Gazing into My Crystal PC...

What's ahead in 2003? A new chip will boost the spread of Wi-Fi, and home networking will come into its own

The year just ended was another rough one for the technology biz. But you can't keep a good industry down. Despite slumping sales, cratering stock prices, and tightfisted investors, 2002 saw progress and innovation in personal technology that should blossom in 2003.

In 2002, wireless data became a reality. Widely available networks offered speeds equivalent to dial-up. High-speed Wi-Fi wireless networks became available not only in offices and homes but also in "hot spots" at airports, hotels, coffeehouses--even convenience stores. In 2003, these networks should become easier to use, cheaper, and more pervasive, fulfilling the promise of anytime, anywhere connections.

Both the networks and the devices that use them are getting a lot smarter as we move toward the day when your laptop or handheld will automatically use the best available connection--and you'll get a single monthly bill that covers all the networks you use. Those changes are coming quickly as carriers follow the drift of wireless voice service toward flat-rate pricing for different classes of users. For example, a heavy user of wireless data on a laptop might pay $100 a month, while someone who just checks e-mail on a handheld would get a $30 account. The software, roaming, and billing systems needed to make seamless network switching a reality remain a formidable challenge. It probably won't come together in 2003, but we are well on the way.

Automatic switching among wireless networks will happen first on laptops since each network requires its own radio, and it's hard to cram all that gear into a package that can fit in a pocket. Wireless laptops will get a big boost when Intel (INTC ) releases the first processor it has designed from the ground up for mobile use rather than scaling one down from a desktop chip.

The still-unbranded Intel chip, code-named Banias, should show up in notebooks in early spring. Laptop makers don't want to hear this, but if you're in the market for a new computer and can hold off for a bit, Banias is worth waiting for. Intel says early tests show that Banias-powered products offer better performance while consuming a lot less power than the current Pentium 4-M. That's more important than ever, because wireless communication is a power hog.

Banias also is meant for wireless notebooks, and Intel's support chips will make it possible to build Wi-Fi into laptop motherboards. That will help make Wi-Fi so cheap that by the end of next year, it should be standard on nearly every mobile computer. Moving Wi-Fi to the motherboard will let engineers pack more into laptops, say, Bluetooth for short-range wireless and modems that link with mobile phone networks.

Another trend that developed more slowly than I expected in 2002 but may take off in the coming year is networked home entertainment. The first devices that let you play digitized music over existing stereo gear were too costly and too inconvenient because they failed to use networks to play music already stored on PC hard drives. The coming months will bring wireless products for about $200 that will let you take recordings off a PC in your den and play them on your stereo in the living room. And as wireless networks get faster next year, you'll be able to add video to the mix.

Whether this actually happens or not depends less on the technology (which is coming along nicely) than on the willingness of entertainment companies to make their music and films available in digital form. Record companies, battered by illegal downloading of music, are starting to offer their catalogs online at a reasonable cost and with much less fuss. It will be a while before the Internet is fast enough to deliver quality video. But the sorry truth is that we are making a lot more progress on the technology than on resolving the fierce legal disputes over copy protection that now bar the way.

Given the industry's battered state, 2003 is likely to be a year of incremental progress rather than radical breakthroughs. But progress there will be. I want to take this occasion to thank all of my readers and wish you a healthy, prosperous, and peaceful New Year.

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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