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A Long Look Forward

A mere 20 years ago, high technology played a peripheral role in the lives of average Americans. Few households had personal computers. Cell-phone networks had yet to be built. The concept of e-mail for the masses remained a distant dream, and hardly anyone had even imagined the Internet. Software was for giant companies running mainframes. The desktop was just that.

Flash forward, and it's a different ballgame. Households have multiple PCs. A significant portion of teenagers not only have cell phones but handhelds such as Palms and advanced video- game consoles that put arcade games to shame. What used to be science, such as optical

communications and switching, has become mainstream business.

Meanwhile, technology has become more about the people who use it. Design is important. Software isn't just for IBM, but also for small businesses and grandmas on iMacs.

KEY PLAYERS. How did we get here? Most of this stuff was created by tech gurus of the day who had big ideas. They often toiled in obscurity, but their inventions have changed our lives in immeasurably.

As a new year begins, we thought it would be worthwhile to check in with a few present-day tech visionaries -- people who have already accomplished much and can make informed guesses about progress in their fields over the next decade or two.

These aren't the people you see on magazine covers or in the headlines, but rather those who are considered big players by their peers in the fields of software, design, entertainment, smart materials, silicon chips, and DNA computing.

While no one knows for sure what the future holds for these disciplines, we hope you find these profiles enlightening, thought-provoking -- and entertaining. By Alex Salkever

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