Analysis: 20 factors that will change PCs in 2002
By Daniel Tynan
(IDG) -- Hot economies cool down and Net empires collapse, but technology continues to move at light speed. Digital tools are not only getting smaller, faster, and cheaper, they're also insinuating themselves into every corner of life. And these days they're as likely to be found in your pocket as on your desk.
We've picked 20 trends and technologies that will have the greatest impact on personal computing for business and home use. We polled trend watchers, technologists, industry experts, and our own editors to uncover the products that will change how you work -- and possibly even how you live.
Not surprisingly, many of these innovations help bring the power of the Internet to mobile devices. Others ensure that your PC's performance continues to scream along (leaving software even farther behind). And most of them will hit the scene within the next two years.
Of course, the road to digital Nirvana is littered with the remains of "can't-miss" products (Internet appliances, anyone?). So we've outlined bumps in the road that each technology will encounter. We've also scored each technology on a scale of 1 to 10; the higher the number, the greater the technology's impact on users.
You'll be amazed by what's ahead. The future of high-tech has never looked brighter.
400 gigs and a cloud of dust: AFC hard drives
What is it? Antiferromagnetically coupled media, a new way to coat hard drives.
What's cool? By sprinkling disks with the element ruthenium -- impishly termed "pixie dust" by IBM -- drive manufacturers can pack more data onto each hard drive platter. Today most drives fit about 20 gigabits per square inch; AFC hard drives will ultimately fit five times as much -- which means a 400GB drive will soon cost about the same as today's 80GB models.
When's it coming? Pixie dust and other high-density storage technologies are already here, but drives won't hit 400GB before 2003.
What's the catch? Like CPU speeds, today's hard drive capacities already exceed most users' needs.
Impact meter: 8
PDAs move to another level: The 1-GHz palmtop
What is it? Palmtop processors that run at speeds from 250 MHz to 1 GHz.
What's cool? They'll need all that power to handle the high-speed cellular, Bluetooth, and other wireless technologies soon to be standard on handhelds. A business traveler might use the power to access a corporate database and then update information stored there using a mini-spreadsheet. Consumers might use the horsepower to download MP3s and to play short videos. Combine these high-speed chips with inexpensive mass storage, and pocket companions should become powerful enough to handle natural-language speech input -- no more fussing with handwriting recognition.
When's it coming? The first 250- to 400-MHz handhelds are expected in the first half of 2002.
What's the catch? Don't expect a ton of battery life. You might want to wear an oven mitt, too -- these chips generate a lot of heat.
Impact meter: 5
Scintillating screens: Organic-light-emitting diodes
What is it? A replacement for LCD screen technology.
What's cool? OLEDs rely on organic materials that emit light, so they require no backlighting. That makes them cheaper to produce and less power-hungry than LCDs. They're a natural choice for portable devices when battery life is a key concern. OLED screens are also thinner than LCDs, and the technology can be printed on flexible materials such as plastic. Imagine a computer screen that rolls up and down like a window shade.
When's it coming? Two to three years for PDAs and cell phones; five to ten for laptops and desktop displays.
What's the catch? It's early. Color fidelity can be a problem. Building active-matrix OLED displays -- in which each pixel is controlled by two transistors, or twice as many as on a standard notebook LCD -- erodes some cost and power advantages.
Impact meter: 5
The message is the medium: Next-generation instant messaging
What is it? A whole lot more than text.
What's cool? Instant messaging may have started as a toy for teenagers, but it's poised to become the mass-communication tool for the 21st century. Microsoft has made IM a key component of Windows XP: Besides sending simple text messages, with Windows Messenger you can exchange files, conduct audio or video conferences, and collaborate on documents over the Net. The big advantage for business users? When you see that a colleague is online, you can set up a conference or work session instantly -- no more telephone or e-mail tag. AOL is working with Sun and Lotus on standards that will allow their IM products to communicate with each other. Others are exploring ways that IM can help to drive e-commerce and deliver online music and games. (AOL Time Warner is the parent company of CNN.com.)
When's it coming? Windows Messenger is here already, and its competitors are sure to respond soon.
What's the catch? The AOL and Microsoft IM clients still can't communicate with each other. And in the workplace, IM could replace Web surfing as the goof-off activity of choice.
Impact meter: 7
Tireless wireless: 802.11 networks
What is it? A high-speed wireless network protocol.
What's cool? In the office and at home, wireless networks will leave you free to roam while connected to the Internet at full speed. With an 802.11b home network, consumers can surf the Net, download files, and print documents from their laptop or handheld -- no wires required. Companies like Wayport and MobileStar are installing 802.11b in hotels, airports, and cafes across the country. Meanwhile, corporate users will enjoy an 802.11a standard that's five times faster at 54 mbps.
When's it coming? Wireless 802.11b and 802.11a networks are already here; broad deployment will start in 2002.
What's the catch? Speed drops as you get farther from a LAN access point, 802.11a isn't backward-compatible with 802.11b, and wireless networks can be less secure.
Impact meter: 7
In search of a common language: Markup languages for everything
What is it? The lingua franca of the Internet.
What's cool? By surrounding data with simple text tags, an XML (Extensible Markup Language) programmer can tell a computer to access corporate data no matter where it resides and then display it in a browser. Though the XML 1.0 spec was finalized in 1998, huge companies like Fidelity Investments have only begun to convert all their data to XML, while scores of industry-specific dialects have been developed for finance, medicine, and other sectors. Applications written in XML will also let search engines distinguish between, say, the name Price on a Web page and the price of an item on that page, leading to faster, more accurate searches.
When's it coming? Markup dialects are just starting to become commonplace.
What's the catch? Converting existing data to XML can be slow and expensive: To permit search engines to work optimally, corporations must adopt a consistent approach to coding data in XML, covering such points as how to label data fields (for example: last name, surname, or family name?).
Impact meter: 9
Getting a little hyper: Hyper-threading
What is it? A more efficient way to use processing power.
What's cool? That 2-GHz Pentium 4 chip might be a barn burner, but parts of it are always sitting idle, waiting for your software to use them. Intel's Hyper-Threading technology will put those indolent circuits to use, allowing network servers to handle up to 30 percent more users. Desktops may see a similar gain once applications are written to take advantage of it, but the benefits would likely be felt first by compulsive multitaskers who like to play games, download files, and print databases at the same time.
When's it coming? Later in 2002 for servers; in 2003 for desktops.
What's the catch? Windows XP and Linux support Hyper-Threading, but apps tuned for it are years away.
Impact meter: 7
Good-bye PCI, hello Arapahoe: 3G input/output bus
What is it? A faster data pipe.
What's cool? Today's multigigahertz chips demand a constant stream of data, and the aging PCI and AGP bus standards won't be fast enough at shuttling data between your PC's components. That's why Intel is developing a third-generation input/output interconnect specification, code-named Arapahoe, that's up to ten times quicker than today's fast PCI-X bus. PCI-X moves data in parallel along 64 wires, reaching a top speed of about 1GB per second. Arapahoe can employ from 1 to 32 lanes; each lane consists of a pair of wires and can shuffle more than 200MB of data per second between the CPU and add-in cards or integrated parts. Arapahoe can also prioritize data, so that, for example, real-time streaming data is processed faster.
When's it coming? Early 2004.
What's the catch? PC makers will have to support both standards as systems make the transition to Arapahoe, which may increase PC costs.
Impact meter: 9
Peers looking at you: Peer-to-peer networking
What is it? A way to create ad hoc networks within a corporation or across the Net.
What's cool? Peer-to-peer networking is more than just a way to swap MP3s. It will let businesses cache files, such as the latest virus definitions from Symantec or McAfee, on employees' hard drives. Files download more quickly when cached locally, and using employee hard drives will save money on server storage while preserving precious bandwidth. Tools like Groove employ file sharing, instant messaging, voice transmission, and more to help far-away colleagues collaborate on projects. Collaborative search software like OpenCola Folders will let consumers stream content recommended by users who share their interests -- a faster, smarter way to roam the Web.
When's it coming? Apps are here now, but it will be a few years before peer-to-peer networking is broadly adopted.
What's the catch? Network administrators who hate decentralization see peer-to-peer apps as sources of security and administration headaches.
Impact meter: 5
The see-through PC: TFT computers
What is it? Computers that can fit on a pane of glass.
What's cool? Portable computers not much larger than their displays -- namely, much smaller handhelds, tablet PCs, and notebooks. Manufacturers have been attaching low-speed circuits to glass for years -- that's the basis of every thin-film transistor notebook screen. But LCD makers have been unable to put high-speed chips onto devices without heating the glass past its melting point. Now engineers at Fujitsu have found a way to affix microprocessors and fast circuits to LCDs at lower temperatures.
When's it coming? Fujitsu expects to ship integrated processors and memory on glass by 2003.
What's the catch? At press time, Fujitsu had yet to create glass sheets large enough to sell to manufacturers.
Impact meter: 6
Data magnet: Magnetic RAM
What is it? Fast memory that retains data even after you've turned the power off.
What's cool? MRAM uses magnetic charges instead of electricity to store bits; when you turn off your machine, your data remains in memory. You'll be able to power down at the end of the day and then pick up the next morning exactly where you left off -- giving your system "instant-on" capability. Unlike traditional memory chips, MRAM doesn't require a constant flow of electricity to retain data. That means big power savings for portable devices. It's also faster and sturdier than flash memory.
When's it coming? MRAM will start to appear in 2004.
What's the catch? It needs to be cheaper and offer more storage capacity than DRAM -- and it ain't there yet.
Impact meter: 8
Present and accounted for: Presence technology
What is it? A way to find people on the Net.
What's cool? Call it the end of phone tag. Presence technology will let you know when your friends are logged on and what Internet device each is near -- a PC, a PDA, or a even cell phone. Some presence apps will figure out which device you're using and then choose the best medium for the message: video if you're at your PC, text if you have your Palm, audio if you're in your car. The GPS technology built into some mobile devices may let you pinpoint a person's location within 30 feet.
When's it coming? Throughout the upcoming year.
What's the catch? Want to be left alone? You may have to pay for the privilege, just as you do to block Caller ID or to keep your phone number unlisted.
Impact meter: 7
It keeps going and going: Fuel cells
What is it? An endlessly renewable power source for portable devices.
What's cool? Imagine notebooks that work 20 hours at a stretch or cell phones that never run out of juice. Both may be possible thanks to new developments in fuel cells. The Fraunhofer Institute in Germany has built prototype handhelds that use solar panels to recharge a tiny hydrogen fuel cell. New York-based Medis Technologies says it has developed a fuel cell for cell phones and laptops that uses ethanol and water -- a safer and cheaper alternative to hydrogen. Meanwhile, researchers at Motorola and Los Alamos National Labs are developing a methanol fuel cell that's about the size of a postage stamp.
When's it coming? One to three years for initial products.
What's the catch? The first fuel cells could be pricey, and they run hot and expel waste. You'll need to replace the fuel periodically, too.
Impact meter: 6
The world's biggest brain: Distributed computing
What is it? A way to share computing resources across a network.
What's cool? For the past few years, researchers have linked supercomputers across the Net to collaborate on divining the origins of the cosmos or predicting the weather. Companies like IBM and Sun aim to bring that kind of computing power to your desk. Soon, IT departments will be able to send computationally intensive problems to a grid of computers -- a relatively inexpensive alternative to investing in new computers. Millions of consumers already use distributed apps like the SETI@Home screen saver.
When's it coming? Some apps are already here, but large-scale deployment is several years away.
What's the catch? Building grid "server farms" could cost billions.
Impact meter: 3
Guided by voices: Voice portals
What is it? Voice-driven Web sites.
What's cool? Next time you call your bank or your travel agent, that pleasant-sounding woman who answers the phone may be a Web server. Voice portals running high-end speech recognition and text-to-speech software will let you browse the Web and check your e-mail by phone more easily, as well as get information from financial service centers, airlines, and directory assistance. Thanks to advances such as AT&T's Natural Voices software, computer voices will sound much more like people. The software's "voice fonts" let application vendors create different accents, languages, and moods, or even mimic celebrities.
When's it coming? Initial deployment has begun; widespread use is expected in three to five years.
What's the catch? Speech recognition isn't 100 percent accurate, and on-the-fly synthesis still sounds a bit robotic.
Impact meter: 6
May we see some ID, please: The electronic wallet
What is it? A single storehouse for personal and financial data.
What's cool? With all your information in one place, you'll be able to buy anything on the Web with a single click, or check your schedule from any Net-connected device. But first you may have to show your Passport. Microsoft's scheme for verifying user identities, Passport is central to the company's upcoming .Net My Services initiative, which will encompass e-mail, an address book, a scheduler, a wallet, and other Net-based services. Although the concept of online IDs isn't new, the release of Windows XP may make them unavoidable. Want to use XP's Messenger or Net telephony features, log on to Hotmail, or buy a Microsoft e-book? You'll have to sign up for Passport.
When's it coming? Passport's already here, and .Net My Services and competing schemes are due later in 2002.
What's the catch? Do you really trust the Redmond Giant to safeguard your information? Privacy watchdogs don't -- they've filed suit to alter key provisions of Microsoft's plan.
Impact meter: 8
Bandwidth on the run: The new cell-phone network
What is it? Mobile phones that will be able to access the Internet at blistering speeds.
What's cool? Significantly more bandwidth. The third-generation (so-called "3G") cellular network promises data rates from 384 kbps to 2 mbps -- more than 100 times the puny rate today's cellular networks employ. The speed increase should open the way for a host of applications for cell phones and PDAs, from streaming audio and video to sophisticated real-time data manipulation.
When's it coming? Verizon and Sprint were slated to begin U.S. trials in late 2001, but broad deployment is still three to five years away.
What's the catch? Warring cellular standards in Europe and the United States could sow confusion and slow consumer acceptance. And the cell carriers have yet to prove that they can make voice transmission -- let alone data transmission -- as reliable as users want.
Impact meter: 6
To 10 GHz and beyond: Extreme ultraviolet lithography
What is it? A way to make processors that are up to 100 times faster than today's chips.
How it works: Chip makers create today's processors by focusing ultraviolet light -- first through a mask (which acts like a photograph negative) and then through quartz lenses -- to carve circuits one-fourth the size of the mask into a silicon wafer. Chip makers have made circuits smaller and faster by using light with progressively shorter wavelengths. But when light waves get too short, they are absorbed by the lenses, as well as by the air. The solution? In a vacuum, use specially constructed concave mirrors, instead of lenses, to reflect and focus extreme ultraviolet light.
What's cool? Even Moore's Law eventually gets trumped by the laws of physics. In a few years, the current method of packing ever greater numbers of transistors onto a chip will hit a wall. But a technology called Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography may break that barrier. Intel estimates that EUVL chips will boast 400 million transistors -- about ten times more than the Pentium 4's 42 million.
When's it coming? In three to five years.
What's the catch? Software that's capable of taking advantage of all this processing muscle is nowhere in sight.
Impact meter: 8
- A high-energy laser is concentrated on a jet of xenon gas, creating plasma.
- The xenon plasma emits a powerful glow of extreme ultraviolet light with a wavelength of 13 nanometers -- one-thirtieth the wavelength of violet visible light.
- A condenser gathers the light and directs it toward the mask, which contains a stencil image of the circuit pattern on a mirror.
- The image of the circuit pattern reflects off the mask mirror and then off a series of four to six concave mirrors, which reduce and sharpen the image and then project it onto a silicon wafer coated with a light-sensitive material (called a resist).
- Wherever the light hits it, the resist hardens, shaping the circuit. A chemical wash removes the unhardened resist material, exposing the silicon beneath.
Digital cameras: Multiplicity of megapixels
What is it? Digital cameras that start to rival film cameras' output.
What's cool? Camera makers continue to increase resolutions, making for sharper, more detailed digital photos. Meanwhile, companies like Sony and Minolta continue to increase the bit depth digital cameras use to capture color values. That should help render more-subtle highlights and shadows. Once it's ready, you can expect OLED technology to make its way into camera viewfinders, where power savings over standard LCDs will boost battery life.
When's it coming? Cameras that offer 5-megapixel resolution are here now, and manufacturers are already increasing bit depth beyond 32 bits. Expect prices for 4- and 5-megapixel models to come down to more reasonable levels over the next year.
What's the catch? Most people don't need more than 3.3 megapixels. Resolutions may start to climb slowly as fewer people need the added detail provided by higher resolutions.
Impact meter: 5
A serial thriller: Serial ATA storage
What is it? A faster interface for disk drives.
What's cool? Speed, baby. The serial ATA interface is capable of transferring up to 600MB of data per second -- six times the rate of the current parallel ATA interface. That should keep data flowing smoothly to your CPU for years to come. Serial ATA can operate at lower voltages, which becomes necessary as low-voltage microprocessors become standard. It also uses longer, thinner cables that won't block airflow inside the system case, which lets systems run cooler and allows PC makers to build more-compact desktops and notebooks.
When's it coming? The first half of 2002.
What's the catch? It requires more motherboard electronics than parallel devices do, increasing initial system costs.
Impact meter: 9
Your desktop PC specs in 2004
Your desktop PC in 2004: Two years from now, your desktop system will be slimmer and trimmer. Flat-panel screens will replace bulky CRTs, and rewritable-DVD drives and fast graphics subsystems will turn your PC into a movie lover's dream.
CPU and RAM: 4- to 5-GHz microprocessor with 512MB of DDR memory and a 600-MHz system bus
Hard disk: From 300GB to 400GB on a Serial ATA bus
Removable storage: Rewritable DVD and -- yes -- the unsinkable 1.44MB floppy
Internet connection: Cable or DSL broadband if you're lucky; 56-kbps modem if not
Video: 3D graphics card with 128MB of video RAM
Display: 18- to 21-inch flat-panel LCD screen capable of 1600 by 1200 resolution
Ports: USB 2.0 and IEEE 1394
Input devices: Wireless (Bluetooth) mouse and keyboard
Operating system: Some version of Windows (you expected Linux, perhaps?)
Other: An 802.11b wireless network designed for users with more than one PC
Price: $1,500 to $2,000
Your notebook PC specs in 2004
Your notebook PC in 2004: By 2004 a notebook will be many users' only PC. These mobile monsters will have the power to replace desktops, but will stay slender enough to tuck into a briefcase. Screens won't get much larger than 15 inches, though -- any bigger and you would lose portability -- and battery life will improve, but not as much as most users would like.
CPU and RAM: 2- to 3-GHz chip with 256MB of RAM
Hard disk: 60GB to 80GB with Serial ATA interface
Removable storage: Rewritable DVD; some form of CompactFlash card
Internet connection: Broadband access through wireless networks in your office or the nearest Starbucks
Wireless technologies: 802.11 for connecting to a LAN; Bluetooth for communicating with other devices
Display: 15-inch LCD; video headset accessory for truly mobile (and private) work
Dimensions: 2 to 3 pounds and less than 1 inch thick
Battery: No fuel cells yet, but lithium ion units will be good for 5 to 10 hours of life per charge
Operating system: Windows
Price: $2,000 and up