Shape of PC-based technology to come
By Anand Parthasarathy
KOCHI, JAN. 1. The computer-age mantra: `If it works, it's obsolete', will remain true in 2002. Users in the new year, of personal technology - the emerging niche at the convergence of computers, communication and entertainment - may find that the typical Personal Computer (PC) to harness the various ``goodies'' that ride on it, will be a substantial upgrade on what they are currently using.
It will include 100 gigabytes (GB) of hard disk space, 512 megabytes (MB) of Read Only Memory (RAM) and a processor chip that switches two billion times a second (2 GHz). Chances are also bright that within the year, in the U.S. and a little later in the rest of the world, new PCs particularly the mobile versions, will by default, include a free wireless Local Area Network (LAN) card which will allow users to access the Internet without having to dial up a service provider's telephone number. The card which will meet the emerging standard known as 802.11 (b), will allow the PC owner to latch on to the nearest wireless Net and go online.
Information technology (IT) watchers are also predicting that in 2002, ``Thin is in'' - the bulky,power-guzzling, heat-producing computer monitors we are used to may soon become obsolete as more and more manufacturers switch to flat panel liquid crystal displays (LCDs).
The industry is also predicting that Apple Computers, makers of the Macintosh, will in 2002, be the first major PC maker to ``flatten'' its entire product range, and offer only flat screen monitors with their new models.
The new year will also see the global launch of the Tablet PC, a concept being pushed by Microsoft: a small slate-sized LCD panel on which one can write in free hand - obviating the need for a keyboard. While this may or may not catch the customers' fancy , Indian users will increasingly be offered two more affordable peripheral options: a ``wireless'' mouse that doesn't need a cord to link with the PC; and a small web camera (``Webcam'') that can be clipped on top of the monitor to facilitate a video conference - in other words, one can see the person one is calling via the Internet telephone. At current prices of around Rs 3000, this may become popular here since the government has promised to legalise telephone services using the Internet protocol from April 2002
Users of mobile phones and hand held computers like the Palm or the Pocket PC, will see the convergence of these twin tracks of communicating and computing: The ``Treo'' model introduced by ``Handspring'' a leading international make of hand-held computers, a few weeks ago, came with a built-in wireless Internet umbilical. And pure cell phone makers like Nokia have already prototyped models which include basic computing and Net surfing featured. By end 2002, your Pocket PC will do the job of a mobile phone - and vice versa.
However proponents of a truly ``open'' computing environment, free of dependence on proprietary software typified by Microsoft's Windows do not see a major shift in 2002. This month (January) sees the launch of a priced product in the U.S. - named ``Lindows'' - which claims to offer a software environment that is compatible with both Windows and Linux, but unless such a software ( currently priced at $ 100 in the US) is provided as a free installation by the majority of PC makers, most users will still have to muddle through when it comes to sharing a PC between two operating systems. In a related development, ZDNet India reports that a Goa-based volunteer agency, Goa Computers in Schools Project (GCSP), and a leading distributor of Linux - RedHat - have got together to try and provide Linux based PCs to schools in that state, using slightly-used machines donated by well wishers abroad.
However it is recognised today that nearly all PC manufacturers have been reduced to being defacto resellers of Intel chips and Microsoft software, leaving user choice to the non crucial elements of the PC.
One so-called PC niche - the Internet Access Appliance - is being written off in the West soon after it was born. The paying public has given a 'thumbs down' to stripped- down PC devices which are good only for accessing the Net and cost almost as much as a full fledged machine. This development is unlikely to affect customers in India very much since such devices were not seen in large numbers - and the price (around Rs. 10,000) did not prove to be very attractive.
However one trend which is almost certain to impact PC buyers here is the ``manthan'' or churning that is taking place in the digital recording arena. In 2002, one can expect quite a few PC makers to offer Indian buyers, configurations with a recording rather than a read-only CD drive. Called CD-RW for ``Read-Write'', such drives have become very popular with younger users who use them to ``rip'' audio CDs - that is convert them to the compact MP3 format and store the equivalent of 10 or 12 audio CDs on a single MP3 CD.
By year end Indian buyers can also expect to be offered the first models of DVD ( Digital Video Disks) with a recording feature. In October 2001, Philips, in India introduced what was claimed as the world's first DVD recorder. This development complements the company's launch of the first LCD flat panel TV-cum-PC monitor which includes a picture-in-picture (PIP) feature. In last few weeks of 2001 in the U.S., similar systems were offered by manufacturers like Panasonic , enabling users to make direct DVD recordings of TV programmes on one channel, while they were viewing another channel. Since the technology also allows them to eliminate annoying advertisements from their personal recording, all major American TV channels cried 'foul' and have just moved the courts.
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