Trends: The Hidden Computer

It's been 23 years since Apple produced the first successful mass-market personal computer, the Apple II, and 16 years -- if you can believe that -- since the Macintosh emerged to rock the computing world and set the standard for how all personal computers should work. In all those years, a geologic age in the computing world, the personal computer has been the only way to do most digital tasks -- from games and word processing to going online.

But the personal computer, whatever its brand or flavor, is a mature and overburdened beast, asked to do so many tasks that it often does them poorly. It's still a relatively expensive purchase, and -- even in the case of the Mac -- is often needlessly complicated and unreliable.

So the tectonic plates have now begun to move in earnest under the hardware world, and we have entered the post-PC era, the era of the information appliance, a specialized computer optimized and tailored to do a limited number of digital tasks -- very well, very simply, and very inexpensively. The industry is unleashing an abundance of new digital devices -- wired and wireless, handheld and stationary -- to complement the personal computer, and in some scenarios, to replace it. Because of their simplicity and cost, these devices will help bring the Internet to the 50 percent of U.S. households that Forrester Research predicts still won't have Internet access in 2001. But they'll go way beyond that. People with Macs and other PCs will also own one or more appliances to perform various tasks better.

Mac veterans will recall having heard such predictions before. After all, the prophesied Newton revolution never happened. The Pippin and the eMate, supposed to replace PCs in some homes and schools, flopped. Even the Palm Pilot and the Sony PlayStation, the most successful non-PC digital devices of all time, haven't knocked off the PC.

This time, however, it's different, and the key to that difference is the Internet. The Internet changes everything. Increasingly, people focus on what's online, not on which kind of box gets them there. That's why the Net finally gives appliances the opening they didn't have when Newton and Pippin were conceived.

Even today, most people think of the Internet as a specific service you access from a PC. But the Internet is destined to become more like the electrical grid -- it'll be everywhere, all around us, pumping out content, commerce, and entertainment from sockets all over the place to a wide variety of devices.

Already you can buy things like the $449 Palm VII, which receives Internet content wirelessly on a handheld, or the $99 i-Opener, nothing more than a browser and an e-mail client in a sleek hardware container. This summer, America Online will roll out AOL TV, which will not only let you fetch Web pages, but will blend TV and the Internet. You'll be able to send and receive e-mails and instant messages right from the TV screen without interrupting your programs. And AOL has three other appliances rolling out over the next year, including one for the kitchen.

Microsoft has joined with a number of hardware makers to produce the Web companion, a forthcoming $199 device that hosts its MSN online service, and through it the entire Web and e-mail. (Microsoft has also quietly reworded its mission statement to drop any reference to the personal computer.) Several companies will soon be offering wireless Web pads, tablets you can carry around the house while browsing.

Others are rolling out Internet-connected stereo components, and I don't just mean MP3 players. These full-fledged stereo components download, store, and play thousands of MP3 tunes (or other digital music files) and don't rely at all on a PC. You'll also see e-books that connect directly to the Net to download best-sellers. The Sony PlayStation 2 will blow away the Mac for playing games online and accessing other Net-based entertainment. And a staggering number of telephone-based Internet access gadgets will hit the shelves over the next year. You'll also be able to do smaller things never before possible, like give a picture frame to your Mom that taps into a custom Web site and downloads whatever pictures you want her to see.

So how will this affect your relationship with your beloved iMac, your G4 screamer, your trusty PowerBook or iBook? Well, the Mac, and the PC in general, will still be the most versatile and complete Internet access device. Few of these new devices will seek to replicate the whole Web experience one sees on a PC. So you won't be reading all of Macworld.com -- with graphics -- on some tiny cell-phone screen. You'll still prefer your Mac for that.

And the Mac will remain the device of choice for content creation and for programming. In fact, at least in the short run, the appliance trend will enhance the Mac's value for content creators. If you're doing Web authoring, you'll need the power of the Mac to repurpose your Web content for all these new platforms and to churn out XML, or whatever other new standard is devised to refit content for different screens and formats.

But, over time, many typical online tasks will become speedier and easier on appliances than on a personal computer, if only because you'll have the appliances closer at hand, in more rooms of your house and right in your pocket or purse. Web-page viewing on the larger appliances will rival the experience on a PC. You'll even perform some basic content creation, like word processing, on these appliances, as programs are served off the Internet and broadband becomes widespread. Best of all, these devices will fit in your pocket, turn on and off instantly, and almost never crash, which will make them far easier to integrate into your life.

So hold on to your Macs. Ride the wave of OS X and whatever the Web dishes out for the computer. But be prepared for a whole new world of digital devices, a world that should be as exciting as the Mac itself.

WALT MOSSBERG is the author and creator of the widely read "Personal Technology" column in the Wall Street Journal and a regular on CNBC. He has been writing about technology since 1991 and covering information appliances since 1995. He hopes they someday invent an appliance that can explain the error messages on personal computers.

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