In '97, large-screen notebooks and CD-Rs will be hot, hot, hot

As in every other year since the advent of PCs, 1997 will bring many incremental
improvements and a few dramatic changes. At the top of the list is a plunge in current
notebook computer prices, caused by a new generation of really usable large-screen
displays.


Better flat-screen manufacturing techniques will produce these 12- to 14-inch-diagonal
LCD screens at prices only slightly higher than those of the dramatically smaller 1996
versions.


Yes, the big new models will make the smaller ones obsolete, but the same manufacturing
technology that makes the bigger screens affordable will simultaneously cut the cost of
smaller-footprint notebooks.


A side benefit could be the end of cramped keyboards. A slight widening of the cases
and the keyboards won't add any significant weight. In fact, one reason that notebook
keyboards have stayed so narrow is that wider ones would have emphasized the relative
miserliness of the displays.


Although government contract prices might not follow immediately, the drop in price for
Integrated Services Digital Network service will accelerate. Are the telephone companies
becoming more efficient? No, they're finally facing competition from modem makers that can
already demonstrate near-ISDN speeds over regular analog lines.


The new 56-kilobit/sec modems will achieve that speed only in one direction, but most
people don't really need full-duplex transmission anyway. Furthermore, there's already a
new technology at the demonstration stage from AetherWorks Corp. of St. Paul, Minn., which
promises full-duplex data transfer at up to 43.2 kilobits/sec.


The real nail in ISDN's coffin could be 400-kilobit/sec Internet links for downloading
via the Digital Satellite System. It might be possible to download more than 500
kilobits/sec, using analog lines to upload commands over the Internet-just the thing for
remote or small government offices that spend most of their on-line time retrieving data
rather than creating it.


Meanwhile, a successor to the CD-ROM could be on the horizon. With its digital video
disk (DVD) format for database and video applications, Toshiba America Information Systems
Inc. claims to have solved the technical and copyright protection problems that have
delayed introduction of CD-ROM-sized optical disks storing a movie-length 15G on one side.


Look for something to happen with DVD in 1997, but don't expect it to kill the growing
market for CD-recordable drives, whose prices will drop near $200 by the end of the year.
Part of the price drop will come from competition and part from manufacturing
efficiencies.


The PD or phase-change dual recording drive, built into some Compaq Computer Corp.
machines last year, would be a stronger contender if it weren't for two factors. First,
PD's initial price advantage is being eroded rapidly by the continuing drop in CD-R
prices. Second, although PD drives can read CD-ROMs, the vast installed base of CD-ROM
drives can't read disks recorded on PD drives.


With twelve-speed CD-ROM players standard on many PCs and even faster drives on the
way, can PD drives and Iomega Corp. Zip removable-media drives really overcome such a
massive compatibility hurdle? Most PCs now come with a CD-ROM drive standard and some even
offer CD-R drives as standard, so it's hard to justify the extra cost of a Zip or PD drive
when you consider the relatively tiny installed base of Zip- or PD-capable players.


I could be wrong, but I don't see a valid reason for most office users to buy either
technology with CD-R prices dropping so fast.


As for DVD, ask me again in 1998 when there might (or might not) be thousands of titles
published. I doubt that most users will want to buy into a non-recordable video
technology, even though DVD image quality is superior. After all, laser disks also are
superior, but not many people buy them.


Without mass-market consumer electronics appeal, prices never do fall dramatically. DVD
will have trouble taking off in the computer world except as a niche product for massive
databases or training applications.


Look for 1.2G hard drives to fall below $100 by the end of 1997. Already, 1G IDE drives
are less than $200, which could signal the end for Iomega drives when you consider that a
single 1G Iomega Jaz disk costs about $125, and the drive itself is more than $500. Why
invest in a Jaz drive when you could swap entire hard drives for less?


As software installations continue to become more complex, I look for some operating
system and office suite publishers to sell their software preloaded on a 1G hard drive at
no extra cost.


John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s.


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