These new products foretell the future of computing

J.B. Miles

Someday we'll all have Internet-capable, silver dollar-sized computers that will handle e-mail and send digitized voice and video streams around the world over high-speed global networks. They'll serve as PCs and telephones, control our home security systems, start our cars and give us access to every movie and record ever made.

We won't need keyboards; all computers will be entirely voice-activated. We won't need bulky monitors, either. Our computers, worn like wristwatches or around our necks, will project perfect, full-motion 3-D images into space.

A Jetsons fantasy? Maybe. But judging by the speed with which computing is being reshaped'from relatively dimwitted mainframes to PCs to ultralight notebooks to tablet PCs'I don't think I'm too farfetched.

In these next steps to the future, Microsoft Corp. and a handful of hardware companies are working on the convergence of PCs, home entertainment devices and wireless communications.

Microsoft is backing a couple of noteworthy new products. The first is Freestyle, a software module that will let you record TV programs and play them back on Windows PCs. The first version of the software will be bundled with a new class of Freestyle PCs being developed by Hewlett-Packard Co. and other manufacturers, to be released in time for the winter holiday season this year.

Why is controlling a TV set with a PC an important feature? I'm guessing that Microsoft is testing the waters. The company badly wants to bridge the gap between business computing and home entertainment, and Freestyle is a step in this direction.

Eventually, Microsoft and other companies might want to use Freestyle or something like it as a bridge toward the futuristic scenario mentioned above'using computers with wireless connections to control a lot of home functions.

Is this merely a conspiracy to sell more Microsoft software and PC hardware, as some critics allege? Maybe, but it still sounds good to me.

Keep an eye on the emerging set of tablet PCs under development by manufacturers such as Acer American Inc., Compaq Computer Corp., Fujitsu America Inc. and ViewSonic Corp., all running the Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating system. Many critics are giving tablet PCs thumbs-down before they've even been released, but I think they're a genuine technology breakthrough.

The latest tablet PCs aren't the same as the low-powered, pen-based tablets that failed to catch on in the 1990s. In my view, the best ones are convertible units with attached or detachable keyboards that can be used like a typical notebook or run like tablet slates.

They have full wireless capability, are light, have long battery life and let users run Windows apps with a pen, annotate documents and even create handwritten documents using digital ink technology that you can convert into standard text.

They'll cost about $2,000, about the same as a fairly high-powered notebook PC with fewer features, so tablet PCs just might become the next thing.

My favorite product in Microsoft's holiday lineup was code-named Mira but has, sadly, been renamed Windows CE for Smart Displays. The displays themselves will be named Windows-powered smart displays.

They are detachable, wireless, mobile flat-screen LCD monitors with touch screens that can be carried around anywhere within the reach of a wireless network. Initial versions will likely be priced around $800, which isn't bad for what amounts to an extra PC.

These new products will have their drawbacks, particularly at first. But they seem to be moving in the right direction.

J.B. Miles of Pahoa, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers. E-mail him at jbmiles@hawaii.rr.com.

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