5 technologies most likely to make a splash in 2007

It seems like every month a new technology emerges with the potential to change everything. Technology writers and analysts get hyperexcited. Everyone starts patting one another on the back and hugging. And two years later, we’re still talking about the promise of that technology, with little to show in the here and now.

That’s why as we began to look at core technologies that may have the greatest effect on the world of computing over the next 12 months, we paid special attention to how soon these advances will be available to everyday users, either at the enterprise or the personal level. The result is the following list of five emerging technologies with groundbreaking potential — this year as well as in the future.

1. Ruby on Rails: Faster, easier Web development Chances are you’ve heard the term Ruby on Rails — probably from someone on your Web development team lobbying heavily to use it for some or all of your company’s Web development.

Ruby on Rails (also known as RoR and Rails) is a Web application framework written in Ruby, an object-oriented programming language known for its clean syntax. Released in 2004, RoR is an open-source project that originally served as the foundation of a project management tool designed by Web development company 37signals LLC. It is easily ported among Linux, Windows and Macintosh environments, and it can have a dramatic impact on the speed at which a Web development team is able to build and maintain enterprise Web sites and applications.

Equal parts design philosophy and development environment, Rails offers developers a few key code-level advantages when constructing database-backed Web applications. One of the central tenets emphasizes using less code for application development by avoiding redundancy and following Rails conventions. This means increased performance and, ideally, decreased development times.

For instance, the Ruby on Rails Web site offers tutorials for creating a Web-based search engine for Flickr in five minutes or building a complete weblog in 15 minutes. RoR also allows for easy utilization of Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) technologies.

Thanks to these efficiencies and the open-source nature of the Web development framework, Ruby on Rails is experiencing a tremendous surge in popularity. Notable apps and sites built on Rails include 37signals’ own Basecamp project management tool, the Jobster job search site and Revolution Health, an interactive health information site headed by former AOL LLC CEO Steve Case. And Apple has announced that Mac OS X 10.5 (code-named “Leopard”) will ship with Rails bundled into the operating system when it is released this spring.

For more details on Ruby on Rails, see the official Ruby on Rails Web site, or see the Wikipedia RoR entry.

2. NAND drives: Bye-bye, HDD? It’s nice to know that 2007 will finally bring one of the most coveted advances in computing — the solid-state hard drive. The appeal of solid-state drives (SSD) is plain: They’re lighter, faster, quieter and less power-hungry than conventional notebook hard disk drives (HDD), and they won’t break if you drop them. NAND is the storage technology that will drive SSDs, making it one of the key technologies to watch in 2007.

NAND (which stands for “Not and”) is a type of flash memory technology that excels at reading, writing and erasing data from flash memory. NOR (short for “Not or”) is the other type of flash-based storage and is better suited for retrieving data from smaller devices like cell phones. NAND’s strengths make it ideally suited for larger-storage drives.

Recognizing the appeal of solid-state mass-storage drives, a number of memory manufacturers have begun to develop flash memory drives for inclusion in laptops and other portable devices. In early 2006, Samsung Corp. announced the development of a 32GB NAND drive that it touted as a “hard-drive” killer, and both Samsung and Sony Corp. have released notebooks with flash-based drives in Asia. A number of other notebook manufacturers, including Toshiba Corp. and Lenovo Group Ltd., have expressed a desire to integrate memory drives into notebook computers.

Recent reports have indicated that solid-state hard drives are being built with data throughput capacity of up to 62MB/sec. This is close to 100 times faster than conventional hard drives.

The kicker? The 32GB drive that SanDisk Corp. claims is capable of these speeds has a 1.8-in. design. Finally, because of their small size and lack of moving parts, NAND drives consume a fraction of the energy and generate a small percentage of the heat of standard disk-based drives.

The downside of NAND drives is that these tiny drives cost upwards of US$500 or $600. That’s a lot of budget room to spend on a 32GB drive, which explains why technology hasn’t been implemented in more laptop configurations.

Perhaps as a short-term measure while the price per gigabyte of fixed-drive NAND storage drops — a market condition that appears to be developing courtesy of industry oversupply — drive manufacturers are beginning to experiment with and embrace hybrid hard drives that use both traditional moving parts as well as NAND storage.

The working concept behind these drives is a NAND cache of substantial enough size (under 1GB, with initial sizes ranging from 128MB to 256MB) to store a high number of the small, frequently accessed files that operating systems and users work with. Caching these files allows the main drive to shut down during standard system operation, reducing power consumption and extending battery life.

Intel Corp. has also been smart enough to pick up on this awkward stage of drive technology. The company’s pending flash cache technology, code-named “Robson,” permits faster hard-drive throughput by using a flash memory cache on the motherboard to speed up disk-based data transfers.

Microsoft also understands the importance of hybrid hard drives. ReadyDrive, one of Windows Vista’s new features, was created to accommodate and enhance the performance of hybrid drives by intelligently storing the most frequently accessed files on this cache. The new operating system also includes native support for solid-state drives via ReadyBoost, another new feature that allows Windows to use flash memory devices as additional memory caches or even as boot disks to enhance performance. This is welcome relief for those of us holding onto the promise of pure, solid-state drives.

3. Ultra-Wideband: 200x personal-area networking </stro