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APRIL 28, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 16 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Asiaweek Pictures
It looks just like an old-fashioned radio -- and that's the point. The Kerbango is a simple on/off device that plugs into a phone jack, allowing you to tune in over 4,000 Net radio stations at the turn of a dial. And if you're feeling really traditional, the Kerbango has a regular AM/FM tuner, too

Beyond the PC
New technologies will change our notions of what computers look like and where computing takes place -- try everywhere
By JIM ERICKSON and STUART WHITMORE

Some call them silicon cockroaches because they will infiltrate everything from kitchen cabinets to articles of clothing. More appealingly, they're known as "information appliances" -- devices that in the not-too-distant future are expected to supplant the personal computer as the digital tool of choice for millions of people. Silicon cockroaches will rule the world in the coming post-PC era. Computing will no longer be thought of as an activity that occurs almost exclusively in front of a glowing desktop monitor.

Can't dance? Smart sneakers fitted with sensors to detect motion and incline will guide your steps. Can't find your way to your next meeting? Your Internet-enabled, global-positioning-system-equipped car will check a database in Los Angeles and guide you to an office building in Tokyo. No time to shop? No need, since the refrigerator has already noted that you have emptied your last carton of milk and ordered a fresh batch from the Web grocer. Can't entertain yourself? No worries, a black box in the living room knows what movies you like and has automatically downloaded a selection for you to play on wall monitors in any room in the house.

This is living, but it is not quite life as we now know it. "We've reached the point of skill with technology where we can build almost anything imaginable," says Andrew Lippman, associate director of MIT's media laboratory and founder of the university's Digital Life Program. "It will bring about fundamental changes in the way we look at the world."

Helping to usher in those changes are a brace of new technologies -- some still in the labs, others already beginning to find applications. In the following pages, we look at three that we consider to be key enablers of the post-PC era: high-capacity memory cards, broadband wireless transmission systems and "Bluetooth" short-range communications chips.

All three have characteristics in common. They are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, practical and relatively economical. They improve our ability to share and distribute digital data. They extend the edges of the Internet, spreading communications capabilities throughout the home, the office, and the world at large. And they will change our notion of what a computer looks like as well as what it does. How to describe a pocket-sized device that is mobile telephone, personal digital assistant, and music and video player all in one? What do you call a box that links to your favorite Internet radio stations and plays them over your stereo? Is a TV still a TV when it also sends e-mail, handles stock trading and stores the family photo album?


Asiaweek Pictures

Which post-PC products will become indispensable and which will be duds is hard to predict. But researchers for microprocessor giant Intel Corp. are learning interesting things about consumer behavior in a pervasively interconnected environment. For example, when given a wireless tablet (a Net-enabled computer screen that can be carried to the couch) people tend to watch TV and surf the Web simultaneously. When information is continuously available on a variety of special-purpose devices throughout the home, people access the Internet not two or three times a day but 20 or 30 times. "The thing that truly changes people's lives is when the Internet is always on," says Claude Leglise, vice president and general manager of Intel's home products group. "It becomes an integral part of their existence."

Inexpensive, simple-to-use information appliances are expected to introduce even the computer-averse to the digital life. According to International Data Corp., annual shipments of non-PC devices will exceed consumer desktop computer shipments in 2002 and grow in value to $18.8 billion by 2004. That doesn't mean the multi-function desktop PC will disappear. The familiar machines will continue to play a central role in our orchestration of information, serving as personal data clearinghouses from which portable appliances feed. But, says Lippman, "the more interesting frontiers are off the desktop."

Of course, there are no guarantees any of our featured technologies will become widespread, nor are they the only important information technologies under development. But we're willing to bet that you'll be hearing more about them over the next 24 months. With all those silicon cockroaches chattering away, you'll more than likely get an earful.

MORE TECHNOLOGIES FOR TOMORROW

cover story | high-capacity memory cards | broadband wireless transmission systems | "Bluetooth" short-range communications chips

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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Cover: Three technologies that will shape the post-PC era
Bluetooth: The tooth will set you free
Flash Memory Cards: Descendents of the floppy disc
Broadband Mobile: Information is on the move

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