Another year, another fascinating chapter in the computer world. In 1999, we saw desktop computer prices take a nose dive, feather-light mininotebooks grow in popularity and PDAs with wireless Internet access come onto the scene. Now more than ever, specialized computing solutions exist for every possible user, from the desktop worker to the true road warrior to the occasional traveler just wanting remote access to the Internet and e-mail.
What can you expect from this arena in 2000? How will the box sitting on your desk differ from years past? What nifty microcomputer will you be carrying around next year? Many of the new form factors of recent days will go mainstream next year. And other computing concepts--well, we'll just have to wait and see . . .
Heather Page is the former technology editor for Entrepreneur.
On The Desktop
Hold on to your hard drives: The PC in front of you will get even bigger and better next year. Processors will get faster, hard drives will get bigger, and additional features will multiply like bunnies.
One thing that won't take on bigger proportions: price. PCs for less than $1,000 will remain extremely popular, and prices for the majority of other PC models are only expected to get lower. However, experts encourage small businesses to consider passing on the current trend toward cheaper or even free PCs. The boxes that the majority of the small-business market should consider next year will start in the $1,200 range (including the monitor).
"PCs for under $1K are a nice price point on the consumer side," says Kevin Knox, research director with The Gartner Group, an IT research firm. "But will most [small businesses] find PCs in the $500 and $600 range good systems to invest in and work on down the road? Probably not. In most cases, you get what you pay for."
One of the factors contributing to the price of desktop PCs is the current trend toward purchasing attractive, space-saving flat-panel monitors. Manufactured by NEC, Samsung and ViewSonic, among others, these thin monitors typically hover in the $1,000 range or higher, and experts don't expect their prices to drop significantly any time soon. Even so, some say that flat-panel monitors are starting to win over many PC owners, thanks to their slimmer designs and environmentally friendly features.
Experts have differing opinions about the proliferation of flat panels in 2000. "Flat-panel displays are going to become much more mainstream next year," predicts Rob Enderle, a PC analyst with market research firm Giga Information Group.
Knox doesn't think so. "These [LCD monitors] are still very high-end solutions," he says. "The 17-inch CRT [monitor] is going to be around for awhile until LCDs reach the $300 to $500 price point, which won't be for another two or two and a half years."
Despite their high prices, flat panels are the best solution for employees working long hours in front of their computers because they emit lower radiation than their CRT counterparts. Additionally, thin monitors are ideal for workplaces short on space.
Computer monitors utilizing digital technology will also become more prevalent in the coming year. Many LCD monitors are using digital interfaces already, and a number of CRT manufacturers will release monitors with digital technology as well, making them much more plug-and-play.
In the notebook computer arena, thin is in. Notebook manufacturers from Toshiba to Dell to Sony are pushing new lines of ultra-slim notebooks called mini-notebooks. Mininotebooks tip the scales at around 3 pounds and boast decent processors and multimedia features. Some current examples: Dell's Latitude CS mininotebook (http://www.dell.com), Toshiba's Portégé 3110CT (http://www.toshiba.com) and IBM's Thinkpad 240 (http://www.ibm.com).
Still, while experts expect to see skinny minis gaining in popularity, they recognize they're not going to take the place of users' notebook and desktop computers. They remain more of a complement to other machines because they simply don't have enough oomph to stand on their own as complete computing solutions.
Before investing in these new models, take into consideration you'll be making some significant trade-offs for their small size and weight, Knox says. Generally, their screens are too small for presentation use, and their processors aren't up-to-speed to run many leading applications. Plus, the smaller-sized keyboard is typically very cramped and difficult to work on.
Most likely, these shortcomings will improve next year. Still, Knox isn't truly sold on the latest crop of mininotebooks. "Would I buy one for a small business?" he asks. "In a small enterprise, where there's not a lot of money to be spent, this is a secondary device. In most cases, you'll have to buy a desktop and one of these devices as well. You'll need both for the utmost storage, function and portability."
Knox says if you're a mobile user, the best way to go is with a standard laptop with a larger keyboard, better presentation features and a heftier processor to get your work done. But if you want something thin and light for occasional use in conjunction with your desktop computer, mininotebooks may be just the thing for you. These are truly niche products for people who travel often and don't need a full-featured notebook, yet still want something a little more substantial than a handheld PC or PDA.
And Smaller Still . . .
Can't imagine carrying around a computer in your pocket? It's time to stretch your imagination. Experts predict Windows CE and Palm OS-based handhelds and PDAs will become ubiquitous small-business tools in the coming months, thanks to their strong performance, myriad new features and attractive price tags.
Expect a number of new manufacturers, including IBM and Microsoft, to enter the handheld PC and palmtop market by year-end, Enderle says. In the coming months, these little organizers will only improve in terms of their battery life, performance and price. Color displays will also become increasingly available.
However, keep in mind you'll sacrifice battery performance to live in the land of color. Current models sporting color screens include the Compaq Aero 2100 (http://www.compaq.com) and the Hewlett-Packard Jornada 420 (http://www.hp.com).
Increased functionality and improvements in design are making handhelds and PDAs a real hit on the business front. "Executives love these devices," Enderle marvels. "They have a longer battery life than laptops, they're cheaper and they're sturdier."
A handheld PC may become your best friend, but keep in mind that, like notebook computers, these are secondary devices, and you'll likely need more computing power to handle your general business tasks. Enderle says using a desktop computer as an adjunct to your PDA is quite possibly the best solution--even better than the desktop/laptop combination.
"These [two solutions] may be more reliable [than laptops] and offer better performance for the price," Enderle says. "Plus, they're extremely portable devices. These facts provide a more compelling argument for business users to look at them in the coming year."
Of course, the decision is yours; if you're still using the standard desktop computer and full-featured notebook, these may very well be the best solutions for you. But considering the abundance of options and improvements available, it's worth your time and effort to investigate some of the new flat-panel monitors, handhelds, palm tops and mininotebooks breaking onto the scene in 2000. You could be surprised by what they have to offer.
You've Got Style
Once Apple asked the question "Why just beige?," there was no turning back. PCs with slim casings, bright colors and all-in-one designs are making big waves in the computer world. This anything-goes design trend isn't specifically aimed at the small-business market, but it's certainly attracting a lot of attention.
Ignited by the release of Apple's iMac last year, PCs with unique styles and colors like amethyst, topaz and sapphire will continue to roll out next year. All-in-one PCs--some of the most notable to date include Gateway's Profile PC and NEC's Z1 compact, metallic box--will also become hot commodities. These PCs' typically slim designs often mean compromises on the technology under the hood. But for entrepreneurs who want to work in style, they'll certainly make an impact.
Giga Information Group, http://www.gigaweb.com