Expect more Internet-related gadgets in '98 Browser battle puts future of Windows 98 in doubt

Your computer

potent PCs to get cheaper

January 04, 1998|By MICHAEL HIMOWITZ

IF I WERE really good at predicting the future, I wouldn't be writing this column now. I'd be too busy buying the right stocks, betting the right horses and entering every NCAA Final Four pool I could find.

However, my lack of success in these endeavors has never stopped me from trying to report tomorrow's technology news today. So as 1998 begins, here are my annual New Year's predictions about what will be hot and what will be not.

Hot hardware: Look for a whole slew of gadgets aimed at the Internet. Some of these are available now if you have deep pockets, but they'll get cheaper and more popular as the year rolls on. Most of them will be computers; they just won't look like computers, and they'll be a lot smaller.

Some will look like telephones, and they'll use traditional cellular phone systems or the new wireless digital information services that are springing up around the country. The hot phone of 1999 will let you send and receive e-mail and even faxes, although Web browsing will still be a ridiculous exercise on a two- or three-inch display. On the other hand, desktop computer-phones with decent screens that incorporate Web browsers could become hot items.

If the nation's cable companies get their act together, you'll start to see inexpensive "set-top boxes" that can turn your TV into an incredible Web experience. Until now, set-top gadgets such as WebTV have been limited by the slow speed of the standard phone line that connects your home to their servers. But the cable that provides TV signals to your house has the capacity to pump torrents of digital information onto your screen.

The catch: To provide this kind of interactivity, cable companies will have to invest big money in systems that were originally designed for one-way traffic. A few (including Comcast in Baltimore and Howard Counties) have made this investment and are providing superb high-speed Internet service to home computer users.

As more cable companies jump in, there will be a mass market for cheap, dedicated Web browsing computers that sit between your TV and cable hookup. Aimed at users who don't have PCs or don't like them, these boxes could truly turn the Web into a mass medium.

Not so hot technology: Computers that fit into your pocket. Known as Personal Digital Assistants, or PDAs, these gadgets have changed from simple but effective name-and-address keepers to awful PC wannabes running a horrid little operating system known as Windows CE. They're cute, but the keyboards and screens are far too small to be useful for any kind of real work. I think they'll flop.

On the other hand, PDAs such as the 3Com Palm Pilot (formerly sold under the U.S. Robotics name), which recognize handwriting and don't try to shoehorn every possible feature into a tiny package, will continue to gain popularity because they're easy to use.

Cheap PCs: Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel, predicted years ago that the power of microprocessors would double every 18 months. This is known in the trade as Moore's Law, and it won't be repealed any time soon. That means personal computers will continue to get cheaper and more powerful.

The success of the $1,000 PC this year shows that good technology can be packaged very reasonably. These cheap PCs will get even better as Intel, pressured by competitors AMD and Cyrix, designs new versions of its premium Pentium II chip for the low-end market.

Browser wars: The three-way tag team match between Microsoft Corp., Netscape Communications Inc. and the Department of Justice will continue in the courtroom and on the real battlefield -- the World Wide Web.

On one front, government antitrust lawyers want Microsoft to stop bundling its Web browser with the Windows operating system. Microsoft claims it can't do this without disabling Windows 95 and its successor, Windows 98. This is pure bull -- Microsoft already posts instructions for removing Internet Explorer on its Web site -- but the fight will provide full employment for armies of attorneys.

Meanwhile, ordinary Web users will pay the price as rivals Microsoft and Netscape design enough nifty features into their browsers to make them slightly incompatible with each other. That means pages designed specifically for Netscape Navigator will bomb with Microsoft's Internet Explorer and vice versa.

Last month, Netscape and its allies escalated the conflict by posting instructions on their Web sites that urge users of Internet Explorer to delete the Microsoft browser from their computers. Microsoft will undoubtedly figure out some equally juvenile way to retaliate. This is silly and dangerous, but I think it will get worse before it gets better.

Windows 98: Microsoft planned to integrate the look and feel of a Web browser into this update of its operating system, but with the Justice Department on the warpath, the future of Windows 98 is in doubt.

This is a shame, because Windows 98 is otherwise shaping up as an excellent upgrade. While Microsoft marketers have made big noises about Windows 98's Web integration, the programmers have quietly put real effort into fixing the configuration problems and other bugs that occasionally bedevil Windows 95 users.

For all its faults, Microsoft does keep trying. If it ever gets to market this year, Windows 98 will be far more reliable and easier to maintain than its predecessor. If not, we can always buy Windows 99 next year.

To contact Mike Himowitz, send e-mail to mike.himowitaltsun.com.

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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