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Future Tech

Technology writers huddled in an Austin, Texas, hotel's corner conference room recently got a Whitman Sampler-scale look at the status and future of technology from a few industry notables.

Many of the briefings were packed with technology's jargon du jour and the kind of industry chest beating that will be replayed on a much larger scale in November at the annual COMDEX technology trade show in Las Vegas by big shots like Microsoft's Bill Gates and Intel CEO Craig Barrett.Absent from the Austin briefings was any indication of a slowdown in the development of new technology or the way it is used in everyday life. The angst will continue as consumers decide when to open their wallets and when to wait for devices that are more powerful, smaller or cheaper. Companies hoping to thrive on innovation will continue their quest for an increasingly elusive exclusive niche in a highly competitive market.

Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang said his Internet guide is seeing 144 million page visits daily. Web users will number 100 million by the end of the year and will reach 320 million by 2002. Unexpected events have tested the Web's capacity and promoted its future. When the "Starr report" on the Clinton investigation was released, it proved to be the "Superbowl of the Internet" with Web users swamping Web sites to find the document. Web use will be less focused on PC users in the long run, Yang said. "Access is going to become more ubiquitous."

Motorola, a household name for decades, makes the microchip that powers Apple computers, is a major player in the wireless phone industry and has its eye on devices other than personal computer for future development. Motorola representative Ray Burgess juggled a handful of small devices that aren't quite cell phones but are much more than conventional pagers. Consumers don't want those devices to have massive storage - holding important data that could be lost if the device is dropped or stolen - but rather want a simpler device with a wireless communications link to data stored elsewhere. Burgess said there are 5.5 billion computers in the world with 17 new machines rolling off assembly lines each second. Motorola sees an increasing proportion of computing devices taking forms other than the desktop PCs. "In 1999, GM will ship more computing power than IBM," he said. "There are three to four major components (in new cars) that have more performance power than an Apple Macintosh."

Broadcast.com, an aggregator and Web broadcaster of streaming media programming, sees newspapers becoming more like broadcasters as increasing Internet bandwidth allows on-line newspapers to add streaming video to their electronic print news. David Ryan, chief developer for Navigo, an Austin-based Internet development company, said news and entertainment combined in an interactive medium like the Internet spawns the birth of a new field of "intertainment."

"The PC won't become the TV, the TV will become the PC," said Jonathan Gilbert of Capitol Camera. Cable, telephone and satellite companies are in a real horse race to see if one will dominate as the primary delivery mechanism for interactive media, said Lisa Maxon of The Film Alliance.

Christmas in the year 2000 will be a defining season for technology. Gilbert speculated the "Star Wars" prequel will be released about that time with full exploitation of digital technology of the day. Y2K bugs that create serious problems for older devices will see them headed out the door. "That's when the separation of old and new will take place and put it in the stores."

Digital television will initially just be VERY EXPENSIVE television, said Dan Vogler of the Television Corp. of America. Digital TV prices will drop as manufacturers sell more and more sets with the price settling in the $2,500 to $3,000 range in a year or so for sets that will be full-function televisions and personal computers. The transition to digital television broadcasting is a $270 billion project for the nation's 1,678 TV stations. Digital TV features of the future include electronic commerce functions found on the Internet plus an interactive ability to conduct polling, voting and teleconferencing.

Dell Computer CEO Michael Dell, one of Austin's own, first hung his shingle in office space just a stone's throw from the Renaissance Hotel where he told the industry writers his company scoffs at the idea consumers will want to combine their TV and PC into one box. Such "convergence" is a popular buzzword. Households typically have their computer and their TV in different rooms, and they are often being used simultaneously. Combine the two and you end up with a PC that doesn't function with the convenience of a more conventional computer and an extremely expensive television.

Micron Electronics CEO Joel Kocher sees Micron computers as the biblical David doing battle with Goliaths like Dell - where he was a marketing executive from 1987 to 1994. Businesses surviving on technology commerce are "strangling to death under the costly weight of their bricks and mortar" and are moving more of their sales presence to the Web to cut costs and stay competitive. Manufacturers are streamlining the flow of components into their factories to trim inventory costs associated with manufacturing. Word-of-mouth advertising on the Web will be a free advertising boon to makers of hot new products that can be seen on-line. Micron's marketing will soon include new ways to add value and usefulness to the PCs it sells.

Sprint PCS sales vice president John Garcia said the big breakthrough in the wireless industry has yet to occur. That breakthrough will involve simpler ways to reach people regardless of their location, and simple ways to reach information using wireless phones. Wireless won't completely replace traditional hard-wired telephone service. Garcia sees traditional telephone service maintaining the edge in cost for use, user penetration and high-speed data bandwidth.

Technology writers speaking to their peers at the conference had telling information about consumers they write for.

One change the writers have seen is a more sophisticated audience. "I think most people read just to see if I get it wrong," said Mark Leibovich, technology writer for the Washington Post.

Jennifer Hill, deputy business editor for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, said she has seven technology reporters who never see a dull moment. Where the news gets slim on other beats at the paper during the dog days of summer, "There are no summer doldrums in technology; 52 weeks is just 52 weeks."