2004: What's ahead for products
To predict next year's trends, look at the past year's innovations and throw in some price wars
Innovations this year laid the groundwork for new technologies in 2004. Next year promises to be tumultuous, with all-out price wars in some sectors and the phase-out of formerly standard products.Desktop PCs
The merger of the LCD with the computer seems as inevitable as the marriage of handheld computers to cell phones over the last couple of years. Gateway Inc., MPC Computers LLC and Sony Electronics Inc. have set out on the all-in-one road, and others will follow.
Early government adopters see the all-in-one as a cure for the inconveniences of most desktop designs. It saves space in cramped cubicles, draws less power aboard ships or aircraft where every watt counts, and generates less heat.
A trip down the corridors of the Senate or House office buildings will reveal multiple TVs monitoring C-SPAN and CNN. All-in-one systems can easily handle TV display and next year will become more adept at recording video.
Vendors that have not yet adopted all-in-one designs'notably Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co.'have given buyers the option of attaching a small, sleek PC to an LCD, as do the Dell SX260 or the Compaq Evo D510.
The main reason the largest vendors have not endorsed all-in-one packages is untimely replacement. Early all-in-one designs had nonswappable hard drives that required complete system replacement for even a minor failure. Inability to swap RAM and video components meant systems were nearly impossible to upgrade.
In 2004, almost every all-in-one will have modular components. Look for more ergonomic designs, too, and for software that makes a PC, particularly an all-in-one, function like a TV to record snapshots of programs. Sony and MPC all-in-ones can do so.
On the enterprise front, HP is developing a new network design using blade PCs that could eliminate data loss and downtime after system crashes. Users seamlessly log in to a tower of blade PCs from their desks and are assigned a blade by the network server. All user profiles and documents reside in a storage area network or network-attached storage device.
Should a PC crash occur, the main server will detect it within about 60 seconds. The user will then be automatically reassigned a new blade within the tower. All the data, even what the user is working on, loads from the storage device to the new blade. The person can continue working without having to call the system administrator.Desktop replacement notebook PCs
Although ultraportable notebooks are getting more powerful, the desktop replacement size with its triple-drive spindles and multiple-port chassis is still necessary for near-desktop performance. Desktop replacements got somewhat bigger in 2003, though that could change next year if the Pentium M chip of ultraportable notebooks makes the jump to their big brothers.
Most desktop replacement notebooks have PC processors. The Pentium M uses less voltage, runs cooler and, surprisingly, is also faster in benchmark testing in the GCN Lab. Vendors are keeping their migration plans secret, but those we talked with say desktop replacement notebooks with the Pentium M should be available late next year.
Another change to look for in the desktop replacement market is the LCD's aspect ratio. The need to run video applications is making it wide and rectangular instead of squarish.
A few already go beyond this change, such as the Sharp RD20 from Sharp Systems of America, and incorporate 3-D viewing. That's ideal for government scientists and war planners who need to see images from all angles.
Another desktop replacement trend that should be big in government is multicard readers. They're already present on some replacement notebooks such as the Sharp Actius RD10, which can read CompactFlash, MultiMediaCard, Secure Digital, SmartMedia and Sony memory sticks.Tablet PCs and PDAs
Although few have yet reached the implementation stage, agencies such as NASA have tablet PCs trials under way. Many other agencies are considering the devices for off-site and mobile workers who collect data on the fly or need to run programs without a keyboard or mouse.
When we took an early look, tablets were still a bit anemic in processing power and battery life. That will change in a big way next year, putting tablets on an equal basis with notebooks.
Motion Computing Inc. of Austin, Texas, has built a slate tablet with an Intel Centrino processor but without a keyboard, for use like a large personal digital assistant. It runs at up to 1.5 GHz in low- and ultra-low-voltage models. Longer battery life and increased power can support even applications such as Microsoft Office OneNote, which allows dragging and dropping video, audio and handwritten notes into other applications such as Word or Excel and easy collaboration with other users.
Next year's tablet generation will have the power and battery life that users expected but didn't get this year. The slate format may not survive 2004, however. Although Motion Computing, and through it Gateway, will stick with the slate format, most other makers are backing the convertible notebook format.
A convertible notebook looks and runs like a regular notebook except that its screen can be turned around and folded over the keyboard, which makes it a tablet, albeit thicker than a pure slate.
Seven companies showed new convertible notebooks at last month's Comdex trade show. Several, including Acer America Corp., are planning to make over their entire notebook lines into convertible tablets by 2005.
Even as tablets see wider adoption next year, the PDA is not going away. Most companies are beefing up their PDAs to be more like enterprise clients or miniature PCs.
Makers achieve this via integrated graphics chip sets for Windows applications. One of the best early examples is the Zodiac from Tapwave Inc. of Mountain View, Calif.
Tapwave's ex-Palm Inc. employees bill the Zodiac as an entertainment console, but it has just as many benefits for business use. The fast screen refresh touted for computer games helps in manipulating large amounts of data. Look for the PDA industry to wake up to this fact in 2004.Printers
Printer prices dropped in 2003, as the lab discovered testing models from Dell, HP, Lexmark International Inc. and Xerox Corp. But 2004 will bring a full-scale price war for monochrome workgroup printers.
HP fired the first shot in this war with the sub-$300 LaserJet 1012 for executive users or small workgroups. Although companies are keeping their plans secret for now, expect print speeds higher than 35 pages per minute and prices lower than $1,000 for high-capacity monochrome printers.
Color printers won't drop in price quite as fast because the emphasis is still on speeding up the print engines. But one or two vendors probably will sell high-speed color printers for about $1,500.Operating systems
One big thing to avoid in 2004 is continued reliance on Windows NT 4.0. Microsoft is withdrawing support for it even though many government networks still have this stable platform at their core.
Active Directory, released in Windows Server 2000, is a still new and virtually unused folder- and file-sharing system that consolidates multiple directories and subdirectories previously located on multiple servers.
Active Directory eases administration and routine maintenance because the network software is more compact and better organized.
Microsoft is trying hard to embed Active Directory in most networks by the end of next year through the release of Windows Server 2003.
A new interface will make Active Directory migration from NT 4.0 or Server 2000 platforms easier and let administrators securely group users from separate, trusted networks. These changes will help agencies better manage their large networks.
Agencies that have adopted Linux will also find changes in the works, not all of them favorable. Ironically, many flavors of Linux this year adopted some attributes of Microsoft's operating systems, including plug and play, and automatic updates. These changes are making the open-source OS more proprietary and hindering communications between different versions of Linux. The changes will continue next year as more developers try to improve on the platform.
So-called Lindows PCs'low-cost desktop systems that run versions of Linux with strong Windows similarities'will get more expensive in 2004 to keep up with advances in the OS.Web development
Macromedia Inc.'s Studio MX 2004 development suite, released late this year, has features that will gain popularity next year'notably more-secure file transfer protocols.
Likewise, there will be a strong emphasis on Extensible Markup Language compatibility as seen in Studio MX 2004 and newer development software such as Microsoft FrontPage 2003.
Most Web sites designed next year will have dynamic as opposed to static HTML. With XML, developers and webmasters will no longer have to keep re-editing HTML lines to change pages.
Expect more advanced features in Macromedia Flash and more sophisticated image editing software that will be easier for novice developers'thanks to wizards and one-button features.Antivirus and antispam software
This year, high-profile worms ravaged home and office networks. Antivirus software publishers reacted by adding aggressive antiworm features to their suites.
Antivirus software is now so advanced that it's almost impossible for the lab staff to tailor a virus to creep under the radar'something we commonly did a few years ago. Testing antivirus software these days mostly means measuring the scan speed and evaluating the user interface.
User diligence and up-to-date software can control the virus threat, but another nuisance has crept in to steal even more of users' time. There's no perfect product yet for fighting spam.
That will start to change next year. Symantec Corp.'s AntiSpam 2004 will still require users to download mail, but the spam will be routed to a separate mailbox or automatically deleted.
AntiSpam 2004 will update spam profiles in much the same way virus profiles are brought up to date, so users stand a good chance of cleaning up their mailboxes at last.
Microsoft is also attempting to tackle spam. Its new SmartScreen technology also will debut in 2004 and become part of all the company's future mail programs. Beta users of SmartScreen call the program about 95 percent accurate in identifying spam.
Bill Gates has said the only way to defeat spam is to make it uneconomical for spammers. After last month's passage of the Can Spam Act, 2004 should see the first real shots in what may be a long war of attrition.
Advances this year established the basis for the lower-cost, more-powerful hardware and software that will launch in 2004.
So this was a year of a new generation of pioneers. Next year, the settlers will move in to reap the benefits.