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Insight : New Products Serve as Signposts to the Information Highway

November 06, 1994|STEWART ALSOP | Stewart Alsop, a long-time observer of the personal computer industry, is editor-in-chief of San Mateo-based InfoWorld magazine and the founder and publisher of P.C. Letter

I got that ISDN line I wrote about in my last column, the one that's supposed to provide really fast communication between my computer and other people's. My company's computer people tell me it works. It just doesn't do anything when I try to use it.

But I'm feeling really wired anyway. The information highway is bursting out all over--just not in the ways that most of the media write about so glowingly.

Consider these recent events in my digital life:

* On Oct. 23, President Clinton came to speak at the high school up the road from my house. The headline in our weekly newspaper, the San Carlos Belmont Enquirer Bulletin, read, "White House Catches Up With SC on the Internet."

About six months before, San Carlos had put up its first "home page" on the World Wide Web--an easy-access way to publish documents on the 'Net. The White House had just gotten up its own home page the week before the Clinton visit.

This is one of the wonderful subtleties of the information highway: A town with 28,000 people and a full-time staff of 75 can provide a service before the White House can. What's the proper role of the federal government if the Internet allows for the kind of democracy in which economies of scale are a liability instead of an asset?

* The weekend the President came to town, I played with a new product called XBand from Catapult Entertainment. Catapult calls it a video game modem. XBand plugs into the Sega Genesis video game machine and the telephone line so you can play standard video games with other people over the phone.

You call Catapult toll-free and have the supplier match you up automatically with another player who has the same game cartridge plugged into his or her machine. I played several games of NBA Jam, first with Spiff from San Mateo and then with Aminal from San Rafael. I clearly have earned my computer nickname, Nerd Man. But when my 9-year-old son, Stewart III, joined me on line, we gave Aminal a run for his money. (XBand is supposed to be available in stores later this month.)

* A few days later, I got my new version of America Online (Version 2.5), which is the hot on-line service these days. Loading the software on my computer, I noticed a new feature called TCP Connection--something the people at the service haven't promoted. Using it means I can sign onto America Online through my company's Internet connection--at speeds about 10 times as fast as with a fast modem, the devices most of us have been using to connect to on-line services for the last 10 years.

When you start using commercial services at speeds like this, you see that you can do new and ever more interesting things. For instance, you can electronically browse through newspapers with real photographs and graphics or shop for products after studying high-resolution photographs and listening to a recorded explanation of the features of each model.

* For the last few weeks, I have been carrying a Sony Magic Link, a new device Sony calls a personal communicator. In reality it is a small, under-powered computer that processes a new kind of animated electronic mail (courtesy of AT&T's Personalink service) and provides an address book, calendar, calculator, checkbook and other personal management features. (It can also be used for remote control of a Sony TV or stereo system.)

Magic Link is not wireless; that technology is not ready for prime time. It's designed to plug into any phone line so you can collect and send mail toll-free. The screen is dim, there isn't enough storage, it's a little too big, it doesn't synchronize well with a personal computer and the software needs more work. But the device does what it's supposed to, and it's really engaging. Bottom line: I'm using it.

* I also got a new version (Version 5.0) of Quicken, the checkbook program from Intuit, the company Microsoft is in the process of buying for a mere $1.5 billion. Now I can push a button called Quicken Quotes and the program will collect the current (15-minute delayed) prices of stocks, bonds and mutual funds I have listed and update the value of my portfolio automatically. I can then buy more shares by filling out an electronic check, which Quicken delivers to Checkfree Corp. for forwarding to my brokerage house.

Intuit is working on something called Quicken Online, a service that will let Quicken users integrate checking and savings account information, brokerage activity and credit card accounts. In this way, you'll be able to manage all your personal finances in one place, plan for retirement, college and other things, produce and file tax returns electronically and buy or sell equities and other financial instruments. No wonder Microsoft was so interested in Intuit!

No, I don't have my ISDN line doing anything yet. But I certainly do feel wired. The problem, of course, is that few of these things actually work with one another--yet. Sometime shortly after 2000, when they do--and when my ISDN line or TV cable or satellite dish is the route for getting to them--I'll be all the way up the on-ramp and cruising on the information highway.

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