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3 trends that will Shape the Digital World over the Next Decade

2009 August 16

We’re often consumed by what will change over the next few years, but taking a longer view can be more interesting and instructive.  Some of the world’s smartest people are hard at work developing amazing things that will dramatically change the way we interact with technology and each other over the next decade.  Here are a few of them:

1. Virtually free and unlimited bandwidth and storage: This is so important that Chris Andersen (of “Long Tail” fame) just wrote an entire book about it: “Free“. Storage and bandwidth, already fairly substantial, are improving performance and cost efficiency even faster than processor speed is .  The marginal cost is falling to practically zero.

The trend is significant because it changes usage drastically. What is scarce is conserved but what is abundant is used freely.  The days of waiting those agonizing few minutes for web pages to load are already long past.  When we can trade full length movies as easily as we can download web pages and store as many as we want, the way we interact with media will change.  The restriction won’t be download time, but real time (as rock bands today give away their music but charge for performances).

As people become able to colloborate on media like they do a PowerPoint presentation, we can expect to see a lot more “peer to peer” stuff with people creating and sharing back and forth – Marshal McLuhan style.  If you think about where storytelling, music, and other performance media would fit into a “Global Village” – a virtual campfire without any boundaries – you can imagine all sorts of primordial things that people will want to do digitally: sing-a-longs, treasure hunts, mythmaking, etc.

2. Quantum Computing and Encryption: In order for technology to advance, computers need to get faster and cheaper.  That’s been done successfully for 50 years, but now the ability to continue progress is threatened.  If we can’t make chips faster, we can’t move forward.  This is a big problem and researchers are working overtime to find an amazing solution!  This one is a little bit hard to explain, so stay with me here…

Current Chip design is based on transistors, which were developed at Bell Laboratories in 1947.  They replaced vacuum tubes in electronic devices and were much smaller and more efficient.  Transistors could have two positions, which could be translated into binary code (ones and zero’s).  By producing a series of transistors it became possible to generate enough information to translate the ones and zeros into something intelligible.  Everything computers can do today is limited to how many ones and zeros the computer chips can generate.

Eventually, William Shockley, the “father of the transistor’ left Bell labs to form Shockley Semiconductor.  He was long on intelligence (and was a recipient of the Nobel Prize) but short on personal qualities and key members of his staff left to start Fairchild Semiconductor. It was there that the silicon based integrated circuit (what we now call computer chips) was invented in 1958.  They key people at Fairchild would eventually form Intel.

Chips today are exactly like those in 1958, with one important difference: they have a lot more transistors.  The transistors are basically drawn (etched) into  silicon and the smaller they can be drawn, the more transistors can fit onto a single chip and the faster the processor speed (which means that the computer is both cheaper and more powerful).  Current advances to chip design, for the most part, involve drawing the circuits smaller and smaller, but that’s about to change because it won’t be possible to draw the circuits smaller than a few atoms (and we’re approaching that limit).

We’re running out of space (measured in nanometers or billionths of a meter) that we can fit transistors into. The present “etching” technology is coming to the end of its usefulness (current chip design already utilizes spaces just a few dozen atoms across).  But what if we weren’t limited by ones and zeros anymore?

The most likely solution is Quantum Computing which goes beyond binary by using electrons’ energy states to record information.   “Qubits” (quantum processor units) will replace bits and processor speed will increase exponentially.  We wouldn’t be limited by ones and zeros, but could utilize apotentially infinite amount of values between one and zero! There are still a lot of problems to be worked out, but there is a wide and intensive effort to solve them.

Another important aspect is that it’s possible that computers will become so powerful that current modes of encryption will become obsolete (using an algorithm developed by Peter Shor at MIT). This is a potential nightmare scenario. It would have enormous consequences for e-commerce and any kind of electronic payment (to say nothing of the military significance). We won’t have to deal with this for at least a decade and so I’m sure it will get worked out. (One possibility, as outlandish as it sounds, could be teleported bandwidth). However, both the strength of the quantum processors and the solution to the encryption problem will both probably change the way we think about a lot of things.

3. Exploiting synergies between technologies and appliances.  Way back in the 1987, Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Solow famously said “we see computers everywhere except in the productivity statistics.”  Of course, soon afterwards productivity rose to levels not seen for 30 years, but the point is that it takes time for technology to be used effectively.

Up until the mid to late 90’s, the internet was in its infancy and people didn’t do things like collaborate on documents.  Even e-mail wasn’t pervasive yet.  It took time not only for people to adopt technologies into their daily routines but also for technologists to figure out how to make things work together.   It was much like early in the 20th century when cars needed roads and gas stations to really change the way people live.  Economists call this the “Productivity Paradox.”

We’re living in a unique time because, although we are still learning how to use the new technologies of ten years ago (i.e. social media), in the meantime important, paradigm shifting technologies are being developed (i.e. quantum computing). The most exciting things we can expect to see over the next decade will be based on how we will learn to use and combine the technologies that have just recently become available and how those technologies become further enabled by greatly increased processor speed, bandwidth and storage.

One of the amazing possibitities is Augmented Reality based on the following three existing technologies:

RFID:  Radio Frequency Identification is a virtual “bar code” that can track objects and locate them in space.

High Definition Satellite Imagery: Widely available commercial satellite imagery makes available real time images of the earth that previously were available only to governments.  It’s only a matter of time before the really cool military grade technology goes mainstream.

–    Holograms and Virtual Environments: With an expensive set of goggles, it is possible to walk through a virtual environment as if it were real. Moreover, as anybody who watched Barak Obama get elected on CNN knows, Holographic technology has come a long way, with 3-D volumetric display’s becoming more viable .  (See video below)

Imagine a primtive verson of Star Trek’s “Holodeck.”  Through combining those three technologies it is only a question of processing power and bandwidth before it is possible to change what it means to “watch” a performance.  We may be able to not only attend a global event locally, but also interact with the event as it interacts with us, in real time.

These are just a few of the possibilities, there are many more.  As far as we’ve come, it’s still “early days” and there are still a lot of exciting surprises in store for us…

–          Greg

65 Responses leave one →
  1. August 17, 2009

    Fantastic piece Greg. I love the way you explain complex technology so clearly, with such historical knowledge of the subject and the movers and shakers that made it happen. More please.

  2. August 17, 2009


    Those are very kind words. Thank you for them.

    – Greg

  3. August 17, 2009

    Love the blog, Greg. I’ve recommended it to everyone at my agency.

    You mention the limitations of 45 nm CPU technology; even the new i7 couldn’t break this barrier. However, the way I see it is that people haven’t caught up with the technology we already have. I use 45 nm technology but I bet you don’t. Hell, unless you build your own systems, like I do, you’ve missing out on amazing hardware that isn’t mainstream because system producers think it’s still transitional and not worth the tool-up for a production run. And how many people use their phone for more than making calls? Think of all those functions available, going unused due to inertia between the ears. WE are what’s holding us back. We may have to wait for digital Darwinism, for the older 2 generations to die before we start using cutting edge hardware and software. On that bright note…

    Oh. And please drop by and leave me a comment. I’d really love a guest post on using digitan media if you could swing it.

  4. August 17, 2009


    Thank you so much for your support! I really appreciate it.

    You make good points and I agree with them wholeheartedly – that’s the productivity paradox. It’s one thing to create new technology, but quite another adopt it affectively and for complimentery products to further increase its usefulness.

    There is also the point that Christensen makes in “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” Improving technology changes the basis of competition. Many consumer markets are actually over-served (a situation you describe quite well), which creates opportunity for “disruptive innovation.” I will have an upcoming blog post about it soon.

    btw. I have been to your site. The articles about writing for the web have been very helpful. Thank you for them.

    Thank you also for your offer to guest blog. Let me finish getting this one up and running and then let’s pick a topic.

    – Greg

  5. Lindsey permalink
    August 18, 2009


    Thanks for this piece, very interesting. What are your thoughts on the future of mobile- technology integration? What role do you think mobile/ smart phones will play in relation to these three items?


  6. August 18, 2009


    It’s an interesting question. I think the most obvious thing to affect mobile devices is the coming abundance of bandwidth and storage. People will be able to collaborate on the go. I’m sure that there will be events incorporating mobile devices to allow the audience to collaborate on media. An example is gigapixel technology. The audience can all take pictures and then those can be combined to create a 3D image of amazing resolution (CNN did this for Obama’s innauguration). Video can only be around the corner!

    Another interesting thing going on is pairing GPS technology with social media. see

    Thanks for coming to the site and commenting.

    – Greg

  7. August 19, 2009


    Great article. Well written, developed, with intricate details. I really enjoyed the part about hologram technologies. It will be interesting to see how they are used in the future.

  8. August 19, 2009


    Thank you!

    – Greg

  9. Mabyn permalink
    September 2, 2009

    Do you have a thought of how you think advertising will be affected in the years to come? It appears to me that it may be more selective and over our handheld devices. Cell phones that do not have lots of capability right now are used mainly for texting and phone calls. I am amazed and a little freaked out by loopt…also Facebook… both a tad too transparent for this old fogie. Love to know what you think.

  10. September 2, 2009


    I’ll be writing a lot about the future of advertising in upcoming posts. I agree that it can be a bit scary, although exciting as well.

    There are a few trends that I believe will be prominent:

    The end of coverage build: The ease with which it is possible to control frequency in Digital Media will free up an enormous amount of energy and resource to building more effective targeting and strategy.

    Counter-terrorism: An enormous amount of resource right now is going toward identifying terrorists. It is only a matter of time before at least some of that technology becomes commercially available for consumer targeting.

    Search technology – Search, which is a mathematical analogue of social networks, will become more widely utilized for content, web interface usability and advertising, including proximity advertising.

    I agree the concept is a little bit scary at first. However, the COO is an old friend of mine and can assure you his intentions are honorable. Besides, anybody who has seen Brian dance to “House of Pain” (hilarious!) could’t possibly assume nefarious intentions. They also seem to be doing as much as they can to solve the obvious privacy issues.

    btw. The CEO, Sam Altman, was recently on Charlie rose. It’s worth watching here.

    Thank you for your comment,

    – Greg

  11. stan permalink
    September 3, 2009

    It’s interesting that you didn’t include the mention of artificial intelligence in any of the trends, though it may/will/might/could permeate all of the above?

    As machines become smarter and have the ability to “know us,” and relate to contextual and semantic conversation, the basic relationship between humans and machines may/will/might/will-probably change.

    From eLearning to entertainment, I think the inclusion of AI is going to continuously change the landscape of the digital world from today, forward (as we see it creeping into early commercial applications now; most notably gaming, but, also advertising).

  12. September 3, 2009


    AI is interesting, but extremely hard to define. As such, it’s effect is much more incremental and it more augments than shapes.

    Nevertheless, it’s a very good point.

    – Greg

  13. September 4, 2009

    Your knowledge of technology and business is very refreshing- Great post and I look forward to more now that I found this excellent blog!

  14. September 4, 2009


    Thank you for your kind words. I visited your site as well. Very nice (and light!). I especially liked the video with the baby (my wife and I just had our first 2 weeks ago).

    – Greg

  15. ibrahim Moss permalink
    September 9, 2009

    Hello Greg:

    Thanks for the piece.

    I just discovered your work. You are an exceptional thinker.

    While I am in no position to comment on the trends you outline that one should watch, I wonder whether there are other things one should consider as well. These other things could include anything. The socio-economic conditions of our country, the attitude of youth and their expected role as the next generation of decision makers, etc. Each may more significantly affect progresses in technology, or the lack therein.

    I wish you the best of successes.

    A new fan.

  16. September 9, 2009


    Thank you very much. Of course, you’re right. There are more trends than I listed, but I thought these were interesting.

    – Greg

  17. September 11, 2009

    Thanks again for posting in LinkedIn.

    I for one, whole-heartedly agree with the opportunities Augmented Reality presents. Those of use that have made a living being on the fore-front of New Ideas, see possibilities coming to life.

    Your simple approach in addressing this is a breath of fresh air.

  18. September 11, 2009


    Thank you very much.

    – Greg

  19. gertrude huber permalink
    September 11, 2009

    I am definitely happy to have found you! Congratulations on your new baby and look forward to reading you!

  20. Patrick Hickey permalink
    September 11, 2009


    Great post on some of the advances in the pipeline. BTW, one piece of legislation currently in committee that could have a chilling effect on the tech community is SB 773 – Cybersecurity Act of 2009. Take a quick read when you can and weigh in with your elected representatives. This bill could alter the landscape as drastically as your topics above.

  21. September 12, 2009


    Thank you! Feel free to subscribe to the newsletter:


    – Greg

  22. September 12, 2009


    Thanks for the heads up. I’ll have a look.

    – Greg

  23. September 13, 2009

    Great piece. I think that in my lifetime there has been an exponential growth in human technology and consciousness and as the times change at an ever faster rate these technologies that once were thought as only Sci-Fi will become not only a reality but mainstream.



  24. September 13, 2009

    Thanks Vico!

    – Greg

  25. Caroline Teunissen permalink
    September 17, 2009

    Loved reading this blog. What you have so clearly written is fascinating and insightful, even a non mathematical mind such as mine understood your words. What was once just in the realms of si-fi is fast become a reality and even in our lifetimes.
    Thanks and will be subscribing for your future posts.


  26. September 19, 2009

    Thanks, Greg. Your piece was concise, interesting and very informative. Please keep up the good work. All of us are eager to hear about what’s next on the horizon.

  27. September 19, 2009


    Thanks. I also had a look at your website: . Very nice! Keep up the good work as well:-)

    – Greg

  28. September 26, 2009

    Great piece, Greg! Sometimes we get so hung up on today, we fail to take a longer snapshot of “what’s to come.” Your article is a great discussion starter.

  29. September 26, 2009

    Thanks, Nick.

    I’m glad you liked it.

    – Greg

  30. September 29, 2009

    Greg – was happy to read your post, and all the comments. Will be visiting again.

    One of the trends that will change the future of the digital world would be accessing information through touch and not a keyboard (checkout ), using devices for computing and not computers. We are working on one such device

    Someone asked about the future of advertising, thought i will share what i have written about it here

  31. September 29, 2009


    Thanks for coming by and sharing.

    – Greg

  32. October 7, 2009


    You are such a fine writer and I just love what you have to say. As a writer and editor myself, and as someone who is very new to all this tech stuff, I know how difficult it is to simplify and clarify these complex ideas. You have done a masterful job with that and I really appreciate your information and insights.

    Betty Sargent

  33. October 8, 2009


    Thank you. As someone who is very new to “all this writing stuff” I really appreciate it. I’ve managed editorial teams for years, but never understood how emotionally draining writing is.

    If someone doesn’t like your statistical analysis – well okay – but if someone says something bad about your writing…it’s enough to make a grown man cry:-))

    – Greg

  34. October 11, 2009

    OK, maybe one of these will happen (quantum computing), but the other two are way off!

    The assumption that bandwidth and frequency is free and unlimited goes under the same assumption of perpetual motion. Yes, maybe the cost will go or approach zero, but saying that it will be free is just ludicrous! Does that mean that because power lines cost little to maintain that electricity should be free? No!

    Also, I cannot believe you brought back the 90’s favorite word synergy! Ha-ha-ha! What a laugh. Instead of synergy, think of in concert.

    Also you missed the whole mobile connectivity ubiquity trend. Oh well, guess that what opinions are for?

    Not to be mean, but your naivety is impressive to say the least.

    Yes, the digital world is going to substantially change our analogue one, but not in the ways you think. Even if these trends you list happen to become true, it is all about the money. Wow, we are still hung up about technology and not the utilities that they bring to productivity, creativity, connectivity, and usefulness.

    Just my meager 2 cents. Thanks for throwing this out there for discussion and please excuse my curt response. No harm intending, but I “been there, done that” already while at Philips.

  35. October 11, 2009


    I guess everybody is entitled to their opinion, but Augmented Reality applications are already being launched commercially and as you said, cost of bandwidth will approach zero. What’s the difference between approaching zero cost and “virtually free?”

    – Greg

  36. Leon permalink
    October 20, 2009

    Great stuff Greg.
    Regardless of how farfetched some of these trends are, important thing is – reading this helps imagining and dreaming the new things.
    Thanks for sharing!

  37. October 20, 2009


    Amazingly, everything in the article is being actively invested in and worked on.

    – Greg

  38. Sebastian permalink
    October 21, 2009

    Greg simply fantastic!
    Thanks for the piece.

  39. October 21, 2009

    Thanks Sebastian.

    That’s very nice of you to say (and even nicer to hear!)

    – Greg

  40. October 28, 2009

    Hi Greg, Yet another great article. I don’t where you get the time or the research info to write your blogs but jeeze it puts the rest of us to shame! I was interested in one of the comments on mobile devices. I can see a time when the mobile will effectively be your computer. Just link it into a screen (B/tooth or WiFi) or project your screen and a virtual keyboard from the mobile phone. But the big trick is the bandwidth and how service providers deal with the massive increase in mobile coms traffic. RFID/NFC on mobiles will be huge for commercial applications and of course will make currency redundant. The next really bug service industry will be personal data security as we all know how our life falls apart when either one’s laptop or mobile is stolen (as recently happened to me!). Which brings me to the ‘cloud’ and how we will use it for storage and data security?
    These are really mind boggling times we live in and it just doesn’t stop. Keep feed my brain mate, I love it!

    All the best from the Scot in Cape Town. Gordon

  41. October 29, 2009


    Thanks. I’m flattered.

    I think you’re right about privacy concerns. The Semantic Web will push them even further as we are constantly uploading information whether we know it or not. Facebook has had some big embarrassments using consumer data to target ads already.

    However, I tend to take Tim Berners-Lee’s approach to this. He says that privacy is primarily a regulation issue and not a technology issue and I think he’s right.

    All the best from the American in Kiev:-)

    – Greg.

  42. Barbara Schmitt permalink
    November 4, 2009

    Very interesting articles!!!!

  43. November 5, 2009

    Great piece, Greg
    I am not that old but I used to read dump of memory in hexadecimal to fix logic problems in programs done in Assembler and one of my article for a paper back in the late 1970 was highlighting that 16 millon info could be stored in a size of a thumb. Now you remind us about the trasistors history and the trend. Amazing. Congrats from Brazil!

    I am attempt to translate your piece into Portuguese (my mother tongue), can I?


  44. November 5, 2009


    Thanks! And sure, translate away!

    – Greg

  45. Sam Jones permalink
    November 8, 2009

    Dear Greg,

    A great article, thanks for getting me thinkg a little harder. It’s good to know the things I am passionate about from a hobby / business integration perspsective are being researched and written about.

    I am in love with the future potential for digital technologies and, moreover, the potential all these technologies have for making the world a much smaller place to live while engendering a sense of digital community and making life easier (not necessarily more efficient and accountable as big corporate desire)

    It’s tough to predict what while take hold in the future as humanity can tend to latch on to thing we did not expect, however the irony is that the technologies in development for the digital sphere do not seem to be apart from tangible, touchable reality. hence augmented reality is merely a replication of something we already know. Bouncing a ball, rain-drops falling on our hand, wind or a miniature animal running around on our hands. These are all things we already know. there is nothing in here that is shocking, scary or revolutionary, just things we can relate to our current daily lives. It’s their tangible associative currency that enables people to adapt them in to daily life..

    I do think the other revolutions will emerge as portable, mobile technologies increase in power and durability and think the past nine months have seen a massive transition in communications and how people and companies interact with brands, technologies and their everyday lives.

    Perhaps, as augmented reality becomes increasingly portable everyday life may change for the better.

    To be honest, I have not true idea what coudl happen, because if you believed the futurists of times gone buy we’d all be flying to and from work in our personal flight craft by now…

    Take care, keep writing and I look forward to interacting with your augmented presence someday in the future.


  46. November 8, 2009


    Thanks for a very thoughtful comment. Most of the exciting new products coming out today are based on technology that has been around for a while, with some incremental improvements. What really makes things exciting isn’t the technology itself, but the creativity of people who dream up how to combine them.

    Have you read Richard Feynman’s essay (once a speech), “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” In it he talks about how existing technology can be extended to nanotechnology. He wrote it in 1959!

    – Greg

  47. Yegor Kuznetsov permalink
    November 15, 2009

    Greg, fantastic article! Short and very informative.

    A question: in your view, what are the 3 companies to watch that would define these three trends?

  48. November 15, 2009


    Good Question. I’m not sure of the answer. Intel, Cysco and AMD are surely on the cutting edge of quantum computing and bandwidth. Augmented reality will definitely favor Apple.

    However, I think one thing is clear. The big winner is probably a company we haven’t heard of yet.

    – Greg

  49. December 3, 2009

    Great article, but I take issue with the concept of unlimited bandwidth. Bandwidth is always finite. It only looks unlimited in the future if you assume it will be used in the same way as it is with current useages. “Information expands to fill bandwidth” is an unbreakable law of computing. We don’t develop certain applications now because we don’t have the bandwidth. Once we do, we’ll fill it with new data. Imagine, for example, 3-D virtual world spam, or an world in which windows messenger uses HD video as standard. Also remember that, still today, most people are not on the internet, and most people in the world with web connections do not have broadband. TV and radio are still mainly on old-fashioned broadcast mode, and yet to go online. Broadcasters haven’t even considered the possibilites of two-way communication and the embedding of social networking inside TV – how much bandwidth will that consume once it is mainstream?
    No matter how much bandwidth we create, the world will find ways to fill it to breaking point.

  50. December 3, 2009


    Of course, you’re right nor is it free. That’s why I said “virtually free and unlimited.” It used to be a real concern, now it’s not and getting less so.

    – Greg

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