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The Future Is Now

'Star Trek' tech leaps out of sci-fi flicks--and into the palm of your hand.

A nother year is upon us, bringing with it a new wave of hot technologies and trends that hold great potential to change the way we live and how we do business. While some, like e-commerce, have been around awhile, recent innovations have breathed new life into old ideas. Others, like information appliances, are untested and still await mainstream acceptance.

  • Smart cards: A familiar sight in Europe and, more recently, on U.S. college campuses and military bases, smart cards are poised to make their debut with consumers nationwide. Unlike magnetic-strip cards, smart cards use tamper-resistant microchips that can store bank balances as well as ID information and customer histories, and can be debited by a card reader without calling a central bank for authorization. Eager to sell merchants and consumers on the idea of the smart card, American Express and Visa International have taken another step toward an international interoperability standard by investing in Proton World International, a smart card distributor that has already provided 30 million cards to fifteen countries outside the United States.
  • Convergence: Combining pre-existing technologies into a single product is not a new idea. But 1999 will see the introduction of "information appliances," devices which meld the features of cellular phones with handheld PCs like 3Com's immensely popular PalmPilot. Aside from eliminating the need for a briefcase brimming with cell phones, pagers, notebook computers and the like, information appliances will allow mobile users to synchronize and update information via a digital cellular link with networks and databases back at the office. While this technology is still in the early stages of development, information appliances from Nokia and Philips are already on the market, and a number of software companies, including Starfish, are planning to release operating systems for these devices.
  • E-books: The next step in the evolution of printed material, electronic books have finally arrived. These devices may be as portable as paper-based books, but the resemblance ends there. After purchasing a leather-covered e-book reader, users download text and graphic content from the Internet for a fee, turning pages, underlining key text and changing typefaces on the high resolution screen with the touch of a button. Understandably, publishers are enthusiastic about the low overhead cost of e-book content, which eliminates the need for printing and distribution, but readers may be reluctant to shell out upwards of $200 for e-book readers from Softbook Press and NuvoMedia. One company, Peanut Press LLC in Sudbury, Massachusetts, is coming at e-books from another angle. Instead of requiring users to purchase a proprietary reader, Peanut is offering downloads of contemporary fiction books to PalmPilot handheld PCs, which have more than 2.2 million users. Peanut plans to offer downloads compatible with other types of handheld PCs in the near future.
  • E-commerce: Buying and selling goods and services on the Web is routine for many, but some fraud-wary consumers are still reluctant to send their credit card numbers over the Internet. Both Netscape and Microsoft Web browsers come with built-in encryption features, but new digital certificates and signatures will make online transactions even more secure. Offered by security companies such as GTE CyberTrust and tested by several banks, this technology allows trading partners to authenticate their identities and digitally sign debt authorizations for purchases.

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This article was originally published in the January 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Future Is Now.

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