A look at the chips, devices, and software that will change the way people will live in the decades to come.
For a product that’s not widely available yet, Google Glass has generated an incredible amount of buzz. It’s not hard to see why. The augmented reality eyeglasses, which project images onto a lense, represent a major step forward in computing, much in the same way the iPad made tablets a common household item. When it arrives later this year, users will be able to snap photos, record video, and otherwise enhance their surroundings, from offering on-the-fly directions superimposed onto the road or reviews for a restaurant someone is looking at.
This April, the social network Mark Zuckerberg began coding in his Harvard dorm room launched Facebook Home. Neither an operating system, nor a phone, Home is downloadable software supported on several Android devices (to start) that takes over Google’s original operating system and offers users a Facebook-centric experience. Status updates and notifications pop up on the lock screen, and a new unified messaging feature makes texting others — Facebook users or not — a streamlined experience. If anything, Home represents a small sneak preview into how the mobile experience could be a much more social one.
For years, innovations on the commercial aviation front were slow to come. Passengers would notice somewhat more comfortable seating or, in Virgin America’s case, snazzy mood lighting, but big improvements were few and far between. Which is why Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner seemed like an exciting prospect. It’s 20% more fuel efficient than the competition, with 50% of its body constructed from lightweight composite materials, allowing longer, faster flights. Passengers will also notice improvements like larger windows that use electrochromism-based glass to adjust five levels of sunlight and visibility, as well as convertible lavatories that allow two units to transform into one wheelchair-accessible facility. Although the plane was previously grounded due to safety concerns, it’s likely to return to service again and make flying more comfortable than it’s ever been.
The idea that buyers can get their online or mobile purchases same-day is tantalizing. Rumors of Amazon doing widespread same-day shipping continue to circulate; Google announced Google Shopping Express; and Wal-Mart may offer a crowd-sourced delivery plan to have its own customers deliver items to online buyers. With eBay Now, eBay has partnered with retailers like Target, Home Depot, and Urban Outfitters, to offer one-hour shipping on everything from health supplements to pajamas. And though it’s only available in three U.S. cities, CEO John Donahoe has expressed ambitions of having eBay Now be ubiquitous. “I’ve had newspaper companies come to me and say, we have all these trucks. We deliver these newspapers, and these trucks don’t get used after 8 a.m. in the morning. So we have drivers, and we have empty trucks. Can we help deliver?” Donahoe told Fortune earlier this year.
Amazon Web Services
The launch of Amazon Web Services in 2006 seemed a puzzling one. Why was Jeff Bezos pushing his online retail company into Web infrastructure services? (“It was a big soul-searching decision,” Adam Selipsky, Amazon Web Services Vice President of Product Management and Developer Relations, told Fortune last year.) Seven years later, many companies that wholly or partly operate off AWS — from Netflix and NASA to Pinterest — are probably grateful he did. AWS lets many companies to offload costly, time-consuming tasks like setting up servers and managing databases, and focus on their products. Indeed, AWS may be so valuable, RBC Capital Markets managing director Mark Mahaney estimated that it generated $1.5 billion in revenues last year.
When the leading U.S. coffee retailer launched its Starbucks for iPhone app in 2011, it set an example for how easy in-store app purchases can be. Users can order their drinks within the app, and paying is as simple as scanning a digital barcode. That’s probably why Starbucks reported $110 million in mobile app revenues during the app’s first year on the market. Indeed, the app serves as a glimpse of how purchases will look in the decades to come.
Although the iPad has already been available for three years, there’s just no disputing the way it is changing computing. Casual users once tethered to their desktops or notebooks can now comfortably perform many of the same tasks — typing out emails, checking Facebook, watching movies — on a portable device with a large screen. In fact, the tablet movement has become so strong, it’s likely affecting traditional PC sales: Worldwide shipments of PCs fell 14% during the first quarter of 2013 and marked the fourth consecutive quarter of decline and worst PC sales drop in history. In the years to come, users will likely become even more reliant on their tablets as they become faster and sport more features.
If ever there was a pioneer of the emerging wearable computing market, it would be Nike. The sportswear giant got into the market in a big way with Nike+. Starting with sensors placed inside running shoes to track distance run and calories burned, Nike+ now also encompasses a standalone running mobile app and the Nike Fuel Band, a wristband with a display that wirelessly syncs data to an iPhone. Now, the Nike+ community is over 11 million members strong.
Verizon Wireless, which launched the nation’s largest 4G LTE network first in 2010, and AT&T Mobility are giving smart phone users in the U.S. speeds up to 10 times faster than 3G. That translates to brisker all-around performance: faster loading Web pages, rapid file downloads, and silky smooth streaming of high-definition video. Simply put, it lets people use their mobile devices in ways they never could before. It’s a large part of the reason why AT&T and Verizon ranked high atop the Fortune 500 this year at # 11 and #16, respectively.
Many consumers may not be familiar with the Qualcomm name, but chances are their smartphone are powered by one of the company’s 3G or 4G chips, which lets the device to receive and send data. The company bet big and early on 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology early on when other companies focused on competing technologies, and ultimately prevailed. Now as 4G LTE coverage spreads, Qualcomm is poised to become the dominant player in the next wave of mobile and beyond.