Six (Mostly) Safe Tech Bets for 2006

The market hasn't absorbed these likely developments in tech.
Author:
Publish date:

Don't call them predictions. Unlike pundits who boldly make claims they then spend the next 12 months rationalizing away, I like to think of them safe bets -- well, pretty safe anyway -- based on observations that haven't yet been fully absorbed into the market thinking.

Watch for a leader in online video to emerge.

Google

(GOOG) - Get Report

and

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

beefed up their video search in 2005, broadening the offerings found on older online video sites like iFilm and AtomFilms. But the biggest star in online video -- and most likely one of the most sought-after acquisitions of 2006 -- appears to be YouTube.

Founded last February, YouTube has achieved what Google can only dream of -- a social-networking site that lets people upload homemade videos or compile favorites to show friends. More impressively, it's turning into the

MySpace

of videos, surpassing Google Video and closing in fast on Yahoo! for the market lead.

There will be more people touting podcasting than listening to podcasts.

Venture capital firms and others who like to perch on the cutting edge of tech trends say podcasting is the next big thing. It's not.

Instead, keep an eye on consumers' appetites for downloadable video from big media.

Apple

(AAPL) - Get Report

is most likely going to be the company that compels consumers into paying for downloaded audio and video programming, just as it did with songs. If

TiVo

(TIVO) - Get Report

and

Netflix

(NFLX) - Get Report

are smart, they will follow suit -- perhaps merging with a bigger partner, if not each other.

Bloggers may be stealing readers away from newspapers, but when it comes to audio and video feeds, people will go for high production values. Which would you rather spend time uploading to your iPod: An episode of

Lost

or a grainy feed of someone prattling about their favorite celeb?

So, for a few more years, the media we download will be the same stuff you see or hear on old media. The masses will have to wait for cheap, yet sophisticated production technology in order to win a wider audience. Until then, the quickest route to fame will remain reality TV.

An Internet backlash will dampen stock prices for a while.

This is an easy call because it's already under way on a small scale: Grumblings about Google, the brouhaha over defamatory entries in Wikipedia, the concerns about middle-age predators prowling for teens on MySpace, and so on.

A decade ago, the Internet brought us email, instant news and cheap communication. Then, it became clear, it also had brought spam, bogus facts and deadly viruses. The new innovations that have emerged over the past couple of years -- social networking, user-generated content, do-it-yourself publishing -- are giving birth to new problems.

It's a matter of time before an incident causes things to boil over. My guess is things will come to a head over privacy concerns, whether through the amount of personal data we've been seduced into posting on sites or through data-mining that can reveal to companies things about ourselves that companies don't have a right to know. Some bad news will dim the blush that has returned to Internet highfliers.

Companies will get better at profiting from the open-sourcing of the U.S.

Back in 2001, who would have figured

Red Hat

(RHAT)

would be actively traded, let alone added to the Nasdaq 100? The stock had sunk below $4 after a few sunny months in the triple-digits. It's now around $28 after posting a profit that more than doubled in its third quarter. That prompted three analysts last week raised their outlook, thanks to demand for Linux open-source software.

Meanwhile, one in eight Web surfers is using Firefox, an open-source browser -- a figure that is sure to rise now that

Dell

(DELL) - Get Report

is bundling it in its computers. And then there's rise in popularity of Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia whose user-generated content has barely been slowed by the recent controversy over the accuracy of some of its more arcane posts.

It's hard for investors to sink their teeth into open source as a trading play, because it often involves free software or content. But there are companies that will benefit, mostly those that have stopped fighting the open-source tidal wave. In addition to Red Hat,

Motorola

(MOT)

and

IBM

(IBM) - Get Report

have learned to stop worrying and to build business models around this trend. If you like dark horse candidates, keep an eye on

Sun Microsystems

(SUNW) - Get Report

and

Novell

(NOVL)

, which may just break out in 2006.

On-demand software will face tough tests, and its future will rest on the outcome.

It's highly unlikely that the

service outage that struck

Salesforce.com

(CRM) - Get Report

earlier this month -- the worst in its history, preventing nearly all its customers from logging in -- will be its last. The question is, what are Salesforce and the other up-and-coming on-demand software companies going to do about it?

Sure, some IT people would say their company's

Oracle

(ORCL) - Get Report

ware experienced a service outage from the first day they installed it. But there was something very 1997 about Salesforce's outage -- as the Internet improved, we grew less tolerant of down time. Salesforce would do well to learn from

eBay

(EBAY) - Get Report

, which recovered from repeated outages in the late '90s to dominate online auctions. If not, blue-chip customers may back off the model for years.

Nanotech will underwhelm -- again.

Nanoscience may make some impressive breakthroughs, but it will need years to become a commercial product. That's good news for fly-by-night companies that have slapped a nano-label on their dodgy business model. The headlines will only rev up speculative investing in their stocks.

There they are. I know -- they look, smell and walk just like predictions. But if you take them as such, just remember I make money from writing them down, not from investing in them. And amazingly, that thought never causes me to lose any sleep.