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THE CUTTING EDGE

The Soul of the New Machine

From Ubiquitous Computing to Speech Recognition, PC Industry Visionaries Are Searching for a Formula for . . .

November 18, 1996|JULIE PITTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A firm handshake is a traditional sign of strong character. In the case of IBM computer scientist Tom Zimmerman, this common greeting sends a more explicit message: Zimmerman's name, address and phone number.

The information passes without a single spoken word. A transmitter in the sole of Zimmerman's shoe emits faint electronic signals that course from toes to fingertips. The saltwater in the human body provides the perfect vehicle for transporting these fragile signals, and since their wattage is many magnitudes less than that of a microwave oven, they present no danger to anyone willing to become a computer network.

To receive the signals, one need only touch Zimmerman, whose body has become an electronic field. Translating them into human language requires that the recipient also wear special gear--shoes equipped with an amplifier sensitive enough to detect the low-frequency signals and a computer the size of a wristwatch to display Zimmerman's vital statistics.

Even Zimmerman, who is on the staff of IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, concedes that few people will wear the George Jetson wardrobe required for "intrabody communication" within the next decade. Even so, he's taken a giant step for a research scientist--bringing his idea from whiteboard to working prototype, which he will demonstrate this week at the Comdex computer trade show in Las Vegas.

It is computer scientists like Zimmerman who expand technical boundaries and ultimately set direction for the entire industry. His idea for the "personal-area network" takes two familiar concepts--the personal computer and computer-to-computer networks--and pushes them to their logical extreme.

As the PC industry gathers for Comdex, many participants feel an acute need for this type of creativity--if not this particular idea. The IBM PC is 15 years old, and the microprocessor that made it possible predates it by a decade. Among those who made fortunes from the PC, there is a sense of concern that it may be, if not obsolete, at least past its prime.

"I'm not interested in the PC anymore," claims Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computer Inc. "They haven't changed in 10 years. They look the same way they did when I was at Apple. They're boring."

The PC's evolution is the most critical issue facing the industry, said Nick Donatiello, president of Odyssey Research in San Francisco. "The PC is not a living organism. It can't change on its own, and in the form it is in today, it is simply too hard to use, too hard to set up and too unreliable."

Without an overhaul, the PC will never be taken into the nearly two-thirds of American homes without one, Donatiello warned.

Some see the solution in the new stripped-down PCs known as network computers that are being promoted by Sun Microsystems Inc. and Oracle Corp. But others believe more fundamental innovation is needed.

Here are the thoughts of some industry leaders on the future of the PC.

Nathan Myhrvold, Group vice president of applications and content, Microsoft Corp.

Myhrvold, a schoolyard prodigy like his boss, Bill Gates, and a physicist by training, is the software giant's designated visionary-in-residence.

Predictably, Myhrvold disagrees with those who would deconstruct today's PC, although he concedes it must evolve if Gates is to realize his dream of a computer in every home.

"If we've learned anything from history of the PC, it's evolution, not revolution," Myhrvold said. "We'll certainly be surrounded by a lot of gadgets, but they won't minimize the importance of the general-purpose computer."

Computing horsepower will be harnessed to enable multimedia software that will make the PC more pleasurable for the average user. For example, powerful microprocessors running sophisticated software will facilitate the creation of virtual worlds in which a computer user in New York will chat online with a friend in Los Angeles as though they were sharing a cappuccino at the corner coffeehouse.

"We're just on the edge of doing real video on the PC," Myhrvold said. "In five years, video files will be as prevalent as test files. Suddenly your PC will have better video than your TV and better sound than your stereo. That's going to cause an explosion of human interest."

Myhrvold has harsh words for those who would dumb down the PC to create a network computer: "There's some sophistry going on in that the companies espousing this weren't part of the PC revolution. Their leaders have a neurological condition called 'Bill envy.' Once you get a good case of Bill envy, you can no longer see straight."

Mark Weiser, Manager, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center Computer Science Laboratory.

The golden era in which the copier company's research lab essentially invented the modern PC--as well as the local-area network and the laser printer--may be long gone, but computer scientists say PARC is again percolating with interesting ideas.

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