It's the end of a long day of crime-fighting, and Dick Tracy is cold and hungry. After turning up the collar of his trench coat, Detective Tracy climbs into his sedan and asks the voice-activated navigational system to tell him the best route home. He arrives and plops down on the couch, and touches the ad on the screen of his picture phone for free delivery of the local diner's blue-plate special. Just then, Tess Trueheart E-mails good news from her wireless phone: The rotten Sal Monella has been nabbed for selling tainted hot dogs. Relieved, Tracy turns on the news--his TV automatically stores his favorite shows for convenient viewing. But he's quickly bored and climbs into bed to read. Moments later, the ultimate crime-stopper is fast asleep, his paperless electronic book cradled in his arms.
Sounds like another highfalutin vision of technology from the same gumshoe who gave us the high-tech wristwatch. But hold on. All of Tracy's gizmos are available today--from the Clarion Auto PC to the InfoGear iPhone to the electronic book from SoftBook Press. And they're just the edge of a digital tidal wave that will wash over the high-tech landscape, bringing us everything from gadgets straight out of a comic strip to Internet-connected versions of everyday products such as TVs, phones, and fax machines. "We're entering the consumer era of computing," says Donald A. Norman, co-founder of consultancy Nielsen Norman Group and a leading apostle of so-called information appliances--simple devices that do one or two jobs cheaply and well. "The products of the future will be for everyone."
That's a slap at the personal computer. But even Andy Grove and Bill Gates seem to know their companies' futures no longer depend solely on the PC. Intel Corp. is putting its muscle behind new chips aimed at low-power gadgets and is even designing new appliances for the living room. And Gates, who believes more non-PC devices than PCs will be attached to the Internet within 10 years, has Microsoft Corp. creating software for easy-to-use products such as car navigation systems, set-top TV boxes, and electronic organizers.
Gates and Grove are right to think beyond the PC. The high-tech industry is on the cusp of a new era in computing in which digital smarts won't be tied up in a mainframe, minicomputer, or PC. Instead, computing will come in a vast array of devices aimed at practically every aspect of our daily lives. Unlike complex desktop PCs, these information appliances--following on the lead of 3Com Corp.'s handheld Palm computer and Microsoft's WebTV--will be simple and convenient.
Think divergence instead of convergence. To become as ubiquitous as VCRs and microwave ovens, analysts say, information devices have to be much simpler than today's PCs. Rather than rolling more features into computers, newer devices need to be designed to perform only a few specific functions. After all, who needs a desktop PC that could land a spaceship on the moon if all they want to do is send E-mail? "The PC is so general-purpose that very few of us use more than 5% of its capability," admits Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Lewis E. Platt.
Now, everybody from startup to industry giant is answering the call. The resulting scramble could turn high-tech's pecking order on its head. Until now, the PC was the only route to cyberspace--and PC makers had only to ride the Wintel standard based on Intel chips and Microsoft software to get in on the action. The future won't be so easy. Winning in the digital-appliance business will depend not on the latest geek-specs, like megahertz and gigabytes, but on identifying consumer needs--and satisfying them with products that hide their complexity.
LOST CAUSE. Indeed, after a 20-year tear, the PC--one of the world's fastest-growing products--is already coming down to earth. And swiftly. PC prices are plummeting, and unit sales aren't making up the difference. While PC shipments should grow 15% this year, that's down from the heady 35%-plus rates in the mid-1990s. And with prices falling, analysts expect PC revenue for the industry to grow at an anemic rate--less than 5%. Meanwhile, market researcher International Data Corp. says Net access is now 94% via the PC; but that number will fall to 64% in 2002, thanks to set-top boxes, Web phones, and palm-size computers. By 2002, more information appliances will be sold to consumers than PCs.
Gates's dream of putting a PC in every house may now be a lost cause. While 48% of U.S. homes now have a PC, analysts don't expect that to rise above 60% because information appliances will take on many of the jobs now handled by the PC. That means PC makers, for the first time, will have serious competition in cyberspace. And with the top five companies already selling more than 50% of all PCs, even stellar PC companies may have trouble posting the go-go gains of the past. Dell Computer found that out on Feb. 16. That was when Wall Street pounded its stock after the company reported revenue for the fourth quarter ended Jan. 29 rose 38%, well below its typical 50%-plus clip.
Not that the PC will disappear as the on-ramp to the Information Highway. For people with home offices or school-age kids, the versatility of the PC is still hard to beat--especially with prices so low. "We're rapidly moving into the post-PC era," says Paul E. Horn, a senior vice-president and head of research for IBM. But "the PC isn't going to go away any more than the TV made radio go away." Indeed, analysts expect PC unit sales growth to remain in the low double-digit range well into the next decade. "Consumers are pretty smart," says Steve Jobs, Apple Computer Inc.'s interim CEO. "If for an extra 10% they can get something that does so much more than some single-function device, they'll take it."
Of course, that doesn't mean Jobs and other PC pioneers are standing still. Apple, which made a major step forward in ease of use with the introduction of its elegant iMac PC last year, is expected to unveil a slick-looking handheld Mac this spring. Meanwhile, Microsoft has spawned a new generation of handheld products via its Windows CE technology, including the new Jupiter design for mini-laptop PCs that run up to 12 hours on one charge. Vadem Inc.'s $999 Clio, for instance, appeals to road warriors because the 3.2-pound device has a larger screen and is more comfortable for E-mail or Web browsing than 3Com's popular Palm.
What's going on? Most people don't believe there's a compelling reason to buy cutting-edge machines. After years of being swayed by claims that only the latest, most powerful machines will do, consumers are waking up to a new reality: Today's $400 PCs are good enough for most tasks--especially connecting to the Net. Pushing the latest high-octane machine just isn't working. "People are realizing that whether you own a 300-Mhz PC or a 400-Mhz PC, it isn't going to change your life that much," says Alain Couder, CEO of Packard Bell NEC Inc. "That's scary for us. We need to get real."
Such an admission would have been considered high-tech heresy two years ago. But today, there's a dazzling new spurt of innovation in Silicon Valley. St. Paul Venture Capital, Flatiron Partners, and Matsushita Electric have earmarked $140 million to invest in info-appliance companies. Nokia, Motorola, and at least five other phone makers are developing Web phones. And HP, IBM, Sun Microsystems, and Sony, among others, are preparing a host of newfangled gadgets from palm-size scanners to the underlying chips and software that will power these devices. Meanwhile, scores of startups are spinning out whizzy new products ranging from a countertop Web browser for the kitchen that doubles as a TV and CD player, to a tiny gadget that health maintenance organizations will give chronically ill patients so doctors can check their vital stats online.
NO TOASTER. It's not just this slew of gee-whiz devices that will make information appliances commonplace. Mundane products already found in many homes will also get far smarter. Cameras, TVs, cell phones, and cable boxes are going digital, making it far easier to add new features that let them take on jobs now done by the PC--including Internet access. By next year, for instance, some fax machines will be made to work over the Net so you won't have to rack up long-distance charges to zip a letter to London. And cell-phone pioneer Qualcomm Inc. will add "microbrowsers" to its phones to allow them to read online data. Says Paul E. Jacobs, president of Qualcomm's cell-phone division: "People think cell phones are more like toasters than they are like PCs--but that's wrong."
What's feeding this explosion of innovation? You guessed it. The Internet. Computer scientists have been predicting the advent of information appliances for more than a decade. But now, the Internet has become a truly social phenomenon, with oodles of new information and hundreds of innovative services added on a monthly basis. Consumers want information appliances "to access services on the Net," says Claude M. Leglise, who heads Intel's new home-products group. And more consumers are wondering if they really need a PC just to get wired. "I haven't felt any compulsion to buy a PC," says Robert Anderson, a nurse from West Palm Beach, Fla., who is completely satisfied surfing the Net with his WebTV--and not at all envious of PC-using friends.
Consumers like Anderson won't suffer from lack of alternatives to the PC. That's because software and chip technology has reached the point where it's possible to build inexpensive devices with enough memory, storage, and screen size to be useful. The explosion of information appliances will, in turn, boost the number of Net connections in the home. By 2002, predicts market watcher Jupiter Communications, 56% of U.S. homes will have a Net connection, up from 32% today. And more U.S. homes--13.9 million in 2002, vs. 1 million in 1998--will have faster Internet connections, according to IDC.
MORE CLICKSTREAM. Translation: More people will spend more time online. In today's PC-centric world, cybernauts spend up to 40 hours a month online, says Sky Dayton, chairman of Internet service provider EarthLink Network Inc. But by giving consumers the devices to log on to the Web more often and more conveniently--say, to check the local movie schedule or even buy a car--that could rise to 200 hours. "That kind of clickstream becomes incredibly valuable," Dayton says, referring to the number of Web sites consumers will visit or "click to" when online.
To reach the masses of tech-shy users, though, companies need cheaper and easier-to-use digital devices. That's driving a fundamental change in how products are conceived. Instead of designing cool boxes and hoping they find uses, companies are dreaming up services--and then building devices that can deliver them. What's more, these devices will let companies lock customers into their services--and harvest rich new revenues from advertisers and E-merchants.
Take Alcatel. The French phone giant spent a year surveying media and telephone companies before designing a phone that offers touch-screen Web access. They told Alcatel the phone had to show voice mail, E-mail, and faxes on one screen. The companies also wanted a laptop-style color screen rather than black and white. And to help telephone companies subsidize the $500 price of the phone, Alcatel drummed up support from E-commerce companies such as Yahoo!, Amazon.com, and others to buy links on the phone's startup screen. The argument: This placement could be as valuable as a spot on the Windows desktop. By 2002, Alcatel expects to have sold 1.5 million WebTouch phones, which will be offered to consumers for around $400 starting this September.
Online companies are just itching for ways to snag more users. Yahoo!, E*Trade, and Sportsline.com, for example, are eyeing new ways to deliver their services, particularly to smart cell phones. Doing business in Denver? Your phone could give you the traffic conditions, or tell you whether there are seats available at the Nuggets game. GeoVector Corp., a four-person Silicon Valley startup, even makes software that would let you point your phone at a restaurant to gather whatever info has been posted on the local online Yellow Pages--say, a free glass of wine with the early-bird special.
Some online companies are doing more than scour the market for new devices: They're helping to create them. AT&T recently set up a lab in its Silicon Valley research and development center to build prototypes of new kinds of gizmos, including handheld devices that, among other things, could capture and play videos, or be controlled via voice. And online giant America Online Inc. is working with partners--including Sun Microsystems--on new products tuned to its service. One possibility: a sub-$300 set-top box based on Sun's JavaStation computer now sold to corporations, according to analysts. AOL plans to unveil these devices, part of its "AOL Anywhere" strategy, by this summer. "We're going to play a major role in this next generation of non-PC connected appliances," vows Barry Schuler, AOL's president for interactive services.
At stake is customer loyalty. Consider the experience of Tom Benton, 38, of Claverack, N.Y. His engagement to his fiancee in Mexico was straining his budget until he bought a device from Aplio Inc. that lets him make free phone calls over the Net. The device, conveniently located next to the phone in his kitchen, is a snap to use. "You just pick up the phone. It's natural," he says. Now, his monthly bill is back down to $20 from a wallet-crunching $200, and the marriage is on.
A KITCHEN BROWSER. It's stories like Benton's that inspired entrepreneur Bob Lamson to go back into the kitchen. Lamson, who made millions inventing a line of home breadmaking machines in the 1980s, has built a new gadget that merges a 9-inch TV, CD player, and a one-touch Web browser into a contraption that attaches to the bottom of a cabinet. His company, CMi Worldwide, will produce the black gizmo at a price of $800, with an additional $20 monthly fee for Internet service. There's also a $1,500 to $2,000 countertop version that looks just like a small TV, with a 12-inch screen. "More than 50% of [homemakers] are not PC-literate--and they're big shoppers," says Lamson, who has already signed up appliance maker Salton as a distributor. He's also talking with phone companies and online grocery service Peapod Inc. about supporting the gadget.
Kitchen gadgets and Web phone-screens won't be the only new cyber real estate. The TV, a fixture in 98% of U.S. homes, is an obvious candidate. Roel Pieper, Philips Electronics' top digital exec, points out that Americans spend 3.6 billion hours a month in front of the TV, vs. 300 million for the PC. "Capitalizing on digital TV is the next big thing in Silicon Valley," says Michael Ramsay, the CEO of set-top startup TiVo Inc., whose backers include billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen. General Motors Corp. is already working with TiVo to figure out how to deliver targeted ads.
Entrepreneurs and giants alike are tapping into a growing pool of chips and software aimed at info appliances. IBM, for example, has devised a disk drive half the size of a credit card that can hold 340 megabytes of data--enough to store 80 full-length books. The microdrive, due out this year, will cost approximately $350, but IBM expects the price to fall below $100 once volume picks up in a few years. Meanwhile, startup iReady Corp. has created "Internet-on-a-chip" technology that lets manufacturers add Net access to everything from fax machines to TVs for less than $10. Seiko Epson Corp. is using the chip to make smart screens that can be dropped into fax machines or used as stand-alone Net browsers.
NO MORE HAMMERLOCK? Progress is also picking up in the critical area of software. Sun Microsystems Inc.'s elegant Jini software, unveiled on Jan. 23, could become the lingua franca for devices ranging from coffeemakers to supercomputers. With Jini, devices tell a network what they are--and what they can do. That way, an advertiser could create different versions of an Internet promotion--say, a full video for an interactive TV vs. a one-line headline for a handheld gizmo--knowing Jini-enabled devices would grab the right one.
Who's best positioned to make these cyberdreams come true? Intel and Microsoft are not sure bets. Indeed, no one company has all the pieces in place--yet. Startups tend to have ideas and technology but lack marketing and distribution muscle. Consumer-electronics companies are famously slow to adopt new technology and have to bridge decades-old divisions between product groups.
But today's high-tech powers may have the most at risk. Since info appliances require inexpensive, highly focused technology, Microsoft and Intel could have a tough time maintaining the high-margin hammerlock they enjoy with their current PC technologies. As for PC makers, they'll need to do more than rush to market zippy new models chock-full of state-of-the-art technology that consumers have to learn how to use. Says Philips' Pieper: "The PC companies move at a higher speed of innovation--and I'm not sure consumers like it. They'll have to slow down, and we'll have to speed up."
For now, all are focused on getting into the game--especially computer companies. Industry stalwarts such as National Semiconductor, disk-drive maker Quantum, and modem and graphics board supplier Diamond Multimedia Systems, are investing heavily in information-appliance businesses. HP recently unveiled its Capshare handheld scanner, which by yearend will be able to wirelessly zip magazine articles through cyberspace. And Compaq Computer Corp. says it aims to sell set-top boxes and Web phones.
A weak player in the PC era, Sony is scrambling so that it doesn't miss out on the post-PC age. The consumer-electronics giant is preparing a slew of innovative products, including a digital picture frame that displays 50 different color photos, and a 250-person software unit is working on smart home networks that will let your TV and stereo recognize you when you walk into the room--and fire up your favorite tunes or shows.
Not all of these novel products will be blockbusters. But there will be plenty enough hits to make cash registers ring. Consider Diamond Multimedia's Rio. The 2.4-ounce, pager-size gizmo can store and play songs downloaded to a PC in a format called MP3 that makes it feasible to download music of CD quality through the Web. It's like a tapeless Walkman, and Diamond has sold 250,000 of the $199 units in just three months--and the Rio has become a major fad with music lovers. "It's a viral kind of thing," says Diamond CEO William J. Schroeder, who hopes to sell 750,000 Rios in 1999. "A year ago, I didn't even know what MP3 was!"
That's O.K. Because in the post-PC era, most consumers won't need to know--or care--how their information appliances work.