January is a magical month for the tech industry. Every year around this time, the entire gadget business congregates in Las Vegas to show off its upcoming wares at the Consumer Electronics Show. Apple, meanwhile, camps out in San Francisco and attempts to steal the spotlight with something revolutionary. This year seems to be shaping up as usual—everyone's flocking to CES, and everyone's focused on Steve Jobs, who (according to numerous speculative reports, including in Monday's Wall Street Journal) plans to unveil a tablet computer later this month.
But let's forget the tablet for a second. Even though I can't wait to see what Apple is planning, I've got a much bigger tech wish list for 2010. Here, then, is my must-have list for the year. Please, tech industry, make me happy!
Google Voice for everyone. Last year, Google reinvented the phone—but unless you're among the handful of VIPs who got access to the U.S.-based, invitation-only service, you probably haven't noticed. Google Voice does several amazing things. It gives you a central phone number that rings all of your phones—when people call your Voice number, you can pick up at your office, your cell, or at your vacation house in Bermuda (and they won't know the difference). Voice also transcribes your messages, rendering voice mail obsolete. And then there's this: Because it routes all your calls through the Internet, it lets you call anywhere in the United States for free, and anywhere in the world for cheap, without a contract.
I've been using Voice since its debut—and before that I was a devotee of GrandCentral, its predecessor—and I find it indispensible. It has proved more useful than any other technology launched in 2009, including the new iPhone, Google Wave, and all those e-readers. Among other things, I can now make international calls from my cell phone for no extra charge.
Google seems to have big plans for Voice. At the moment, the service works by patching phone calls to your own phone—to make a call, you go to your Web browser (on either your PC or your smartphone) and type in a phone number you'd like to call; then Voice rings your phone, and when you pick up, you're connected to your mom in Australia! This system (which is much simpler than it sounds) has a big advantage over Skype and other Internet-phone services: You don't need to install special hardware or software to use it. But it has a disadvantage, too—mainly, that all calls need to go through the phone system and can't be routed directly through a PC. But Google looks to be fixing that—executives have hinted that they're building a phone-free version of the software that would let you make calls through your PC or mobile device (like you can do with Skype). Google also seems close to opening the service to more users, even those outside of America. That can't happen soon enough—phone companies have long forestalled improvements on their services (making huge profits, for instance, on voice mail), and Voice promises to finally bring the innovation we've seen in the software industry to the phone business.
A universal e-book store. In 2009 we saw loads of new e-readers emerge to take on the Kindle. Some were promising, but none has managed to kick Amazon's gizmo from its perch. One reason? The rivals aren't working together.