What The Future Holds - InformationWeek

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10/12/2004
03:56 PM
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What The Future Holds

Six computer scientists take a look into the future. What's in store? Think speed.

Others are more bullish. Nanotechnology won't knock out today's CMOS technology right away, says HP's Lampman, "but in the long term, it will be the dominant form of electronics." One big advantage would be lower-cost production compared with CMOS: A chip fabrication plant with all its equipment costs about $3 billion. PARC is researching "organic electronics"--using carbon-based materials instead of silicon to compute--in hopes that one day they can be cheaply stamped onto flexible rolls using common printing techniques. "The use of organics is going to have a radical impact," PARC director Bernstein says.

As for today's technology, gains in the sophistication of software let programmers wring more performance from the specialized silicon chips that companies are turning out. "Programmability always rules," Papadopoulos says. "There's far more innovation happening in software than in hardware."

The PC Versus The Personal Network
On the other end of the computing spectrum is the old, not-always-so-reliable, PC. While the rarified end of the supercomputing sector heads toward the milestone of a petaflop machine capable of a quadrillion calculations a second, other engineers and scientists are trying to extract power from huge networks of cheap PCs. "My agenda isn't to be the first to a petaflop," Intel CTO Gelsinger says. "The agenda is supercomputing for the masses." At Microsoft, Gray talks about closing the "guru gap" between what the most advanced users can get out of Wintel systems and what everyone else can.

Even Microsoft's and Intel's critics concede the PC isn't likely to budge from desktops soon. "The PC's going to be around for a long time," Papadopoulos says. Horn calls it a "platform that will be with us for the foreseeable future." However, there's a lot that needs to be addressed.

In an era of rapidly multiplying E-documents, the hierarchical file system is falling down on the job. Apple Computer and Microsoft are putting research and development into new ways of pinpointing digital files that don't require wading through directories of folders. Microsoft and Intel are rethinking the PC's guts so its electronics and software are more aware of who's changing what.

Ideas percolating in research labs could change the nature of office work, making the PC just one part of a floating "personal network" of information. "The PC represents an architectural point that's distinctly unnetworked." Papadopoulos says. "The question isn't whether I should have Google-like search on my PC." Rather, he says, it's how soon users can unhook themselves from their hard drives and take advantage of the the Internet's ubiquitous reach.

Bill Gates first called that notion "information at your fingertips" in a 1990 speech at the Comdex trade show, and it's an increasingly popular one. "The nature of the work we're doing hasn't changed that much," PARC's Bernstein says. "We're still pounding our fingers on keyboards." PARC is researching computer displays that are large surfaces that groups of workers can share to call up new information by touching the screen. IP phones also will change social protocols at work--instead of picking up a receiver and dialing, we might say, "Phone Bill in Redmond."

The notion of a corporate network could change, too, as information on people's PCs and PDAs melds into a work-life blur, Bernstein says. But different technical standards for computers, cars, and consumer electronics make it too hard to ferry those devices between work and home, he adds. PARC software, called Obje, can bridge standards among cell phones, laptops, PDAs, printers, set-top boxes, and video displays from different companies.

At HP, engineers are working to bring to market another great hope for the office of the future: videoconferencing that works, Lampman says. Within a few years, HP plans to release a videoconferencing system that it has been developing with DreamWorks SKG, which features life-size images of people broadcast in high-definition video and multidimensional sound that doesn't ring like speakerphone gibberish when two people are talking, he says. DreamWorks' system "is the first one I've seen that makes you feel emotionally like you're in one room," Lampman says. "We've thrown HP tech teams on it to see how to commercialize the system and take some of the cost out."

The Wired Home MAY Be More Entertaining Than You Think
Tech companies throwing R&D dollars at your office agree where the money should go. That's not the case at home. "Where's the interface for information? Is it the TV set, the set-top box, the tablet computer, or the phone?" Bernstein asks. "The one that will win out is the one that's easiest for people to use." A good candidate: TV sets with touch screens and speech recognition, areas PARC is researching.

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