Brave New Tech to Rock Your World

For all its inflated industry hype, overvalued stock offerings and silly gold rush-style cash grabs, the Web may yet have given us something enduring.It's called the Internet Year -- anywhere between one-tenth and one-fifth of a human year. If the unit seems imprecise, it is. But it reflects the nature of the turf it's designed to measure -- a wired world of uncertainty and rapid-fire flux.New low-cost computers for surfing the Net, cheaper high-speed Internet access and advanced networked software seem poised to rock the mediascape over the next Internet Decade or two. And who knows? They might even change the way we live.The connected set-top box -- a small computer that costs about a quarter of a regular PC and turns the typical TV into a window on the Web -- has been the holy grail of the computer industry for the last two years. Although they're a diverse lot, the boxes have a few things in common. Typically, they're stripped-down versions of the home computer u just a built-in modem, a processor and a jack to plug in either a TV set or a computer monitor. You navigate from site to site using an enhanced TV remote control and, in most cases, a plug-in or wireless keyboard.Big industry names like Apple with their Pippin @World box, Sun Microsystems with their JavaStation and Oracle with their imaginatively-monikered Network Computer all seem to be banking on the idea that the biggest barrier to Internet access is the cost of the computer alone.Online complexityOnly Sonyand Phillips Magnavox , along with their new partner WebTV Networks, seem to be listening to the hundreds of thousands of North Americans who have already shelled out shekels for computers and modems but remain un-wired due to the complexities of getting online.This techno triumvirate is bundling $500-ish set-top boxes -- currently available Stateside only -- with a roughly $40 per month unlimited Internet access package. Users just buy the book-sized box, plug one wire into the TV and another into a standard phone jack, press a little green button on their new TV remote marked "Web" and, presto! -- instant Internet.Thousands, potentially millions, of new surfers coming online in the next year as cost and convenience barriers crumble will probably do enough to rock the wired world alone. But the real shakeup is due when these new users start to demand Web-based content that's suited to being surfed from six feet away from the living room screen.If people wanted to read their TVs -- and most Web sites are still mostly text -- then those cable TV teletext channels would be perennial ratings winners. So WebTV likely means something more like TV-Web -- lots of audio, video and graphics-heavy shows, er, applications.And as anyone who's surfed knows, 14.4, or even 28.8K byte modems don't really cut it when it comes to downloading large multimedia files. The good folks at the cable and phone companies, though, feel our pain. And they're jumping to roll out the next generation of high-speed home and small office Internet connections.Quick servicesRogers Cable, along with other cable companies, are the first to market with their WAVE service. The cable companies aren't making any promises about how fast their service will be. It'll depend on the volume of users. But about 50 times faster than a 28.8 modem is a fair guess. At $55 a month for unlimited Internet access and rental on a special cable modem, WAVE does about a third of the total pocketbook damage as Bell's current high-speed offering, z@p ISDN .Bell, however, isn't sitting still. They're currently testing a new technology called ADSL (mercifully short for Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line), and they're claiming it'll provide Internet access at speeds around 50 times faster than a 28.8. Pricing and a launch date for ADSL haven't been announced, but it could be here as early as the end of 97, with a price more in WAVE's ballpark and a catchy new name.But if all these new toys are good for is glorified tube viewing, why bother? Interactivity's gotta be the name of the game, and there are a couple of new network software genres that are aiming to turn the personal computer into the interpersonal computer.Groupware is software that allows multiple users to work together on a single document. Pretty ho-hum stuff, except that in the digital era a document can be anything -- text, video, audio or still images. So musicians can jam online, visual artists separated by oceans can collaborate on a work in real- time and just about anyone can share just about anything a computer can store.Lotus Notes is the grandmother of the groupware genre. Notes' price tag is too hefty to make it practical for recreational use, but it's spawned a generation of lighter-weight kin.Tidy packageMicrosoft NetMeeting combines Internet phone capabilities, text-based live chat and application-sharing in one tidy package. CoolTalk, which ships with Netscape Navigator 3.0, does much the same thing.For the less-ambitious, CD-ROM publishers have finally figured out a way to marry the graphic and sonic richness of the CD with the two-way nature of the Net. Connected CD-ROMs, like ID Software's Quake or Microsoft's Encarta 96 Encyclopedia, let users play games or receive up-to-the- minute information over the Net. But they're perfect for slower-speed connections because all the bulky image and sound files are stored on the user's CD-ROM or hard drive instead of being downloaded over the phone lines.Silicon Valley start-up Marimba is aiming to do the CD-ROM crowd one better. Their Castanet software is entirely a creature of the Web. With Castanet, users still have to download bulky multimedia files associated with a given piece of software, but they only have to do it once -- the files are stored indefinitely on the user's hard drive after the first transfer.After that, the only information that has to traverse the lines are tiny bits of data that enable multi-player games or real-time news feeds, to name but two examples. The truly cool thing about Marimba's offering, though, is that Castanet applications can automatically update their own files as new software versions are released, and they'll do it while your modem is waiting between downloads.If the next couple of Internet Decades will bring us new technologies that'll make it cheap, convenient and worthwhile enough for the majority to join the wired world, we'll still need to make sure that poverty doesn't leave millions sucking digital dust.To do that, we'll need to apply the most sophisticated technologies of all -- our hearts and our minds.E-Mail Address Reference:ADSL( Navigator 3.0( 96 Encyclopedia( Notes( NetMeeting( Computer( @World( Networks( ISDN(


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