mail through, one vital job we all have in IT is to ensure that the magic continues.

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