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Bendy screens, 3D Web and Windows 8: We see the future of computing

When they're not trying to kill us, the next generation of computers will serve up websites in 3D, put print-quality ebooks in our bags and be small enough so we can get some work done on a plane.

Two features are common to computers of the future: an excess of flashing lights and an inherent disdain for humankind. When they're not trying to kill us all with our own nukes, though, the next generation of digital brains will serve up hi-def games in 3D, put print-quality ebooks in our bags and shrink small enough so we can actually get some work done in economy class. And you can always stick some tape over those lights.

What have Microsoft execs in the Netherlands been smoking? The Dutch Windows website accidentally revealed recently that Windows 8 will arrive in time for Christmas 2012. Unless a meteorite hits Redmond in the meantime, legions of coders will have crafted a revolutionary, sparkling, brand-new operating system that, well, probably looks a good deal like Windows 7, to be honest.

Steve Ballmer already has a shopping list of what he'd like to see -- and we've also shared that, thanks to another Microsoft leak. We can expect a new Internet Explorer browser and lightning-fast logins, using computers' built-in camera for facial recognition instead of clumsy old-fashioned passwords. Versions of Windows 8 will be available for slates, desktop computers and all-in-ones, with a multi-touch interface as standard across the range.

Microsoft has apparently accepted that Windows will always be on the flaky side, with version 8 incorporating a one-touch button to reinstall itself completely without threatening personal data, and improved support functions will be built in too.

And following Apple's recent announcement of an App Store for Mac OS, you'll have to wait the obligatory couple of years for Microsoft to offer exactly the same for desktop PCs. In fact, just scribble out 'Lion' from Steve Jobs's latest press release and write in 'Windows 8' instead -- you probably won't be too far off.

Likely release date: Windows 8 -- October 2012.

E Ink technology is far from mature. In fact, it's barely at the grumpy teenager stage, suffering from sullen monochrome screens, flickery refresh rates and lazy contrast ratios. In the next few years, ebooks have some serious growing up to do, young man. First comes improved contrast for razor-sharp text, followed by colour screens and finally full motion video. And then we'll see about buying you a motorbike.

Around 2012, the first large-format ebook readers will hit coffee tables the world over. High-definition, high-reflectivity displays will match the look and lustre of top-quality printed photos, with the added benefit of multi-touch interaction.

The big question is whether Amazon can get Kindle apps off the ground -- and sorry Jeff, home-made Minesweeper and Sudoku 'games' simply don't cut it in the age of Reckless Racing and Black Ops. Get it right, though, and a 3.5G Kindle with free wireless access, decent apps and a smooth colour E Ink screen could be just the competitor the iPad isn't looking for. Retina displays are all very well, but it doesn't really matter how sharp a screen is if you can't read your e-mag at the bus stop.

Likely release date: Colour E Ink -- 2011. TV-quality video -- 2012.

3D laptops and desktops are already here -- but the only people spec'ing up to use them are hard-core gamers and toddlers watching Up for the umpteenth time. The real driver to push multiple dimensions into the mainstream will be 3D operating systems and the 3D Web.

Apple has already filed a patent for a 'multidimensional desktop' (we're guessing it's not referring to an ability to travel through time, although that would be nice) and rumours are flying of a possible 3D desktop and navigation in Windows 8.

The kickstarter for 3D websites is likely to be X3D, a 3D graphics standard that's trying to muscle its way into the HTML5 party. X3D is an open source effort that's already part of the MPEG-4 specification and is compatible with next-generation scalable vector graphic systems. Software teams are already working on a massive 3D model of the Earth, ways to animate people in 3D and developing new types of user interface so you don't try to push your mouse, like, into the screen, man.

Likely release date: First X3D websites -- 2011. 3D OS -- 2012. Mass adoption of 3D Web -- 2013.

Get ready for the biggest corporate face-off of the teens. In one corner, Google's Chrome OS netbooks will bring cheap, powerful, portable computing to the masses. In the other, Google's Android tablets will, er, bring powerful, cheap, portable computing to yet more masses.

In this high-tech car crash, Chrome OS could increasingly look like Google's biggest mistake. Not only has the Linux netbook vaporised since the introduction of Apple's iPad, anyone still buying low-end laptops seems happy enough with Microsoft's increasingly reliable Windows operating system.

Google has also done its best to deter the Android tablet market, for instance by dragging its feet in supporting larger screens. But it won't be able to hold back the floodgates much longer. By 2014, research firm Gartner predicts Android devices will rival budget Symbian phones for the smartphone crown, with hundreds of gadgets available in all shapes and sizes -- and tens of thousands of decent apps.

The result? Version two or three of Chrome OS will probably roll quietly into Android, just in time for an epic showdown with Apple and Microsoft. Now there's a fight worth watching.

Likely release date: Chrome and Android merging -- late 2012.

We all know GM killed the electric car back in the 1990s and that Gillette has an everlasting razor blade locked away in a safe deposit box. Now you can add unbreakable screens to your poorly scrawled, green-ink list of corporate conspiracies.

This year saw the mysterious non-appearance of Plastic Logic's Que and the Hearst's Skiff ebook readers, both previewed to great acclaim at January's CES. But 'Big Glass' can't keep ultra-rugged displays from our butter fingers forever.

Plastic Logic has returned its polymer-based organic electronic displays to the lab in Germany. Instead of launching its own reader, it will concentrate on selling plastic electronic screens to other manufacturers. The Skiff used even cooler tech: silicon thin-film transistors on a shatterproof steel substrate. Drop-proof iPad anyone?

First to market with a bendy, glass-free screen is likely to be Sony. It has already demonstrated a rollable OLED screen using organic thin-film transistors. The prototype screen is tough and flexible enough to roll around a pencil, showing moving video all the while.

Expect ultra-lightweight mobile phones -- and possibly foldable tablet screens -- from Sony within a year or two. That is, unless the shadowy corporate agents of glass win again. Damn their ice-cold translucent hearts!

Likely release date: Glass-free OLED screens on mobile phones -- 2012.