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A spectacular new era

March 20, 2004 15:02 IST

For most of us, the '90s felt like an era of breathtaking, unstoppable change. It was, after all, the decade when we wonderingly learnt to navigate the Internet (does anyone remember life in the Stone Age before the Net?).

For others who like to stay in touch, (I wasn't the best at that I admit) it was the age when the mobile phone began to alter lifestyles.

Well, here's the hottest news for those who felt that the '90s were an era of whizzing, jarring change: you ain't seen nothing yet! On the way are mobile phones that will be a cross between a digital camera and a home entertainment centre. Or, would you rather splurge on iPod, the newest MP3 system that's turning Apple into a hot stock once again?

OK, mobile phones with cameras take lousy pictures. But the new generation of phones about to go on sale could change all that. Or, if all that seems too passé how about plugging in to BlackBerry, a cross between a PDA and a mobile phone that has become the system of choice for professionals on the move in Europe.

And, if you are easily bored, how about carrying a personal media centre wherever you go. It includes music, and possibly a small video player and a radio.

This week the world's top geeks and nerds have gathered in Hanover, Germany for Cebit, one of the tech industry's top annual jamborees. A few weeks ago the honchos of the mobile phone world had gathered for their biggest annual outing in Cannes (always pleasant place to meet even if it's a bit chilly in February).

One common factor united both meetings: the unveiling of spectacular new devices that could revolutionise our lives in scores of different ways.

Back in 2000 when the Internet boom turned to bust it seemed that the promise of the new techie era had been oversold by it prophets. It is becoming increasingly clear that we were living through a false dawn at the time. The world had its new technologies but it wasn't quite sure how they would be used.

Now we are moving forward at an entirely different pace. New technologies like wi-fi and wi-max are being tested around the world.

This time the newest life-changing devices aren't necessarily coming from the hothouses of California or Seattle. They are being developed, at one level by giants like Samsung that are eager to grab every opportunity.

At another level, they are being conceived by small companies like Research In Motion which has made BlackBerry the object of professional desire. Or, there are other virtual unknowns like Austrian manufacturer Tel-Me which says it will put a two megapixel mobile phone with a camera on sale by year-end.

At another level, the applications that new inventions can be put to are rapidly becoming clearer. This week Steve Jobs the iconic chief of Apple confessed that iTunes his online music store wouldn't be meeting the ambitious targets he had set for it a year ago. Jobs had targeted 100 million downloads by the end of this financial year.

He says now iTunes will only hit about 70 million -- but even that's pretty impressive. Jobs now faces big league competition from the reborn Napster and Sony's new online music shop Connect that is scheduled to be launched this year.

Of course, it still isn't clear which of these technologies will become an integral part of our lives. Will GSM triumph over CDMA in mobile phones or will they both be erased by new developments like 802.20 which offers higher data speeds at lower costs than 3G? Or, will picture-clicking mobile phones make cameras irrelevant?

And that's without even straying into other hi-tech frontiers. The human genome sequence was only mapped fully in 2001 and there was an instant clamour for new drugs based on the genome. Unsurprisingly, they are taking time. But it's a safe bet they will be around by the end of the decade.

What will the world look like by then? The only safe bet is that most predictions will be far behind the reality.

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Paran Balakrishnan