The interactive portion of SXSW devotes days’ worth of panels to emerging technologies, almost all of which focus on the web. The most compelling applications are the ones which bring web-enabled content and flexibility away from the desktop and into the real world. There has been a lot of talk about things like Twitter, though currently in its infancy and only used by alpha geeks, is definitely a sign of things to come. Twitter’s concept is that meta-data stored on the web can in fact be useful in people’s day to day lives. And customers are only going to demand more and more complex data as people begin to realize the actual value of ubiquitous information.
One of the choke points, however, and something that SXSWi largely glosses over, is the hardware that enables this technology. Text messaging is the first step, naturally, and most of the interesting mobile technologies are built on it. But cellphone manufacturers have been fiercely competing to add more “computer-like” features to each new generation of phone. Blackberry cornered the business market with an array of web and enterprise features. The iPhone then exploded the reach of the smartphone by making it cool and convincing a generation of the tech unsavvy that they need to check their email in the grocery store. Now that nearly every handset user has these capabilities services that make use of rich content have a platform.
But cellphones fall short in a lot of ways: they are underperforming, and suffer from usability issues, particularly related to display and input. Any writer on earth (including those weirdo Japanese text message novelists will tell you that tapping out posts on an iPhone is less than ideal. A very interesting little gadget emerged in the last year to bridge the gap between the smartphone and the laptop. Asus’s eee PC is an adorable little ultraportable that hits the sweet spot of features, flexibility, price and style. It is a cheap, powerful machine optimized for new web technologies. For example, it sacrifices a hard drive for a small flash storage instead relying on things like Google Docs. It also plays on another trend: hackability. It has an expansion bay in the back in which hardware hackers are stuffing GPS, wireless modems and just about every other technology one can imagine. Needless to say, it’s been great for blogging this festival; it’s portable enough to lug around all day and not make you miserable.
With hardware costs edging lower and lower and more demand for mobile web applications, I think we are going to see a lot more devices like this coming down the pipe. HP has already released a competitor being sold through Wal-mart. Personally, I would be shocked if a certain fruit company based in Cupertino, California didn’t release a device very similar to this in the next year or two based on iPhone and MacBook Air technologies.