5 Technology Mashups That Make Your Life Easier

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A telephone headset is a great example of a technology mashup.

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5 Technology Mashups That Make Your Life Easier

By definition, technology's job is to do a specific task in a way that's an improvement over previous techniques. Mechanical and electronic technologies work together in washing machines to spare us hours of hand washing our clothes. Digital technology in word processing software allows us to type up, edit and revise a document before we ever print it out on paper.

A technology mashup mashes together two or more technological innovations in a single device. Thanks to the mashup, that one device can handle multiple tasks. A simple example of a technology mashup is a headset used with a phone. The headset incorporates both headphones and a microphone, separate technologies that are used together for a two-way voice exchange.

The term mashup is frequently used to describe a single software or Web application that combines the features and information from multiple Web sites [source: Crupi and Warner]. One examine is Apple's iTunes, which can manage and play your audio and video files, play media from discs, stream audio and video content from the Internet, access an online store, manage applications for the iPhone and the iPod Touch, and even put together a selection of music based on the attributes of a single song. That's a lot of different tasks for a single application to handle!

Technology mashups go beyond the world of computer software, referring to products that merge multiple technological advances into one device or system. A technology mashup might have some combination of mechanical, electronic and digital innovations. This article looks at five technology mashups created specifically to make your life easier. Let's start with a technology mashup that could make use of that headset we mentioned earlier.

Thanks to videoconferencing, people located in different parts of the country or world are able to meet together (virtually, that is).

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5: Videoconferencing

When sending a telegraph over a wire replaced dispatching messengers across long distances on horseback, interpersonal communication changed forever. Ever since, people have looked for even better and faster ways to keep in touch, especially when doing business with each other. Today's videoconferencing is a mashup of phone, video and network technology that lets geographically distant colleagues hold meetings as if they were all in the same room.

Videoconferencing combines a telephone call with video captured by a camera at the caller's location. When the caller dials in to a conference call, the video and voice are sent together across a network connection. Each caller who dials in to the same conference call is capturing video and voice of himself or herself during the event and observing the video and audio streaming from other participants. In terms of current technology, this means that participants are watching, listening and talking to a computer screen throughout the conference. Perhaps in the future, however, videoconferencing will look like something out of science fiction, with 3-D holograms of participants sitting around a real conference table.

Part of the videoconferencing technology mashup is Voice over IP (VoIP). Thanks to its use of the Internet, VoIP introduces the ability for a seemingly unlimited number of callers to dial in to a single video conference call. Plus, by using VoIP over a high-speed Internet connection, callers have the bandwidth and speeds needed to stream video and audio for real-time interaction.

Videoconferencing is just one technology that could be part of the next mashup.

E-learning is a technology mashup that brings the classroom experience to your home computer.

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4: E-learning

In our article How E-learning Works, we describe how e-learning makes it possible to have a classroom-like experience any time without ever having to step into a physical classroom. Modern e-learning is a true technology mashup. In a single class or course, you might use a Web browser, CD-ROM, word processing software, an e-mail system and perhaps even a Web cam. Depending on what you're learning, you may use tools specific to the topic, too, such as accounting software for a business class or an integrated development environment for computer programming.

While each of the tools listed so far can stand alone, software developers have produced specific e-learning software, which is a mashup of software-based tools targeted to delivering courses online. Many e-learning applications are Web-based systems that you can access using your Web browser, though they may require installing some supporting technology like Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight. In addition, if the instructor is sharing files in a certain format, such as PDF documents, you'll need software on your computer that can open and view those files.

E-learning software, also called learning management systems (LMSes), can create a classroom-like environment in which students are able to watch streaming video, virtually raise their hands when they have questions and even take quizzes online during the class period. Some e-learning applications integrate Web cams so that the instructor can see remote students. In addition, some applications have emoticon buttons that students can use to convey nonverbal feedback to the instructor, such as "I'm confused" or "slow down."

While e-learning can help us master new skills, the next technology mashup assists us when we're putting those skills to work.

Collaboration software lets you turn your appointment book into an online calendar so friends and colleagues can see when you're busy or free.

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3: Collaboration Software

If you were an executive in a large company in the 1980s, the following items might have occupied the desk in your office: a telephone, desk calendar, appointment book, Rolodex or address book, and possibly an answering machine. In those days, these tools were all necessary to be productive on the job from day to day. Unfortunately, there wasn't a quick way to know when your colleagues were free for a meeting or to make sure they put a meeting on their calendars. Instead, the time-consuming tasks of organizing meetings and sending out memos were often delegated to assistants.

If you're an executive in the same company today, all those tools might be replaced with a single networked computer running software to handle the same tasks. As office tools went digital, memos became e-mails and you could access your contacts from your calendar when scheduling a meeting. A new category of software was born from this mashup of office tools and networked computers: collaboration software. Some big names in collaboration software have been Lotus Notes and Microsoft SharePoint.

Collaboration software goes beyond mashup status with features that couldn't have existed without the ability to cross-connect. For example, employees in a business using collaboration software can easily share contact and calendar information with each other. Then, within a couple of minutes, an employee could select people from the contact list, find out when those people are available based on their personal calendars, select a time that works for everyone, see what meeting rooms are available at that time, book the meeting room and send out invitation e-mails. When invitees receive their invitations by e-mail, they can click a button to accept or reject, and the meeting will instantly appear on their respective calendars.

Collaboration software is even more powerful when it's portable. The next technology mashup is leading the way in that portability.

Are you attached at the hip to your smartphone? Because this technology makes our lives easier, many of us are.

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2: Smartphones

As we just saw, productivity software ties together your contacts and calendar so you don't need a written address or appointment book. When there's no written record, however, you need some electronic device that lets you take the data anywhere you go. When laptop computers were too large and heavy to be convenient, personal digital assistants (PDAs) brought productivity applications to a handheld device. As both PDAs and mobile phones became more powerful and popular throughout the 1990s, a mashup of these technologies seemed inevitable. Today, we call that mashup a smartphone.

A modern smartphone goes way beyond productivity software in making our lives easier. By connecting to wireless Internet services, smartphones have become a quick way to access more information than what's stored on the device. For example, when you're out at dinner with friends, you can look up the name of an actress in a movie you're talking about. Also, by including a global positioning device, a smartphone can tell you where you are and how to get where you want to go.

Smartphones continue to develop, and even the most novice programmer can learn to create software applications for them. As a result, there are thousands of applications (or apps), both free and at cost, available to download directly to your smartphone. These applications make smartphones the ultimate mashup as users download software for numerous different tasks, from tracking diet plans and logging gas mileage to taking photos and playing music, videos and games.

A smartphone can keep you informed and in touch when you're on the go, but our last technology mashup is all about how you might get there.

Using a diagnostic computer, a mechanic can view a car's digitally stored information and determine exactly what the problem is.

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1: Automobiles

Automobiles are the ultimate technology mashup, and they've made it easier for people to get from place to place for over a century. Cars are already a mashup of mechanical and electronic technologies, each of which is an impressive innovation by itself. Automobile manufacturers also incorporate digital hardware and software to improve your driving experience.

Computers monitor and control many of the car's moving parts. As described in our article How Car Computers Work, the vehicle is programmed to respond to the driver and to changing weather and road conditions. These systems can record what's wrong with the car and send you a warning through a sound or a light on the dashboard. Then, you'll know to take the car in for service before the problem leaves you stranded on the side of the road. Plus, service personnel can quickly identify the problem by plugging in a computerized diagnostic device, sparing you hours of waiting.

Digital electronics inside the car allow drivers to carry out certain tasks -- making phone calls, adjusting the radio, asking for directions -- without breaking their concentration on the road. If you need directions, for example, some cars have a built-in global positioning device (GPS). Services (like OnStar) and devices (like a navigation display) inside the car use that GPS to determine where you are and how to get where you want to go. Fully integrated software like Ford SYNC by Microsoft lets you control your car radio, mobile phone, navigation system and other features by voice commands [source: Ford].

We've looked at just five examples, but there are tons of time-saving tech mashups out there. For more information, head over to the next page.

Lots More Information

Sources

  • Apple. "iPhone: App Store." 2011.http://www.apple.com/iphone/features/app-store.html
  • Crupi, John, and Warner, Chris. "Enterprise Mashups Part I: Bringing SOA to the People." The SOA Magazine. No. 18. May 2008. (March 10, 2011)http://www.soamag.com/I18/0508-1.php
  • Ford Motor Company. "About Sync." (March 9, 2011)http://www.ford.com/technology/sync/about/
  • AndroLib.com. "Android Market Stats." (March 10, 2011)http://www.androlib.com/appstats.aspx