It doesn't take a psychic to predict that 1997 will see many changes in the computer industry. That's always true. What's also always true is that it takes time for the significance of any new technology to filter down to the end user.
Take Intel Corp.'s MMX, for example. In early January, the chip giant will release this long-awaited version of the Pentium chip designed to speed up multimedia applications. But to take full advantage of that chip, you'll have to wait for--and buy--new software. You can buy an MMX PC just after New Year's, but you won't get full advantage of it until around Halloween.
Then there is Apple's plan to adopt the highly regarded NextStep operating system that it just acquired. Apple says it will be ready in late 1997 but won't be compatible with existing Mac applications until 1998. Mac users can cross the new Mac operating system off their 1997 wish list, and Bill Gates will have plenty of time to come up with something that's at least good enough to keep Apple's market share from growing.
The digital versatile disc will hit the streets in 1997, but the ramp-up will be slow. A DVD, essentially an improved CD-ROM, can store between 4.7 and 17 gigabytes, depending on how it's formatted. At a minimum, that means the ability to store up to 135 minutes of full-motion video--more than enough for a full-length movie.
Once again, the hardware, which will be pricey at first, will be of no value until software vendors start publishing DVD titles. By next Christmas you'll see very sophisticated DVD games on the market, some built around full-length movies. However, if the software industry stays true to form, you'll also see plenty of shovelware--DVD discs that are little more than collections of old CD-ROM titles that didn't do very well the first time around.
Still, DVD will be a welcome replacement to the tired, 680-megabyte CD-ROM standard.
Another innovation to hit the shelves in 1997 is the so-called NetPC. These devices, expected to start at under $500, will typically lack disk drives and local processing power but can be used to log on to the Internet or company networks. They, along with WebTV and other devices that let you access the Net from your PC, will attract some users.
But don't expect them to put much of a dent in PC sales. Most people will still want local storage and the ability to run their own software. Frankly, I suspect that most sales won't come from new users or people ready to throw away their PCs, but from existing PC users wanting to try something new.
There will be some major changes on the software front in 1997. Microsoft will soon release Office 97, its suite of productivity programs that includes Word, the Excel spreadsheet, Access database-management program and PowerPoint presentation software.
A typical installation of this program takes up 121 megabytes, so expect 1997 to be a good year for the hard disk industry. Even the data files are bulky. A 1,000-character Word file created with the preliminary version of Office 97 took up 34,000 bytes of disk space. The same size text file occupies 1,024 bytes.
Like a lot of programs that will come out in 1997, the new version of Office is designed to take full advantage of the Internet. It's long been possible to use Word and other word-processing programs to edit Web pages, but Office 97 strives to virtually eliminate the distinction between desktop applications and the Internet.
For example, if you type a Web site address within Word, it will automatically create a hot link to that site. Double click on the link and Word will load up your Internet software, connect you to the Net and bring up the site.
There are similar Internet tricks in Lotus SmartSuite97 and new versions of Corel WordPerfect Suite, but whether people want this level of integration between their desktop applications and the Internet remains to be seen--especially by the vast majority of users who, even if they use the Internet, aren't likely to create or edit their own Web pages.
Microsoft is expected to release an enhanced version of Windows 95, dubbed Windows 97, which, among other things, is likely to offer an optional user interface that will give your PC's desktop the same look and feel as the World Wide Web. I don't think that's necessarily a good idea. Already, we're starting to see a lot of PC and Mac consumer software abandon the use of pull-down menus in favor of custom-designed icons. They may be prettier to look at, but because each program is different, they can be a lot harder to use.
1997 will see continued growth in the Internet, but its use still won't be ubiquitous. From all the attention it gets, you'd think the Internet was as popular as the VCR, but at least 85% of Americans still don't have home access.
Yes, millions of people will start using the Internet in 1997, but a lot of those people will stop using it before the year ends. I expect a bit of a backlash in 1997 as consumers discover that the World Wide Web--despite its vast offerings--can also be frustratingly slow, full of blind alleys and not all that relevant to their lives.
Long-term, the Internet will flourish as a mechanism for information and transaction services, but Web surfing as a form of mass-market entertainment isn't likely to catch on.
1997 should be a banner year for Java, the programming language from Sun Microsystems that makes it possible to run software via the Internet or corporate networks. One appeal of Java is that it's "device independent." The same program can run on PCs, Macs and even brain dead NetPCs connected to the Internet.
With Java, the Internet becomes something of an operating system. Instead of having to buy all your software, you'll be able to access it via the Net. Some Java programs will be free, but for others you'll have to subscribe or pay per use. Some software companies like that idea because it lets them extract regular payments from their customers, but I prefer owning my own software rather than having to pay rent.
Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com. His World Wide Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com