BUZZWORDS INEVITABLY accompany change. Just five years ago, most folks thought a telecommuter was someone who worked for the phone company, and a home office was where you balanced your checkbook. Today, the dominance of desktop computing and Internet access is giving way to what pundits are calling the post-PC era. In this brave new world, Internet-connected devices promise to make your workdays more productive and your business more profitable, whether you’re in the office or away.
The post-PC era arguably began in 1996 with the advent of the first popular personal digital assistant (PDA), the Pilot (soon renamed PalmPilot), which provided e-mail access in conjunction with a wired modem. Today, Palm OS and other handhelds are joined by a slew of wireless data options. There are modems from Novatel Wireless and Sierra Wireless and flat-rate wireless service plans from OmniSky and Go. America; Web-browsing phones from Qualcomm, Neopoint, and others that work with Sprint PCS’s nationwide smart phone service; two-way paging services from PageNet and SkyTel; and many more examples in every category. Even in-dash computers with global positioning system (GPS) capability are available, and General Motors recently announced plans to offer “Web cars” from which you can check your e-mail.
This year, however, will be marked by a wide range of next-generation devices entering the marketplace–referred to as Net devices, Web appliances, PC appliances, and the like–targeted to consumers, home workers, and mobile users. In the coming years, as prices fall and products become more specialized, we’ll each own a variety of both mobile and fixed devices. To give you a sense of your options today, and what the near future will bring, we’ll take you through a day in the life of the home office worker in the new millennium.
RISE AND SHINE
At the start of your day, you roll out of bed, and long before you sit down to work, you’re already participating in the post-PC world.
Today Since you’re training for a big 10K race, you hop on your Web-enabled treadmill, log on simultaneously with a friend, and conduct a virtual workout session. Displayed graphically on a nearby computer screen, the session includes a sprint to the finish, which you win. This capability is available on a wide range of fitness equipment from Icon Health & Fitness (www.iconfitness.com).
After a shower, you head to the kitchen to fix yourself some breakfast. You’re expecting an important e-mail message from a client, so you touch the screen of your Netpliance i-opener ($199; 888-467-3637, www. netpliance.net) to automatically connect to the Internet. About the size of a toaster oven, the device includes a small LCD and keyboard.
You type a quick response as the coffee brews, then press another onscreen icon for the latest news, including stories specific to your industry. As you head to the dining room with your cereal and coffee, you press a third icon to select some music downloaded from the Web.
Sitting at your elbow in the dining room is a Cidco MailStation ($150 plus $9.95 per month for e-mail service; 408-779-1162, www.cidco. com). Smaller than the i-opener, it lives to do one thing–send and receive e-mail. Another message arrives; you put aside your mug and bowl, read the message, and type a quick response.
The only limitation of this present-day scenario is that both the i-opener and MailStation require you to use proprietary dial-up services and e-mail accounts. However, Boundless Technologies hopes to convince Internet service providers (ISPs) to sell or give away its forthcoming iBrow device (pricing not available at press time; 800-231-5445, www.boundless. com/ibrow). Boundless hopes you’ll place multiple iBrows throughout your home, all connected to the same account. A company spokesperson says several major national ISPs, as well as some smaller ones, will offer the device by the time you read this.
Soon Within a year, you’ll be able to connect all your home-based Internet devices to an inexpensive home server. This server, or residential gateway, will store information and connect to the Web via an analog or broadband connection.
Although first-generation gateways are available today–notably Web and home entertainment combos from Panja (prices start at $2,000; 800-222-0193, www.panja.com)–they’re expensive and geared to connecting home electronics devices to the Internet via broadband connections. Ericsson, Nokia, and Electrolux, as well as a handful of start-up companies, are developing affordable, multipurpose servers and gateways that will connect everything from your desktop smart phone to refrigerator and other kitchen appliances.
Although consumer demand isn’t strong, Ericsson and Electrolux promise to bring products to market next year that, among other things, let you link electronics such as stereos to download music from the Web, and check your household temperature and adjust it from afar. The latter is already possible with home control products from X10 (www.x10.com) and IBM’s Home Director line (www.pc.ibm.com/homedirector), for instance.
AT YOUR DESK
Time to get down to work. Although you have a traditional desktop computer in your office, you use it only for heavy computational tasks and graphics design–unless such jobs make up a big part of your day, you’ll probably have the system hidden away until you need it and rely on multiple smaller devices for moment-to-moment tasks.
Today Since your workspace isn’t dominated by a big computer and monitor, spread out on your desk are … paper documents. Although the paperless office has been a dream since the 1950s, paper will continue to be with us well into the future. Besides, most workers admit they like working with hard copies.
While the desktop computer is gone, there’s still a PC on your desk. Specifically, it’s in the phone. The iPhone from InfoGear Technology ($399; 650-568-2900, www. infogear.com) isn’t much bigger than a standard corded two-line phone, but includes an LCD screen and small keyboard for checking e-mail and surfing the Web. The iPhone automatically checks for e-mail when you’re not using the voice line and alerts you to new e-mails with a blinking light just like your answering machine’s.
Soon You’ll be using your desktop phone or other Web device for light-duty application work, thanks to application service providers (ASPs)–companies that provide Web-based productivity applications on demand. (See the article “Leave the Laptop at Home” in this issue’s Up Front section.)
By the same token, since your desktop smart phone isn’t based on. Windows, it will not be running programs such as Microsoft Excel. Instead, you’ll log on to an ASP such as Damango (www.damango.com) to access its free Java-based applications and data storage, or any of the scores of specialized ASPs, such as NetLedger’s (www.netledger.com) online accounting software.
About four or five years down the road, all the rooms in your home may well have a large, flat-panel screen mounted on the wall. (Technically, jumbo screens like Sony’s 42-inch gas plasma display are available now, but they cost around $50,000 apiece.) In the future, they are likely to connect to the Web via your home server.
ON THE ROAD
Because they’re small and sexy, mobile gadgets get more than their fair share of attention. Realistically, most home office users won’t rely on more than one or two portable devices, though we’ll stretch things a bit to mention a few more of your options.
Today It’s time to drive to a client’s site. Since you’re not sure how to get there, you ask your Clarion AutoPC ($1,299 for base unit; 800-462-5274, www. autopc.com). The optional Odyssey software ($200; InfoGation, 619-535-9870, www.infogation.com), which works with a GPS receiver, not only provides turn-by-turn directions, but speaks them to you as you drive, providing enough warning to switch lanes and put on your turn signals.
Missed a turn? AutoPC says so and guides you back on track. As you pull into the parking lot, you check e-mail by logging on with your NeoPoint 1000 smart phone ($399; 858-458-2800, www.neopoint.com). You have an urgent message, which you could respond to via e-mail, but you opt to call instead.
While meeting with the client, you have a question about the firm’s inventory. She queries the corporate database with her Palm VII ($499 plus wireless service fees; Palm Computing, 800-881-7256, www.palm.com). Her assistant’s beeper goes off, but this is no normal page because his Motorola PageWriter 2000x (prices vary by paging vendor; www.mot.com/MIMS/MSPG/SmartPagers) has delivered an urgent e-mail message. He types a reply on the pager’s petite keyboard. (Pagers may be usurped by smart phones, but as of yet, no smart phone delivers full paging capability.)
Soon By the time you read this, several vendors promise real-time traffic reports delivered to your in-car computer. SmartRoute Systems (www. smartroute.com) and PageNet (www. pagenet.com) claim to offer “traffic-aware” routing directions to help you avoid trouble spots such as road construction and accidents.
In addition, at press time Etak launched its Traveler Information system (www.etaktraffic.com), which works with GPSs to deliver real-time traffic reports in 36 cities, expanding to 64 in the coming months. Today, the service is available through content providers such as Saraide (www.saraide.com).
While you’re away from home, you realize you can’t remember whether you turned off the stove. Any Web-enabled mobile device will be able to link to your home server, which monitors all your home systems and appliances. If there’s a problem, you can fix it remotely. In this case, you turn off the stove, and while you’re at it, adjust the temperature in the house or even your hot tub. Firms such as Coactive Networks (www.coactive.com) are trying to sell such capabilities to utility companies, which, in turn, would offer them to you.
You can also also look forward to greatly increased wireless data transfer speeds. Currently, data transmission speeds range from 4Kbps to about 19.2Kbps. However, new technologies such as General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) and third-generation (3G) W-CDMA will soon provide broadband access at up to 384Kbps.
GPRS should be available in metropolitan areas in the U.S. by 2001, with 3G following 12 to 18 months later. Such advances mean you’ll soon be browsing the Web and accessing e-mail (including file attachments) from your wireless handheld or smart phone without long download times. (See “Here Come the Data Phones,” January, page 17.)
Since you’ve been calling on clients most of the day, you haven’t checked your e-mail. When you get home, the light is blinking on your Cidco MailStation; you check messages, respond, then finally call it a day.
Today As has been the case for centuries, you turn to a good book to relax. However, there isn’t a shred of paper in post-PC-era books. Instead, you put a device such as NuvoMedia’s Rocket eBook ($199; www.nuvomedia.com) into its cradle and download the newest best-seller from the Web. Recently, Barnes & Noble began selling Rocket eBook and increasing its collection of downloadable titles; Amazon.com and other online booksellers are following suit. Moreover, Microsoft says it plans to make “tens of thousands” of e-book titles available this year.
Next, you switch on your television. WebTV Networks (Microsoft; hardware available from a variety of vendors; www.webtv.com) recently announced interactive versions of “Jeopardy!” and other popular game shows.
You can also enjoy a picture-in-picture view of a Web connection that will enhance your news and sports viewing. Increasingly, set-top box vendors such as N@ppliance Inc.’s Advanced Interactive TV (AITV) (available from ISPs; www.n-appliance.com) let you watch television in one window and browse the Web in another.
As you’re watching, you remember that you need to do some shopping. You flick a button on your remote and your TV program switches to full-screen Web access. In a moment, you’re browsing the site of your favorite clothier.
Your kids and spouse arrive home and it’s time for some family fun. How about a karaoke session? By the time you read this, LG Electronics has promised to release the iGST CyberPro 5050 (pricing was not available at press time; www.lgeus.com), a karaoke-enabled set-top box that downloads music from the Web.
Soon While most set-top boxes currently rely on relatively slow 56Kbps modems, they and other home-based Web devices will become more convenient as fast Internet access becomes more prevalent. While it now takes about 15 minutes to download a single song using a modem connection, for instance, a broadband connection promises to let you download an entire album in the same time.
In fact, various set-top and software vendors already are demonstrating audio and video portals that will play movies and music–delivered from the Web–on your TV. Other improvements will focus on home servers for storing downloaded music.
Finally, as you go to bed, you make a mental note to finish that budget spreadsheet tomorrow–on your PC, of course. No specialized appliance may ever match the versatility-to-price ratio of a personal computer, but taking advantage of tomorrow’s wider range of options and alternatives will make both your home and home office life better.