2007 in tech (and in this column)
It was a Fast Forward year of socially-networked, individually-empowered, ad-supported, and globally-developing tech.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- It's not risky to be an optimist when it comes to predicting tech trends. This past year, like every other recently, was one of stunning advancements as well as further empowerment for ordinary people. Tech continues to make our lives richer, even though it also often makes us feel overwhelmed.
A reading of my 48 Fast Forward columns from 2007 suggests it was a year of social networking, Facebook, Google (GOOG, Fortune 500), Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500), China, and technology for the developing world. All will be dominant factors in 2008 as well.
One June column asserted that the adoption of technology in the developing world is tech's biggest trend. A research firm subsequently estimated that we have now passed the point where half the planet's population has a cellphone. Here's another example of tech empowerment from that column: Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) now offers Windows and Office together for a mere $3 to governments giving PCs to schoolchildren.
Rather than a year-end predictions column, in mid-October I wrote Tech's Time of Tumult. Its observation, and prediction: We are entering a fundamentally new tech environment - one that has a variety of new characteristics. It will be all about a network that is mobile, ad-supported, on-demand, socially-connected, and truly global.
Social networking came of age in 2007, especially once Facebook announced its landscape-changing move to turn itself into a platform for applications written by outsiders. Fast Forward offered an exclusive look inside what many now believe to have been the biggest tech event of the year.
A September column opined that social networking is the killer application of this era of the Internet, just as e-mail was for the first one. In a different column, Riding the Social Networks Wave, I wrote "The reason social networking matters is simple: People do things together, and this new software promises us the means to engage the social aspect of our lives in everything we do online. Among other things, shopping, consuming media, researching, planning our time, and of course communicating can all be done more efficiently if we have manageable information about what our friends are doing."
Facebook got slammed for its clumsy implementation of the ad-sharing system it called Beacon. Nonetheless, we do need ways to allow us to share and rate the products we buy. The problem with Beacon was not that it shared your commercial behavior with your friends, but that users felt they didn't have enough control or knowledge about how it worked. A consumer-friendly Beacon-like system will surely emerge in the near future, at Facebook or elsewhere. Whoever develops it, though, has to focus primarily on the needs and desires of individuals, not marketers.
The Beacon controversy underscores a concern that is also emerging elsewhere - that an inability to imagine revenue models other than advertising may be limiting where tech can go. One who asks what we might lose that way is Jaron Lanier, the dreadlocked computer scientist and virtual reality pioneer. He joined a panel on the future of technology I recently moderated in New York. (A video is available here.) Lanier wrote an influential op-ed in the New York Times in November arguing that an all-ad-all-the-time Internet can't sufficiently compensate creative professionals for their work. In the current writers' strike, the TV networks are refusing to grant writers a share of revenues from their work when it is aired online. In so doing, they seem to be reinforcing Lanier's point.
Two 2007 columns reported from China - see them here and here. There are now more broadband users in China than in the United States. Another fun fact: China Mobile is generating more revenue with music on cellphones than is made in the entire offline music industry in China, including both recordings and live performances.
But the second China column also included my favorite anecdote of the year - how I was forbidden sushi at the World Economic Forum in Dalian by a Chinese government apparently obsessed with maintaining an unsullied image. The fear, apparently, was that Forum attendees might get sick. But others were allowed to go on feasting on raw fish.
I'm neither expert nor practiced at stock picking, but in mid-November I took the risk of calling Google's stock a strong buy at $629 a share. In late December it's $700, up 11 percent. My argument for Google's enduring pre-eminence rested not on any brand extension. I merely argued that its core search business is so strong it will remain the Internet's primary profit engine for the foreseeable future. It will likely well withstand the economic downturn many pundits predict.
In 2007, Fortune inaugurated its own tech conference, which we called iMeme. This column reported on it. In 2008 we continue further down that path, relaunching the Brainstorm conference series which we held for years in Aspen. We'll hold a Brainstorm Tech conference at Half Moon Bay, California in July and a Brainstorm Green conference in April, the latter organized by my colleague Marc Gunther and taking place in Pasadena.
As 2008 dawns and tech evolves, so does our own journalism. Fortune is getting into the video business. You can watch our more-than-weekly tech video series here.