The future is now 

You remember the stories:

“Thousands flee as Web start-ups fail!”

“New economy in peril as stocks plunge!”

“Geeks change from freak to chic — and back again!”

Who knew last year whether any of this Net prognostication would come true? Not me … and I write about this stuff for a living. And if 2000 is any indication, 2001 might be even more chaotic and unpredictable.

But it’s fun to take some educated guesses. Last year at this time, I predicted online voting would become a hot issue in 2000. Thanks to November’s historically close presidential election (and aging, unreliable punch-card machines), I was right.

On the other hand, I guessed Web videocasting would finally work well in Y2K. I was wrong. Bandwidth bottlenecks still keep us from enjoying high-quality Internet visuals. Your neighborhood video store is safe. For now.

Let’s take a peek and see what the coming year might bring.

READ MY PALM

I predict 2001 will be the year of cell phone mergers. No, Sprint won’t buy AT&T. Instead, portable telephones will commonly sport features found only on separate devices today.

Actually, this is an easy guess, because the all-in-one migration has already begun. Nobody likes carrying around multiple portable devices, so a few phones which began appearing last year offered everything from onboard address books to limited Web access. A handful even featured crude arcade games.

This year, that trickle will turn into a torrent. A few months ago, Samsung announced the Uproar — the first cell phone that can play MP3s. Expect more companies to incorporate such formerly separate features, such as the ability to capture digital images and play full-fledged video games.

Similarly, as red-hot mobile devices such as the Palm Pilot continue to fly off shelves (much to the disappointment of desktop PC makers, whose 2000 sales were down), cell phones will get “smarter.” By year’s end, the distinction between handheld organizers and cell phones will likely go away completely, as tech companies offer one device that does both.

The big question? How to make all that functionality easy to use on such a little unit (read: with tiny buttons). Not to worry though; 2001 may be the year voice-activated features grow up too (a handful of last year’s models had them; expect more in 2001).

ENTERTAIN US

This year will usher in a golden age of video gaming. In fact, steady advances in technology will ultimately transform computer-based play into the dominant entertainment form of the 21st century.

It’s a natural evolution — as the look of electronic games approaches photo realism, these once-primitive diversions will offer us irresistible cinematic experiences. Is it any wonder the British Academy of Film & Television Arts’ awards (England’s version of the Oscars) has already added a category for PC gaming?

Of course, the era of the truly interactive film is still years away. But for now, 2001 will be the year a maturing game industry flexes its creative muscles with wickedly inventive (and equally impressive) amusements that aren’t just for kids anymore. From high-octane PCs to Microsoft’s new Xbox console, video games will make headlines in 2001.

One early example: Electronic Arts’ brand new nightmare, entitled “American McGee’s Alice.” This decidedly bent take on the Lewis Carroll classic reframes Alice as a suicidal teenager, returning to a Wonderland to settle a grudge with the Queen.

Other titles on the horizon: “World War II Online,” a multiplayer version of “the big one.” Employing a cast of thousands (players, that is), “WWII” will re-enact the entire war and take years to complete. Or try “Majestic,” a game that contacts you with e-mailed clues, mysterious faxes and real cell phone calls in the middle of the night … so you’re always playing the game.

A WORD FROM OUR SPONSOR

Last year, many Web advertisers realized their messages were being ignored. In 2001, these advertisers will find a fix. Instead of easy-to-overlook banner ads, expect to see new forms of Web advertising.

The most likely candidate? A TV-style ad known as an “interstitial.” Like TV commercials, interstitials play between pages on a Web site. You don’t get to see the page you’ve requested until after you’ve watched the ad.

Sites such as msnbc.com are already experimenting with interstitials, and don’t be surprised if the trend grows. If this sounds annoying, well, it is. However, it may be the industry’s best way to continue to offer all that yummy Web info for free.

PRIVACY HEATS UP

Finally, 2001 will be the year the Internet privacy debate really heats up. Tough European privacy laws are already clashing with the data collection techniques on U.S. Web sites. In some countries, it’s just plain illegal to keep track of all your book buying preferences (thank you, amazon.com).

Meanwhile, as consumers become more sophisticated about privacy issues, software that guarantees privacy (such as Zero Knowledge’s Freedom) could become the success story of the new millennium.

Better yet, I expect to see robust privacy features make their way into mainstream programs — like your e-mail software — by year’s end.

Window shades on your Microsoft Windows? It could happen.

Adam Druckman writes about the Web for Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com

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