Even as you read this, manufacturers are putting the final touches on new technology that will radically change the way we work. Wouldn’t it be great if you could prepare your business before these products hit the shelves?
To help you guide your purchasing and get a jump on the competition, our tech editors have put together this preview of what’s ahead, based on numerous trips to trade shows, advance product demos, and interviews with leading industry experts.
What can you expect to see in the coming year? Hardware that’s getting skinnier–and fatter. Computers that are getting smarter–and dumber. These are two of the five contradictory trends we uncovered, proving that for every action there’s an opposite reaction. Happily, our favorite paradox continues to hold true: Each year, technology is becoming more powerful–and less expensive.
Some of the products mentioned here are already available. They’re noteworthy because they’re indicative of the direction in which similar items are heading. Also keep in mind that where there’s a buzz, there’s often a bite, so for each category we point out potential snags in the earliest versions.
HARDWARE GETS SKINNIER
Slim is in. But far from trimming features, manufacturers putting their products on a digital diet are squeezing more functionality into smaller devices, increasing their portability and freeing up valuable desktop real estate in the process.
THE BUZZ. Computers and monitors continue to get lighter and smaller. Personal digital assistants (PDAs)–the handheld, battery-powered units that use either their own operating system or Windows CE (a bare-bones version of Windows 95)–have already wowed the wired generation with their capabilities of managing phone numbers, appointments, and accessing e-mail. Now, enter the Libretto (pictured on the previous page and reviewed in this issue’s New & Noteworthy).
Toshiba’s $2,000 mini-notebook weighs just 1.85 pounds but offers a 75MHz Pentium processor, 16MB of RAM, a 772MB hard disk, a 6.1-inch active-matrix color screen, and a full version of Windows 95. Expect other vendors next year to release their versions of this content-rich, paperback-size unit that’s already a hot seller in Japan.
The current breed of handheld PCs, such as the Philips Velo, weighs even less and we expect to see more software and hardware peripherals available for them–especially those using the Windows CE operating system. And say goodbye to the monochrome mini-displays. Leading PDA manufacturer NEC is perfecting a color liquid crystal display (LCD) for its MultiSync LCD 2000 that should hit the United States market by year’s end.
Notebooks also are stripping down. Computer industry analyst Tim Bajarin expects a narrower, more task-specific notebook with fewer features and a lower sticker price to debut next year. “We’re going to see a lightweight portable designed for e-mail and writing memos, a lot like the Libretto,” says Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies.
Another peripheral on the Slim-Fast plan is the desktop monitor, as witnessed by flat-panel desktop displays that recently hit the market. First seen in 19505 science-fiction films, wafer-thin monitors finally are becoming a reality. Their appeal? They offer crisp, clear images and free up your desktop for other items. ViewSonic recently introduced its VPA145 ViewPanel, an LCD panel with built-in speakers and a twist: The monitor can display in portrait or landscape mode to show a single page or two pages side-by-side.
THE BITE. Weight loss comes at a price. Because LCD technology is costly to manufacture, flat-panel displays currently range from $1,500 to $3,500. For example, the PanoView 745 from CTX International, a 14.5-inch LCD panel that delivers resolutions of 1,024 by 768, has a list price of $2,795. We anticipate that these high prices will make flat-panel displays slow to catch on, especially when standard 17-inch monitor prices are expected to take a dive to $500 by early next year, with prices for 19- and 21-inch monitors likely dropping in their wake. As for the Libretto and other tiny notebooks with awkward-to-use Chiclet-size keys, it might be worth waiting until they have all the features of a full-size portable. “Why spend $2,000 for a notebook without a floppy drive or functioning keypad when you can get a full-fledged notebook for just $500 more?” asks Bajarin.
HARDWARE GETS FATTER
Although some PCs are shrinking, others continue to pack on the pounds as more features are added.
THE BUZZ. A far superior desktop computer looms on the horizon that will quickly retire your current 166MHz Pentium with its 24MB of RAM. Next year, the standard desktop will boast basics of 64MB of RAM, an 8GB hard disk, new Pentium II chips at twice the current clock speeds, and a 19-inch monitor. Notebooks too will continue to pack in more. “By 2000, notebooks will have 13-, 14-, and maybe even 15-inch active-matrix screens and multigigabyte hard disks,” says Rick Griencewic, product marketing manager for Gateway 2000.
Industry analyst Bajarin says the next trend will be to enhance these awesome systems even further, bringing multimedia full force into the business world. “Today when I create a document, I use text and graphics,” says Bajarin. “Soon I’ll be able to create large vivid files with video, animation, and sound.” But huge multimedia files call for huge portable storage options. So, just as today’s PCs come standard with Zip drives, tomorrow’s systems will have multimegabyte and even gigabyte-size removable storage devices, such as Jaz drives and recordable CD (CD-R) for notebooks. “CD-R is cost effective and will eventually replace floppies,” says Bajarin.
THE BITE. Expect to see a widening gulf between low-end, lightweight, task-specific notebooks and larger, heftier notebooks with added power, speed, CD-R technology, and more. You’ll need to decide whether the additional bells and whistles make it worthwhile to lug around a notebook that weighs as much as a toddler. Also, with more powerful and complex features, the potential for hardware meltdowns, especially in newer technologies, increases.
PCs BECOME MORE LIKE TVs
What’s big and square, puts you in touch with the world, and can cause you to become so engrossed that you lose track of time?
THE BUZZ. Improved videocards, such as the Diamond Multimedia Viper and Number Nine’s Revolution 3D, have brought improved video quality to computers. Likewise, video editing software such as MGI Software VideoWave and Corel Lumiere give your desktop system the look, feel, and power of a television studio. Some manufacturers are banking on the marriage of television and PC. Right now Gateway 2000 and Compaq Computer are offering a real-world merge of computers and television with their Destination and PC Theatre units, respectively. Both units feature large screens (36 inches for the Compaq PC Theatre), powerful processors (Gateway’s Destination uses the 300MHz Pentium II), ample RAM, fast modems, and more. The Destination uses DVD-ROM to display films, and with a list price of $4,999, you can browse the Web, answer and send e-mail, and give business presentations.
THE BITE. Computers and televisions are separate beasts with two different sets of concerns. “When you buy a TV you tend keep it for seven years, but PC processor technology changes every 18 months,” says Bajarin. Also, for PCs to become as widely used as TVs, they’ll have to become much smarter and simpler to use. Like TVs, PCs need metaphors and interfaces–such as the remote control–that users can easily understand.
TVs BECOME MORE LIKE PCs
What’s big and square, puts you in touch with the world, and can cause you to become so engrossed . . . you get the picture.
THE BUZZ. Forget high-definition TV (HDTV) because the Web will be on your television before you know it. All of the advances in the Web can easily be imported to your television set, and the next TV you buy will have a built-in Web browser, some entertainment software, and a remote control keyboard/mouse combo. “The TV of the future will be a simple Web-browsing tool. We already have WebTV,” says Walter Mossberg, a computer columnist for The Wall Street Journal. “It’s new, but it can be improved upon.” Now that Microsoft has purchased WebTV, there’s no telling how far the TV-as-PC convergence can go. Also? new advances in monitors are going to change the face of living rooms everywhere. With LCDs, your TV will soon measure 48 inches diagonally but will be only four inches deep with a crisp resolution, it may even hang on the wall.
THE BITE. Hold on to your remotes; it’s going to be a bumpy ride. The problem with the TV-as-PC is that televisions are much lower-resolution devices than computer monitors. When you surf with WebTV, you often need to visit sites specially created for television viewing. The PC-as-TV doesn’t suffer this same problem. Also, the TV industry is still mulling over HDTV and now it has to deal with the Web?! Again, unless you have to be the first business on the block with the latest toy, wait for version 2.0, because standards are changing faster than lead singers for Van Halen.
WE ALL GET MORE CONNECTED
You already have phone, fax, and pager numbers, e-mail addresses, and a Web site. Soon you’ll have even more ways to stay in touch with clients, suppliers, and colleagues.
THE BUZZ. All-in-one devices that can satisfy all of your communications needs are starting to pour onto the market. Nokia, well known for its cell phones and monitors, has created the Nokia 9000 Communicator, a $1,000 wireless portable phone/fax/e-mail/Web browser/ PIM. The clamshell cell phone opens to reveal a computer keypad and LCD screen. Already a hit in Europe, the device hit the United States this past September.
In addition to such nifty new hardware connectivity capabilities, Metcalfe sees on the horizon “collaborative filtering of community forums”–private versions of Internet newsgroups that allow a business and its clients to hold private discussions that are inaccessible to competitors. Lotus Development recently announced Instant! TeamRoom, a program that lets you rent space on a network to hold virtual meetings. For a monthly fee of $14.95 per user per month, you’ll collaborate, share documents, and hold meetings through your Web browser–no special software required.
Although most small businesses currently use the Web only as a billboard, electronic commerce is slowly taking off and will increase in volume dramatically over the next year. Already, we’re seeing products like Peachtree Business Internet Suite, a Web site builder for creating an online catalog that works closely with Peachtree Complete Accounting. Also, Intuit, maker of personal finance giant Quicken, has announced plans to expand the Quicken Financial Network, allowing users to conduct business transactions and raise capital on the Internet. Bajarin predicts that to aid online commerce “encryption and security will be perfected by late 1998 and 1999.”
Nigel Burton, Microsoft’s director of small business, credits the ability to do business on the Internet–extending service hours and breaking beyond geographic boundaries–as one of the forces driving a boom in small-business technology investment. That’s why, he adds, “it’s likely that e-commerce will be a far more common business model for small organizations toward the end of this year.” However, Burton says business-to-business e-commerce is more likely to catch on than business-to-consumer.
THE BITE: “Doing business on the Internet requires a technology base that simply isn’t present yet for many small organizations,” says Burton. “Additionally, e-commerce applications to date have required a degree of internal IS [information systems] expertise that most small businesses don’t have. This is changing, however, as easier and more affordable tools become available.” Consumers’ distrust of the Internet may also impede thriving commerce online Intuit says that only one in 10 of its TurboTax and Quicken users file their taxes or perform transactions online.
WE ALL GET MORE ISOLATED
So you’ll be able to connect more using technology. Just you. The Web. Your computer. All alone. Thought you never left your office much before?
THE BUZZ. Forget about cruising the aisles of your favorite software retail store–you’ll shortly be updating your current applications as well as buying new software online. As few as three years ago, software companies needed more than 18 months to create new versions of their programs. Now they’re releasing new versions every 12 months. In the near future, vendors will release updates several times a year in the race to match the competition’s new features.
Quick update access is very appealing. Why go to a store to buy and load a program from six disks when you can visit a software publisher’s home page, try a free sample program for 45 days, and then purchase the full-blown version over the Web? You can do that now, but there’s more. Very soon, all of those multimedia CD-ROMs, such as electronic telephone directories, will wind up as pay-per-use and subscription-based Web directories.
In the next couple of years your personal contact with the outside business world will also diminish because you’ll be doing more than just chatting online–you’ll be holding meetings in cyberspace. If there has been one communications technology touted but never perfected for more than 50 years, it’s videoconferencing. Although still fraught with complications, you’ll start seeing more videoconferencing solutions added into desktop PCs as early as next year from such companies as Winnov (maker of the VideumCam digital camera), iVision (maker of the PC Video Camera), and 3Com/U.S. Robotics (maker of Bigpicture). The monitor you buy will have a videocamera built into the corner of the monitor’s bezel, the plastic border that houses the screen. After that, expect vendors to embed the camera behind the videoscreen itself, so you can look at the work and the lens at the same time.
THE BITE. Like anything relating to the Internet, videoconferencing innovations will be stymied by bandwidth–the limitations of the current structure of the Internet. Also, although videoconferencing is alluring, beware anything that eliminates time spent with clients. “Use this technology only as a supplement, an additional tool, rather than an alternative to meeting someone in person,” says Ray Boggs, research director at IDC/Link Resources. “You may not have to fly to the West Coast 10 times a year, but you will have to fly once.”