Was it only one year ago that we were all speculating whether Y2K would initiate a global meltdown of all things digital?

As the huge Waterford crystal ball dropped in Times Square at midnight last December 31, it was already clear that a technology disaster was not going to happen ­ at least, not the kind of disaster that end-of-the-world cultists had feared. Yet, had we set our champagne glasses down long enough to peer into our own crystal balls, many of us could have foreseen not just the dizzying rise of the Nasdaq to over 5,000 last spring, but could have avoided getting burned in its fiery fall back to earth. While some sanity has thankfully returned to the capital markets, it is clear that the pervasive impact of the Internet, which fueled the technology-sector run-up, is here to stay as a reality of both personal and business life in the new millennium.

Uncovering and making sense of the underlying trends to explain current events and provide insight into likely future scenarios is a hazardous occupation, but also great fun. I would like to dedicate this month's column to the examination of three themes that have been the talk of technology cognoscenti for a long time and for which I predict 2001 will be a breakout year.

Convergence. Convergence has been one of the hottest buzzwords of the last decade or so. In 2001, the reality will start matching the hype. The proliferation of devices such as cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), wireless pagers and laptops that have turned our workdays into buzzing, beeping exercises in sensory overload will start to slow; and a new generation of multifunction mobile devices will appear. Issues over content delivery, screen resolution, bandwidth and connection quality will be resolved.

In 2001, convergence will also manifest itself in a number of other areas. True convergence of offline and online business channels will emerge as the predominant business model. The winners will not necessarily be new entrants, nor will market leadership in the offline world guarantee a crossover success. The attributes to look for in discerning the likely winners will be a focus on customer utility, a clear and direct path to profitability and a willingness to continuously innovate around the offering made in the marketplace.

Similar trends will continue to accelerate in the world of entertainment as the traditional limits of books, film and music marketing and distribution change. Books with soundtracks and interactive films will emerge. In the field of e-commerce, the much-hyped area of electronic bill presentment will prove to be the Edsel of e-commerce as creative new market entrants eliminate or consolidate billing and offer innovative bundling of services for discounted prices.

A caveat (and no fortune teller worthy of the name would issue such predictions without a caveat or two): In this case, issues of technology readiness aside, convergence will only be successful if it offers demonstrable benefits in terms of convenience at a realistic price to a broad array of prospective customers.

Floor- Tile-Ready. Scott McNealy, chairman and CEO of Sun Microsystems, talks about "floor- tile-ready" systems as his company's strategic intent. Simply translated, floor-tile-ready refers to the delivery of technology in a ready-to- use state. There will be no project plans, no hordes of consultants to integrate nonstandard components, no two-year implementation time lines. In 2001, the concept of hardware and software that can be seamlessly connected will become the norm rather than the exception. If you doubt it, imagine a world in which every time you bought a car you had to spend 12 months assembling and testing the component pieces before being able to drive it. It makes no sense, yet until now this has remained the prevalent model for information systems. Bill Gates was talking about plug-and-play a decade ago. The trouble has been that reality hasn't caught up with Gates' type of breakthrough thinking, but it will beginning in 2001.

If you're still designing systems for integration, you're missing the boat. More and more, companies will buy fully integrated components that perform specific functions very well and are easily connected into the virtual network of their business. The line between traditional software and hardware will disappear, just as it did many years ago in television, music and most electrical appliances. Floor- tile-ready is an easy win: it promises lower costs, lower risk and much greater levels of reliability and performance. Who wouldn't prefer this?

Usability, Not Functionality. Hardware and software companies are still wrongly focused on appealing to the geeks among us ­ the high-tech equivalents of custom-car fanatics. In this scenario, MHz, MB, pixels and the like are just substitutes for horsepower, cubic inches and compression ratios.

Geeks undeniably comprise a market segment, but in the coming year technology companies will finally begin focusing on what their technology enables the broader range of their customers to do. They will create branding and messaging around those uses that evoke the same emotional response, sense of trust and loyalty among customers as those of Nike, Benetton and Coca Cola. The wildly successful positioning of Nokia with Europe's youth as a "cool" brand provides an interesting glimpse of the future as it will begin to take shape in 2001. Apple did this for the personal computer, but failed to capitalize on its position; by contrast, Palm has gotten it right and is doing it for the PDA. Companies that aspire to leadership positions need to transfer their focus on the functionality and power of their tools to how those tools help people become more personally and professionally successful.

In summary, these three themes all point toward the importance of making technology easier to use by focusing on how people and companies do things, not on the technical sophistication of the offering.

One final thought on the impact of technology in the new millennium. I hear endless predictions about the true killer app of the 21st century. To me there is only one winner ­ voice recognition. When we finally master this application, it will truly revolutionize our world. Consider some of the possible implications: no need for credit cards or other pieces of plastic, no keyboards, no light switches, no door keys, no number pads on phones, no need for passports or driving licenses and, getting my vote for the greatest contribution to humanity, no more impossible VCR programming manuals.

I look forward to watching my predictions materialize in 2001. In the meantime, however, since the only truly predictable thing about technology is that it will remain completely unpredictable, I'll keep my day job.

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