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In the palm of our hand

In the palm of our hand

Computing has changed dramatically, but it really hasn't changed at all. Now I realise that comment doesn't seem to make much sense, but trust me, there is a point I'm trying to make here.

While we've seen computing move from mainframes to PCs to client/server to Internet computing; while we've seen incredible leaps in technological advancement in terms of graphics and multimedia capabilities, the way we interact with computers hasn't really changed at all.

That's pretty much because a computer is, when you get down to it, a screen and a keyboard. There have, of course, been some derivations, particularly in palm top computing where Apple's Newton and then recently the Palm Pilot have changed the way people have interacted with computers.

But over the last couple of weeks, I've increasingly noticed that the "buzz" around computing devices with non-typical form factors is picking up. If anything is going to really change this industry, this is going to be it.

3Com last week showed for the first time the Palm VII. It has a built-in wireless modem that will let users download their e-mail and access the Internet. Interestingly, 3Com doesn't expect users to "surf the Web" using their Palm Pilot. Instead, they will run applications which do "Web clipping". That is, they download information for Palm Pilot applications, but do not pull down graphics and other display information like a Web browser does, because of bandwidth restrictions. They are very specific task-focused applications like software that retrieves airline timetable information.

This is likely to be the trend you see - very task-specific devices that run task-specific applications.

Running applications

All mobile workers, for example, will have devices that are suited to the way they move about, running applications that enable them to do their business.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about home networking. Home networking is not going to take off right now because there is simply not a need for it. While it might be nice for the home's second computer to share a printer, it doesn't justify the cost of installing a network. However, tomorrow's home will be literally littered with information appliances. The touch screen in the kitchen, for example, will let you call up recipes while you bring up the television guide on the Web TV device in the lounge room.

It's not just a couple of crazy Californian start-ups that see this vision of the future. It was the central message of Compaq's Eckhard Pfeiffer during his Comdex keynote speech and last week Lew Platt explained how HP was very interested in making computing devices that tap into the information utility of pervasive computing.

The most poignant point that Platt made was that you are barking up the wrong tree if you think any of these devices are going to replace the PC. We are all going to own multiple computing devices that all do very different things. I'm not talking about owning two or three devices, I'm talking dozens. Think about that for a growing market.


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