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Dave Wilson | Dave Wilson

Fast-Paced Technology Is Taking a Breather

November 29, 2001|Dave Wilson is The Times' personal technology columnist. He can be reached at dave.wilson@latimes.com

One of the really amazing things about technology right now is the lack of ground-breaking stuff on store shelves.

Sure, there are some undeniably cool things, like teeny-tiny MP3 players, roll-your-own-DVD kits, higher-resolution digital cameras and, of course, two state-of-the-art video game consoles.

But there's no new earth-shattering category, no paradigm-shifting supernova of a doodad that transforms the way we think about the world.

Instead, there are largely incremental improvements to existing technology. Old devices are smaller, sometimes so small that no adult can push the buttons. Or they contain add-ons already on the market, such as a high-speed Ethernet connection. Or they get a color screen stapled on.

Many of today's "new" gizmos are simply products that actually do what manufacturers claimed they did when first released years ago. The latest version of the Windows operating system really is stable. Honest.

Windows is actually a great example of something that's fundamentally unchanged since 1995. And desktop systems aren't the only computers frozen in time. When portable devices such as the Newton and Palm were first introduced, they pointed the way to a future in which we were all connected to information we might need all the time. We're still heading in that direction, and we've got a raft of pocket-size computers to choose from, many of which include wireless networking capabilities.

But we haven't seen any fundamental changes in the design of these computers.

To achieve the dream of so-called ubiquitous computing, we'll need devices that can be built into a belt buckle or worn like a ring. The experts have been working on this stuff for a decade. So how come we haven't seen anything yet? What are they waiting for?

Better power supplies, for one. One of the reasons people are excited about fuel cell technology is that we've reached the practical limits of what traditional storage batteries can do. But consumers aren't likely to see fuel cells, which run on explosive gases, for a couple of years at least.

True speech recognition also is going to be a transforming technology. The designs of current devices are severely constrained by the necessity of building in ways to talk to the machine: buttons, keyboards, mice and touch screens. Someday, software will be able to interpret human speech the way a human being does. Then we'll see a huge change in the way devices are designed and in what they can do for us.

That's not to say that there's nothing at all new this year. It's just that nobody really cares about it. The one big advance was recordable DVD drives for computers, but most people seem perfectly content to make do with burning CDs, something that's unlikely to change until more of us feel compelled to edit our home movies on the computer.

In fact, this lack of new stuff has been particularly obvious for computer users, and it's one of the big reasons for the slowdown in computer sales. With no compelling reason to upgrade, we've held off on trading up.

Over the last decade, as multimedia became increasingly integrated into standard computers, we've trudged along, dutifully upgrading to 386, 486 and the various flavors of Pentium. Adding sound and full-motion video was worth the expense of buying a new PC. Plus, the increasingly bloated operating systems produced by Microsoft required a lot more system resources.

But there's not a huge payoff for investing in a Pentium 4 machine; we can get more bang for our buck investing in a high-end video card and lots of RAM. That situation is unlikely to change until a new and demanding killer application comes along that requires a better central processing unit.

That will happen, but not for at least a year. The slowdown in amazing new technology isn't a permanent thing. It's just a low point in the technology cycle, something that happens every five years or so.

Even now, some smart folks are straining their brains thinking up the next big thing that's going to rearrange the universe. And we'll wonder how we ever got along without it.

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