Seventeen years ago I bought my first PC. It was a Radio Shack Color Computer with a whopping 16K of memory, no disk drive and no monitor (I hooked it up to an old TV).
I paid $800 for the package -- including a tape recorder for storing programs and a 300-baud modem -- and I thought it was magic. Why? Because thanks to that computer, I could write a story at home and send it to my newspaper's computer system.
If I had to cover a late meeting, I didn't have to drive to the newsroom to write my story and then drive home. Because I worked for an afternoon paper with a 7 a.m. deadline, I could do my reporting during the day, spend a couple of hours with my two young boys before bedtime and finish the story later that night.
Thanks to the computer, I was no longer chained to a particular location -- my office -- just because that was where our writing terminals happened to be. Not that I gave up on the office -- I still commute every day. But the PC allowed me to warp space and time when I wanted to -- the spare bedroom where I kept my computer was suddenly an extension of the newsroom, and the time I would have spent behind the wheel was now my own.
I'm still working late at night, 20 miles from the office, writing this column on a PC that's 500 times as fast as my first machine. Admittedly, this computer is a bit of overkill for pure writing, since I haven't learned to type 500 times as fast. But unlike that old computer, it is connected to the Internet -- which most people had never heard of in 1983 -- through a gadget called a cable modem -- which no one had even dreamed about.
Thus wired, I'm able to satisfy a whim of curiosity in seconds by logging onto a Web site called Newsengin.com, located 100 miles away in Narberth, Pa., where a cost-of-living calculator tells me that my original $800 PC cost me the equivalent of $1,494.67 in today's dollars.
In 1983, I would have had to drive to the office to look that up or waited till the next morning to call the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Probably, I wouldn't have bothered, and that little nugget of information would have been lost to all of us.
Communication and information -- that's what technology has bought us in the closing days of the 20th century. Even in 1983, no one outside of a few visionaries predicted how wired the world would become, or how quickly it would happen. We'll see even more of this in the years ahead -- more information than we want, exchanged more quickly than we can possibly process it.
What can we expect in the next year or so? You don't have to look further than the online shopping stampede of 1999 to see one corner of the future. Pioneers such as Amazon.com were joined this year by hundreds of established retailers and thousands of start-ups that offered us the opportunity to warp space and time by shopping from our computer screens instead of fighting crowds at the mall.
Web shopping certainly isn't a finished product: It's still too hard to find help, servers get overloaded, and sites that are overnight successes can't process their orders fast enough. And for many buyers, shopping is still a tactile experience -- you don't want to buy a suit or a dress without feeling the fabric, and a computer screen still provides at best an approximation of color. It's doubtful that technology will ever replace our eyes and sense of touch.
But if you want a commodity -- a particular book, a certain Nikon camera, a couple of CDs or a car -- the Web will be the place to shop, particularly with a new generation of ''bots'' that can scan hundreds of online merchants to find the best price.
Yes, I did mention cars. My wildest prediction is that in the next few years, automobile showrooms will become just that -- places to see cars and try them out. Once we know what we want, the Web will find us the best price. It's starting to happen.
We'll also see a revolution in the music business -- not through the sale of compact discs online but through the sale of music itself. This, too, is already happening. Millions of people have converted their CDs to digital MP3 files that can be exchanged over the Internet, and scores of MP3 sites have sprung up to promote new bands and a handful of recognized artists.
Once the recording industry gets over its piracy paranoia -- or comes up with a scheme that protects intellectual property without gouging consumers -- many of us will be downloading music on PCs and storing it on portable players. The convenience and savings are too great to pass up over the long run.
We'll also see changes in how we wire ourselves up. The year 2000 will see a phenomenal growth in cheap Web ''appliances,'' simple screen-and-keyboard gadgets that do the job. These won't replace personal computers -- most of them will wind up as secondary machines in places such as our bedrooms, dens and kitchens, where we'd have PCs now if they were small and cheap enough.
The Web will be more portable, too. By the end of next year, half of the cellular phones sold will have e-mail or browsing capability. This might be an idea that seems great at the time but turns out to be useless for most of us. Only time will tell.
Likewise, the year 2000 will see the emergence of the long-awaited ''set-top boxes'' that hook up to our TV sets and turn cable companies into full-fledged interactive providers of information and entertainment. The lines between TV and the Web will blur even further. We already have interactive shows and TV games in a few test markets -- in the future you'll have a lot more control over what you see and hear.
It will be fun to watch.
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