Searcher The Millennium Issue Volume 8, Number 1 • January 2000

The Next Big Thing
Dave Rensberger The P.N. Gwenne Company

If you are reading this by candlelight, never mind. The millennium we all expected is upon us and whatever we are now living with is where we are. So where are we? Where are we going? What are the indicators we should watch for? They are subtle and found in some unlikely places.

Personal hardware is tending toward the smaller, or just less obtrusive and more comfortable, on its way toward transparent. At least its expensive, state-of-the-art, peak stage has shortened significantly, after which it falls right off the shelf into the bin. The default beige box of the standard PC is showing signs of loosening up a little too. Radical charcoal has given way to the transparent jelly-bean look, a big step forward according to some. Perceived system prices are being further depressed by a couple of old-line content providers attempting a comeback in the personal Internet provider wars.

More than 55 percent of North Americans have PCs in at least one room in their home, up from 24 percent just 5 years ago. A person can buy a midpoint, verging on power, system for less than $1,000 and a very competent word-processing and e-mail system for less than $500, complete with at least the basic software it takes to do the vast majority of the real things you need a PC to do. If you work it right, you can get the box for “free.” Free translates as about $400 worth of mail-in rebates and another $400 dollar ISP rebate that eventually takes about $800 dollars back on a monthly basis over a 3-year period. Free may also mean that some of the software has been modified to push banners and commercial site ads that come at you in an unrelenting fashion. But free is free, even with a few gotchas. You can own a computer and it will do the job.

This new PC affordability may not have narrowed the gap much between high technology haves and have-nots, but it has put an important tool within reach of whole new segments of the population. It will be interesting to track Department of Commerce reports to see if availability drives the market; maybe the need for more hardware isn’t as great as anticipated.

It may not be. We still have a few teachers presiding over classrooms full of machines they don’t really understand and clueless executives with desktop conundrums. Many businesses are not pushing for hardware power after their last upgrades and won’t for at least a couple of cycles. People that purchased a PC because they felt left out and discovered no real pressing practical use for it in their lives are dropping out of the upgrade market. Those needing something special deal on a different level. What’s next? And how do you measure PC impact when you may no longer be able to define what exactly constitutes a PC?

One Information Appliance
Is the desktop box breaking up? How long will the beige thing squat there and demand we sit right down eyeball to eyeball? Does the future promise freedom? Information appliance time may arrive at last, and this time it might get beyond the interesting idea phase. Here is a case in point.

The infoGear iPhone [, $399] is a feature-rich updated communications station. About the size of a compact fax machine, the iPhone has a corded handset, a 7.4-inch, backlit grayscale, 640 x 480 resolution, tilting touch-screen, and a pull-out keyboard. It runs an internal 56K modem that connects to the Internet through a standard analog phone line. It supports two analog phone lines, making it possible to browse the Web and talk on the phone at the same time. The iPhone has a solid feel and all the hardware on a usable scale. A message indicator light located on the top-right corner of the screen alerts you to the arrival of new answering machine, voice-mail, or e-mail messages.

The Internet capabilities of the iPhone are adequate. The iPhone uses SecureWeb Toolkit as its browser’s secure socket layer, allowing safe e-commerce transactions. The iPhone browser will not support JavaScript until sometime next year. You may have difficulty with sites heavily dependent on Java. When iPhone’s browser has updates ready, the device automatically informs the user the next time the iPhone connects to the Internet. An Upgrade button and message appear on the screen and ask if you want to upgrade your phone’s features right then. The iPhone does have a printer port, but at this time it will only work with a proprietary iPhone printer that is not yet available.

The iPhone is also a full-featured digital answering machine that supports remote message retrieval, memos, and a full-duplex speakerphone. iPhone connects you to your local phone company voice-mail account at the touch of a button and allows you to control voice-mail features through the touch-screen. The iPhone also supports caller ID and call-waiting services. If you have caller ID the iPhone can create a Call Log of up to 100 numbers. Independent of your phone company’s services, the iPhone also works with call forwarding, as well as three-way calling, one-touch caller-ID blocking, and call return. A speed-dial function is accessible through the touch-screen. Storage capacity is up to 800 names, phone numbers, or e-mail addresses in its directory, and you can add numbers from the call log. E-mail connects to a POP server, downloads your e-mail, and can access up to four different e-mail profiles. For a really exhaustive list of features, including not-quite-there features, visit the Web site and read the small print carefully.

My first reaction to this clever combination was hardware lust. Then as usual the “what would I do with it? where would it live?” gene kicked in. Here lies the problem for this type of gee-gaw. I could put it where my phone is now, right next to the PC on my desk. I can see a logic problem there: overkill. How about my wife’s desk, next to her PC? All right then, how about in the kitchen in case we get an emergency e-mail during a conference call, while logged on to OK. So I can’t rationalize it for myself, but maybe you can. Think it over. Good luck . But if they follow up on this first effort with a next generation, we may all be able to rationalize the purchase.

What if iPhone2 worked directly with an IP network along with the traditional phone network? IP telephony would allow calls to be connected through the Internet, saving tolls on long-distance calls. How about a cordless headset and fully competent voice-recognition software, leaving my hands and behind free to roam? In fact throw in some next generation OCR (optical character recognition) and voice software and it could read my e-mail to me. I could even dictate my response. How about videoconferencing, in color, with the ability to put up a stock shot if I’m still wearing my bunny slippers at noon? Maybe they could use the wireless functions to open a channel to a more sophisticated word processor, one that would take dictation, discretely placed behind a cabinet door, and kick off a central printer unit using infrared connectivity technology, the one located near the full-wall, flat-panel video center.

Well a wish list is a wish list. As it stands the iPhone is interesting, but what it points to is more important. Focused decoupling of the “one box for everything” idea we have been locked into for quite a while now. Time will tell.

The Customer’s Call
Another interesting trend is the “12 gates to the city” school of personal hardware. Instead of approaching a solution from one point using one method, this class of device is highly customizable and lets you “simplify” your approach to a hardware/software problem. One of the more engaging examples is something from Kensington [] called a WebRacer.

The WebRacer is a pointing device with some interesting ideas about style of input — “point and click” with a difference. This is the TV remote control, gamepad school of input translated to Web surfing. Physically it’s a sleek sort of oval widget with a built-in touchpad and a raft of buttons. Big buttons with arrows, little buttons with numbers, more with icons, and all of them subject to reconfiguring at your whim. It comes with an 8-foot cord so you can assume your favorite position for Web running. It connects to your PC using either a PS/2 or serial port connection. It can replace your existing mouse or work in conjunction with it, using the “with mouse” option. This configuration ties up both a serial port and a PS/2 connection, but leaves all your options open.

People have a lot of issues with Microsoft. My only real day-to-day gripe is what the company did to “look and feel.” All the major applications on my Wintel machine have a very consistent interface. Oh I can change a few colors and type faces and change the background a little, but it still “looks and feels” pretty much the same. 

So while we all wait for the next big thing, here is something to perk up your browser. NeoPlanet [], a privately-held Internet company based in Phoenix, Arizona, has developed the browser equivalent of aluminum siding for Microsoft IE 3.0 or above, called NeoPlanet 5.0. It replaces elements of Internet Explorer’s interface with customized graphics called “skins.” All the functionality of the browser remains, but it really makes a huge difference. I can’t really describe the effect, and the screen shot doesn’t even come close to conveying it. Trust me. Wander over and check it out. Best of all, it’s free.

How does it feel? Well I found myself changing my approach to the Web in subtle ways. My rhythms changed, my link logic and search strategies took some different paths, and it made me think about very basic functions just a little differently. It works well the way it works.

So why would you consider this device if it doesn’t change the end result? It has a learning curve that has a little of the “learning a new guitar chord” feel to it. What’s the point? Well there is only one way to figure this one out. Go down to your local computer outlet, put 50 bucks in one hand and a WebRacer in the other, and try it out. If you walk out of the store with the WebRacer, you understand. Now if it only had a row of LED lights.

A Serious Game
Something really intriguing happened in September of 1999. Sega [] released a console game machine called the DreamCast. It has very good 3-D graphics and excellent sound capabilities and has initially sold at $199 for the basic unit. It uses any TV set as a display device and sits on top of your VCR like a happy clam. So how does this fit into a information professional’s concerns about the direction of information management?

This little game machine may say more about the future than we realize. It shipped with a 56K modem built in. The primary purpose of this modem is of course multiplayer online gaming. The interesting thing is that there is also an optional keyboard and browser software available. So here we have an appliance built from the ground up as a 128-bit, 3-D graphics engine capable of rendering over 3 million polygons per second with the ability to present a 3-D, believable reality front end for the user, and that reality is entirely virtual. Sega has also peppered the device with input and output ports and a removable palm-sized memory unit (VMU — Visual Memory Unit) that allows downloading of subsets of information for use away from the parent machine. In its first 2 weeks on the market, Dreamcast had 514,000 sales, up from Sega’s original projection of 400,000 in the first month.

Preparing to distribute and organize accessible information in that type of environment may be the next real interesting challenge. I think the concept of information worlds and planes accessed in ways we haven’t conceived of yet is fascinating. And I find it ironic that at the start of the millennium and after 20 years into the personal computer era, for me it’s déjà vu all over again. My first usable production computer was a VC20 developed by Commodore Business Machines in 1981. It was conceived as a game machine to rival the first generation Atari video game consoles. As an afterthought a keyboard was integrated into the box and a generous 5K of RAM was provided to complement its 20K of ROM. Commodore set the course of my life for the next 20 years by including a Basic interpreter V2.0. Six months later I had moved to a 4.77 MHz IBM PC, a 300-baud modem, a book on assembly language, and a very expensive CompuServe account. But it all started with a game machine. It will be interesting to see what the generation that gets inspired by the DreamCast type of machine comes up with.

Here We Go
So what will the Millennium bring? A break up of the all-in-one box? Alternate information universes with their own logic and direct neural connections? Avatars that live in realities that only they can comprehend and manipulate where they serve as ambassadors for us, their creators? Hardware that authors software, that builds hardware? Yes, all of that, and things we haven’t even conceived of yet. But in the meantime I’d settle for just a little more online speed — and a few more rows of blinking LED lights.
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