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In '97, look for faster chips, MMX, DVD-ROMs, more

TWO YEARS AGO, if I had predicted that major corporations would be including Web page addresses in their TV commercials, most people would have thought I was crazy. And the rest would have asked, "What the heck is a Web page?"

That's what makes computer technology so fascinating. You never know what's going to happen. Of course, this has never stopped me from making predictions before, so as 1997 begins, I offer a few educated guesses about neat stuff that could make a difference in your life over the coming year.

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First, you'll see some hot new computers with built-in TV and telephony features. While 1996 failed to produce any major breakthroughs in PC design, some of the so-called "convergence" technology that began to appear last year will mature in 1997 and produce really interesting machines for the home and small office.

One driving force will be Intel's MMX technology, a multimedia enhancement to the Pentium chip that powers most of today's desktop computers. MMX adds instructions to the standard Pentium design that make it easier to process graphics, sound, 3-D animation and video. That means you'll find some really hot game machines on the market, although it may take a while for software developers to catch up with the new hardware. When they do, look for PC's that can outperform the Nintendo 64 and handle high-quality, real-time video conferencing.

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Along with more powerful computers, we'll see the first production runs of DVD-ROM drives. These devices promise to unite the PC and TV, with their ability to store and regurgitate absolutely humongous amounts of data. The first generation will handle 4.7 gigabytes of information, seven times as much as today's CDs. The second generation will double that capacity.

Now that the big entertainment conglomerates and equipment makers have resolved disputes over copy protection, you'll see DVD-ROMs as stand-alone consumer products that can play an entire, 135-minute motion picture from a single disk with movie theater clarity (and sound tracks in different languages). They'll bring the same capability to new multimedia PCs, along with some incredible video-based games and reference works. The five-CD national phone directory will be a relic of the past.

Digital photography will be another killer application for homes and small businesses. Desktop scanners are already hot items, and even now, some manufacturers are building photo readers into their PCs.

Digital color cameras that can hook up to your computer are currently available for as little as $200, although better units still cost three to four times that much. Look for prices to drop and quality to improve as more people start to realize that it's dumb to pay 7 or 8 bucks to develop a roll of film when you can dump your pictures into your computer, edit them on the screen, put them on your Web page and print them. If you don't want to give up the quality of traditional photographic film, Kodak and other players in the market will copy your photos to disk as well as make regular prints

Since most of us like to look at photos when we're not in front of our computers, the success of digital photography will also depend on continued improvements in low-cost printers. Color ink-jets have improved by orders of magnitude in the last year, and many of them are capable of producing excellent photo reproductions. Likewise, user-friendly programs such as Microsoft's Picture It and Adobe's Photo Deluxe are taking the mystery out of editing and retouching our photos.

If the explosion of the World Wide Web dominated computer industry news in 1996, the coming year is likely to determine whether the Web will truly become a mainstream medium. For many home computer users, getting connected to the Internet is still too hard, and people who don't have computers with modems have been shut out entirely. But Web TV may change that.

The Web TV, which made its debut in time for the 1996 Christmas shopping season, is a small, self-contained computer and modem that hooks up to a TV set and your phone line. All you need to make it work is a remote control -- it automatically dials an Internet provider, signs you on and displays Web pages on your TV set.

I was skeptical when I first heard about the $300 gadgets, but the manufacturers have overcome many of the technical problems that make it hard to display computer-generated data crisply on televisions sets that can't provide the same resolution as computer monitors. In short, Web TV works, and with a $100 add-on remote keyboard, you can surf the web and send and receive electronic mail for a lot less money than it would take to buy a PC.

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Unfortunately, I doubt that ordinary phone lines will be able to transmit data fast enough to make the Web into a real living room entertainment medium. If we're going to pump digital information into our homes at high speeds, the most likely source will be our cable TV providers. They've already spent hundreds of millions to convert their aging systems into two-way interactive streets that can theoretically move data orders of magnitude faster than phone lines.

But there are a couple of inherent problems with cable. First, to make it work you'll need to install a network interface card in your PC and buy a cable modem. In 1997 we'll find out whether cable companies can deliver that equipment, set up their customers' computers, and deliver service that's reasonably priced and reliable. If they can, it's good news for consumers and bad news for the phone company.

So stay tuned.

Pub Date: 1/05/97


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