Web drops cables for chic threads

Fashion: Computers in your clothes will keep you close to the Internet.

January 03, 2000|By Heather Cocks | Heather Cocks,COX NEWS SERVICE

Above Alan Tannenbaum's desk, overlooking his high-tech gadgets and powerful computers, hangs an eerily prescient picture.

The illustration depicts a woman wearing her World Wide Web browser. A portable computer connected to a headset projects a tiny computer screen in front of her eye, letting her see and surf simultaneously.

As Tannenbaum talks, the picture seems increasingly like a nod to his vision of the Internet's evolution. He predicts the Internet will ascend to a technological level free of the clunky computers and tangle of wires that bound the 1990s.

"We're still in the dark ages, we really are," said Tannenbaum, senior technical staff member for IBM Corp.'s corporate Ease-of-Use group in Austin, Texas. "Wireless will be the key. We're going to see computing shrink and disappear into other devices, letting us get at the Internet through things we can't even imagine yet."

His words echo the pie-in-the-sky idealism of early-1990s Internet users, who rang in the decade enamored of the then-private computer network and the vast, mysterious promise it held. Even so, few expected the Internet to explode as it has.

Global business-to-consumer sales over the Internet surged 179 percent last year, becoming a $31.2 billion industry on pace to top $380 billion in 2003.

And with 160 million global users and climbing, the Internet has blossomed from a private playground into a diverse hybrid medium -- part information hotbed, part economic model -- that analysts say will become increasingly pervasive in the 21st century.

They might not don cyborg-chic headgear like the woman gracing Tannenbaum's wall, but many of the 500 million people expected to connect to the Internet in 2003 will do so on devices unlike today's personal computers.

Computer makers are trading traditional, fully-loaded beige boxes for stylish designs that encase basic, Internet-centric machines. Austin-based Netpliance Inc. and Pacific Bell took it a step further last year, unveiling small portable machines for e-mailing and limited online shopping. Prototypes have appeared for Internet-ready refrigerators and cars.

Tannenbaum, who in 25 years at IBM has witnessed the Internet's development, predicts the fashion industry will shrink Web connections even further.

In New York City last October, InfoCharm Inc. staged a fashion show where models strutted the catwalk wearing Web connections and keyboards sewn into shirts, pants and jackets.

"Fashion will be a critical part of the success of Internet devices," Tannenbaum said.

"Once people start wearing these tools built into our belts and watches and shoes, then no one will want to walk around with just the standard watch or shoe any more. The computer industry will take that into account."

Some believe content will again reign supreme, at the expense of traditional media. Other pundits espouse Tannenbaum's belief that wireless Web access will define the next decade.

At work, where a wall of framed patents and awards herald his IBM career, Tannenbaum is part of the way there.

A small antenna turns his laptop into a wireless device, which he totes through halls without severing his Internet connection. A second laptop sits idly on his desk, its sole function to forward important e-mails to Tannenbaum's pager when he is away from the office.

One spiral notebook and a thin stack of papers sit nearby, tidy relics of an age when paper memos provided the most important link between corporate departments.

"Ordinary correspondence is a thing of the past," he said.

"When we had big documents to print, everyone would worry about how it looked on paper, but today paper itself is unusual."

Whether the Internet turns the paperless office into a worldwide reality, most analysts agree that it will continue to spur a radical shift in the way people view computing.

"It's a very exciting energy," said Barry Parr, an analyst with research company International Data Corp.

"The Internet has become an honest-to-God mainstream thing," Parr said.

"It's a different world even from last year, and we realize it's just at the beginning."

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