Walt Mossberg

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Where’s My Jetpack?

When I started writing this column back in 1992, the world of personal technology was positively primitive compared with where we stand today. So armed with the benefit of 15 years of hindsight, and in this final installment of the Mossberg Report, I’d like to take a look back on the distance we’ve traveled in personal technology over the past decade and a half, as well as make a few predictions about where things might be headed.

In 1992 the Internet wasn’t available to the general public. There were no iPods or any other portable digital music players. Cellphones were big, bulky and analog, mainly used in cars in the U.S. The first consumer digital cameras had just arrived: crude models that cost $800, worked only in black and white, and held just 32 images.

Microsoft was offering the clumsy Windows 3.1, which seemed to crash if you sneezed, and many people were still using the geeky and limited DOS operating system on their “IBM-compatible” PCs. Apple’s technology was way ahead of Windows, but the company would soon enter a period of management mediocrity and product paralysis. And there were scores of PC makers in the U.S., most of them now defunct. The hottest one was Compaq, today a mere brand name for Hewlett-Packard. Dell was still an upstart.

Personal computers were typically sold without modems, networking ports or stereo sound. They had awful, limited color video, far short of what a cheap TV could produce. Too often their designers assumed PC buyers were techies or hobbyists, willing and able to perform complicated hardware and software upgrades and tweaks.

Then and now my main criteria for judging digital consumer products have been simplicity, ease of use and reliability — a sort of index for the burden on the user. And in 1992 most products failed miserably on that scale. They required far too much attention, knowledge and effort by users when theoretically they were supposed to do just the opposite — namely, to make their lives easier.

By around 2001, when the current major operating systems, Windows XP and Apple’s Mac OS X, made their debuts, personal technology had vastly improved. Many of the rough edges had been sanded off. The Mac had long been “plug and play,” and Windows was much closer to that goal. Both systems were fairly stable. The iPod arrived that year, and digital cameras and cell phones — by then well established and growing sleeker by the year — began a rapid evolution that added features and cut prices.

And by then the World Wide Web had changed everything. It had vastly enriched the experience of computing, adding information, entertainment, communication and commerce on a grand scale. Sure, too few people in America had real broadband or wireless networking by 2001, but the balance was getting better. The burden of use for personal computers and related gadgets was trending lower.

Enter the security crisis, which all but destroyed that welcome momentum. There had been viruses for many years, of course, including some big attacks in the 1990s. But over the past five years, the security problem has morphed into a major hassle for people who own and use Windows computers. Viruses and other malicious software programs are still with us, but now they’ve been joined by new categories of pernicious technologies, especially spyware, adware, and fake email and Web sites designed to steal your privacy, your money and even your identity. Spam has gone from a nuisance to a plague.

And the Internet, for all its numerous benefits, has become an engine for this digital onslaught. In the physical world, it isn’t hard to stay out of bad neighborhoods and avoid the company of crooks. But in cyberspace, it’s harder to read the signs — digital criminals, who range from vandals to organized thieves, mingle invisibly with the public in a world where everyone is easily connected.

Today, warding off the myriad threats online takes more and more time, money and effort than ever before. You have to run multiple security programs, interpret all their warnings and alerts, tell them what to do when they detect suspicious activity, and consistently update them. It’s a real hassle, one that seriously interferes with the productivity, and the pleasure, computers can and should provide.

In fact, the burden of using a Windows computer is higher now than it was in 2001. By contrast, Apple’s Macintosh is easier to use than ever, partly because it has so far remained free from viruses, spyware and adware — except for a few minor cases. After stagnating in the mid-’90s, Apple’s software and hardware are once again markedly superior to those of Windows PCs.

But even Mac users have to contend with spam and must learn to avoid fake Web sites designed to steal sensitive financial information. And users of both platforms must also contend with a welter of restrictions on the use of digital content such as music and videos.

So where are we heading?

I believe that in the future the Internet will become more like the electrical grid, a behind-the-scenes platform to which all manner of gadgets will be directly connected, each taking some power and intelligence from the network to perform its task. While personal computers won’t go away, they won’t be the main way to get online, or even needed as intermediaries by many devices. Whenever you watch TV or make a phone call, you’ll be on the Internet, though you won’t be browsing the Web in the manner you do on a PC. This will open up all sorts of new features and interactivity.

Even unlikely gadgets will be connected. Your microwave oven, for instance, will use the Internet to quietly download information that will allow it to recognize the bar codes or radio tags on packaged food products and cook them appropriately.

The star of this new world will be the cell phone — or, more accurately, the device formerly known as the cell phone. Already, some high-end phones, like Palm’s Treo, are essentially mini computers, complete with keyboards and expandable memory. They do many of the things for which people formerly required laptops.

These so-called smart phones can surf the Web, and send and receive e-mail and instant messages, at broadband speeds. They can take, display and edit photos and movies; download and play music, videos and TV shows; play ever more sophisticated games; and even view and edit Microsoft Office documents.

I expect these capabilities to be pushed down to phones that cost less. New competitors will enter the business of making phones and the software and services that run on them.

For these smart phones to flourish, however, they will have to get much simpler to use. The burden on the user will have to drop sharply. Complicated user interfaces will have to be replaced with better ones. Reliability must improve. And the stranglehold on innovation now imposed by all-powerful wireless carriers will have to be broken or loosened. Also, the security problems that plague the PC will have to be headed off somehow. Already, the digital criminals are trying to target cell phones.

But I remain optimistic. The digital revolution can’t be stopped, and the next 15 years should see as many exciting developments as the past 15 have.

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