2003 and beyond

For the past 20 years, PC World has kept readers up-to-date on key innovations in personal computing–at work, at home, and on the road. So what better way to start off our third decade than by previewing the technologies and trends we’ll be covering next?

We asked dozens of product researchers, developers, and analysts to share their predictions about the next couple of years. And even though our crystal ball hasn’t always been right on the money in issues past, this time a few common themes emerged.

The Big Trends

Consumer electronics devices such as TVs and stereos should start to communicate wirelessly and automatically–no configuration will be required with computers and peripherals. Indeed, one of the major developments of the next year or two may be seamless, fast, and invisible connectivity everywhere.

You’ll also see technology offered in much smaller packages. PCs will shrink; many more of them will be laptops.

Processing and graphics performance of personal digital assistants and cell phones will rival those of desktop PCs from only a few years ago. Handhelds will become prescient, as well–able to determine where you are and to anticipate what information you’ll want, such as the prices of plasma TVs when you walk past an electronics store (think Minority Report). The Internet will be everywhere: Even your wristwatch will be connected. But the connections will happen behind the scenes and automatically.

Although many of these developments won’t be widespread at the end of 2004, products will be available for early adopters. And they will grow commonplace toward the end of the decade, changing the way you interact with technology in your office, on the road, and back at home.

In the Office

After years of being confined to executive suites, LCDs are coming to the cube farm. “Price, price, price. That’s the main thing in the industry these days,” says William Wang, president of monitor maker Princeton Graphics Systems Inc. By 2004, Wang expects, prices on 15-inch LCDs will drop below $200, and prices on 17-inch models will fall below US$300. By then, LCDs will be outselling CRTs, predicts Christian Brantley of rival vendor Eizo Nanao Technologies.

Today’s CRTs still offer a fuller, more accurate color palette than LCDs for high-end graphics work. But even that may change by year’s end as the first few high-end LCDs acquire hardware calibration and backlight technologies that could enable them to match or surpass the color reproduction of CRTs.

Diminutive Desktops

Like bulky monitors, big and boxy systems are due to fall out of fashion, especially at the office. More and more companies will ditch desktops in favor of notebooks. And since most businesses never upgrade or expand their desktop PCs, IT departments that go the desktop route will opt for space-saving models over large boxes full of empty PCI slots and drive bays. Should expansion become necessary, soon-to-be-ubiquitous USB 2.0 ports will let users add components without cracking the case. “You will see ‘smalls’ from everybody,” says IDC analyst Roger Kay, “and they’re getting to be a higher proportion [of overall sales].” Most office and home computers will probably continue to run a Windows operating system–either Windows XP or a later version.

Safest prediction of the year: Processors will continue to get faster. Intel may rev up the Pentium 4 as high as 4 GHz by year’s end. Meanwhile, rival AMD’s new PC processor, code-named ClawHammer, should narrow the gigahertz gap when it premieres later this spring. ClawHammer will mark the transition from 32-bit to 64-bit desktop CPUs. If that processor catches on, according to Dean McCarron, principal analyst for Mercury Research, Intel may bring out its own 64-bit desktop chip which, rumor has it, is currently being developed under the code name Yamhill. Apple may jump aboard the 64-bit wagon, too: Many industry watchers expect the company to adopt IBM’s new 64-bit PowerPC 970 processor, which is scheduled to debut in the second half of this year.

New drive technologies such as Serial ATA, with its thin, 0.25-inch-wide cables, will help computers slim down further. IDC hard-drive analyst Dave Reinsel expects that adoption of Serial ATA will accelerate in 2003; by the end of 2004, it should be the dominant technology. By then, it may also start appearing on optical drives. Many more desktop PCs will jettison 3.5-inch hard drives in favor of 2.5-inch notebook-style models; their performance will improve as the drives move from today’s typical 4200-rpm rotational speed to 5400 rpm and even 7200 rpm.

By 2004, 3.5-inch hard drives that have rotational speeds of 10,000 rpm and capacities up to 500GB may emerge. These faster drives will be able to take advantage of the greater data throughput that Serial ATA provides, enabling them to challenge pricey SCSI hard drives in high-end workstations and low-end servers. On the optical storage front, blue-laser DVDs–with capacities of up to 30GB per disc–won’t quite be ready by the end of 2004; 9.4GB, dual-layer DVD+RW discs and drives, on the other hand, should be.

On the Go

Of course, smaller desktop systems will never match the portability of notebooks. And while notebooks are less powerful, they do have multigigahertz processors, 3D graphics boards, and high-resolution screens, all of which provide enough performance and features to replace most desktops. “When people are reaching the end of their desktop[‘s useful life], they are considering notebooks,” says IDC’s Kay. Stephen Baker, director of IT research at NPD Techworld, expects notebook retail sales to outpace desktop retail sales by 2004 or 2005.

Even gigahertz-crazy Intel recognizes that customers have a growing preference for portability over raw power. Though its desktop Pentium 4 processors may hit 4 GHz by the end of 2003, by March of this year the company plans to introduce a new mobile processor and motherboard architecture called Centrino Mobile Technology that emphasizes power conservation over clock speed. Even so, Centrino systems won’t be pokey: Intel has not specified CPU speeds, but spokesperson Shannon Johnson says the new chip “will deliver better performance than what exists today.”

These and other developments will help increase the battery life of notebook PCs. Howard Locker of IBM says that his company hopes, within the next 20 months, to produce Centrino-based systems capable of 8 hours of battery life–versus the 4 to 5 hours that IBM’s current notebooks provide. Also this year, Transmeta will launch a new low-power processor, code-named Astro, that promises to complete twice as many operations per clock cycle as the company’s current, relatively sluggish Crusoe processor.

Wireless, Wireless Everywhere

Another key element of Centrino is integrated 802.11-based wireless (or Wi-Fi) technology. Analysts expect it to be in virtually all portables by 2004. Aside from its continued growth in office and home settings, Wi-Fi is becoming an important component of wireless access for all the locations in between, filling the void caused by the delayed roll-out of third-generation (3G) cellular phone-based networks capable of offering speeds of up to 2 mbps. Several companies are piecing together overlapping Wi-Fi “hot spots” in order to achieve blanket coverage in major cities. “Our goal for the fall of 2005 is to be in the top 50 metropolitan areas,” says Steve Harris of Cometa Networks, an enterprise put together by Apax Capital, AT&T, IBM, and Intel.

John Ankcorn, principal research scientist at HP Labs, predicts that future handhelds and notebook PCs will connect seamlessly to whatever wireless service is available, hopping from one Wi-Fi network to the next and even jumping between Wi-Fi, cellular, and Bluetooth wireless networks. To support devices that are connected constantly or frequently, Ankcorn anticipates, location-based information services will emerge.

“Imagine walking down the street and getting a consumer rating of a restaurant or a record store before you set foot inside,” says Hank Nothhaft, CEO of Danger, the company that designed and provides Internet services for the T-Mobile Sidekick handheld. Nothhaft expects that wireless service fees will drop steadily to about $15 per month (from around $40 per month today) for 10MB of data.

It won’t be necessary to have a PDA and high-speed data services in order to pick up information, however. By the end of this year, Microsoft plans to activate its DirectBand network, which uses ordinary FM radio frequencies to beam customized information to a multitude of everyday devices–watches, pens, wallets, key chains, and the like. The network and transmission protocols, combined with tiny receivers built by National Semiconductor, make up a new platform called Smart Personal Object Technology (SPOT). Watchmakers Citizen, Fossil, and Suunto have already announced plans to market SPOT-enabled models capable of displaying location-specific weather forecasts, for example, or traffic conditions on the road ahead.

Microsoft is betting that increased mobility will heighten demand for its .Net initiative, one of several forays into Web services that provide centralized information accessible anywhere from any device. The company envisions such scenarios as an injured person using a wireless-enabled PDA to authorize the transfer of medical records to a hospital. Of course, given Microsoft’s inability to build a secure Web browser, the prospect of entrusting your personal information to the company may not be entirely appealing.

Even without Web services, you can access all of your computer’s data if you carry it with you. Last year, OQO previewed its eponymous handheld PC, a Windows box that isn’t much larger than an IPod; another company, Vulcan, is developing its similar Mini-PC.

But while some computers will start to look like handhelds, many handhelds will acquire PC functionality. Later this year, Intel will introduce a mobile phone chip, code-named Manitoba, that integrates the company’s XScale PDA processor with flash memory and even some analog circuitry. Intel spokesperson Manny Vara expects that Manitoba-based “gamer’s cell phones” will appear next year. Integrated chips will permit phones to become smaller and more power efficient–critical improvements in the hardware, since battery technology isn’t expected to make great strides in the near future.

Intel’s XScale chip, together with a new Microsoft platform called Media2Go, will appear in handheld personal video players (from Samsung, Sonicblue, ViewSonic, and possibly other companies) that should debut by the end of this year. “Think of it as snackable video for a bus ride, or 2 or 3 hours on a plane, or for a road trip with the kids,” explains Intel spokesperson Bryan Peebler. Non-Intel chips will power similar video players produced by companies such as RCA.

At Home

Some of the most exciting technology changes, however, will be in the home, where new hard drive-based products and PCs will distribute digital entertainment wirelessly to TVs and stereos anywhere in the dwelling.

Discrete recorders such as ReplayTV and its rival TiVo should continue to sell well in the next few years, but they will face new challenges from media-savvy PCs equipped with TV tuner cards and Microsoft’s Windows XP Media Center Edition or Sony’s GigaPocket software. These systems enable you to perform such tasks as changing channels, recording programs, playing music, and clicking through digital photos via a TV-style remote control.

Home Broadcasting

Most people don’t want to watch television and listen to music on a PC–or lug their PC into the living room. But high-speed home networks can obviate these issues, combining the storage and processing power of a PC with the convenience and simplicity of consumer electronics.

This was evident at the Consumer Electronics Show in early January, where CD3O, HP, Linksys, Motorola, Pioneer, Prismiq, Rockford Fosgate, Sony, Yamaha, and other companies launched products that bring digital music or images to a stereo or TV.

In the living room, technology companies increasingly will deal with customers who have no wish to spend hours configuring a home network. Fortunately, Universal Plug and Play technology, introduced in the first generation of media receivers, allows all devices on a wired (ethernet) or wireless network to detect each other and set up relationships automatically.

Eventually, UPnP should appear in a wide range of devices, including printers, scanners, digital cameras, televisions, and stereos.

Prior to that–and well before the end of 2004–Intel expects to deliver a wireless media adapter design to manufacturers for use in products that cost-conscious consumers can use to connect existing PC and CE devices through standard jacks and inputs. Linksys recently became the first company to announce a product based on the Intel design.

The first waves of wireless products, already starting to appear, use the 11-megabit-per-second 802.11b standard, which lacks the bandwidth to transmit video (though music and photos are not a problem). But when the second-generation products show up next year with faster 802.11a or 802.11g wireless standards (the latter backward-compatible with 802.11b), streaming video could become a killer app. Apple’s new notebook computers, which were introduced in January, already have built-in 802.11g capability.

The Big Picture

Using UPnP over either an 802.11 or a Bluetooth connection, you’ll be able to send pictures from a digital camera to a printer, burn them to CDs and DVDs, and display them on a TV–without ever touching the PC. Of course, this will also sidestep computer software for tweaking the appearance of photos; some of these functions, however, will move into digital cameras with onboard software for tasks such as color correction and detail highlighting.

Dramatic price drops will encourage the digital camera boom. Greg Young, director of imaging for Sony, expects 5-megapixel models to sell for under $500 by the end of this year and perhaps for even less in 2004. By that time, most high-end digital cameras will be around 8 megapixels.

But digital photographers will probably continue to refine and organize their shots on a PC. And that takes us to a final (daring?) prediction: PCs will remain at the center of your digital universe for many years to come. Not only do they offer the most power, but they have the flexibility to incorporate new technologies as they emerge. Two decades from now, when we predict even more dramatic innovation, we expect still to be writing about PCs.