Tiny electronic devices will open up the world's culture and information to the masses for the first time in the early years of the new century.
This was the message from three major technology vendors as they demonstrated futuristic products at the Gartner Group's European symposium in Cannes, France this week.
Hewlett Packard, IBM and BT showed off their miniature devices for accessing massive stores of data, which they believe will be sufficiently cheap, when they come to market, to be within reach of most consumers.
BT's contribution was a 'smart quill', a pen shaped object with keypad and screen that can translate written words into computer data. It can surf the Internet and query vast databases using written commands.
Such inventions will depend on the further development of intelligent agent technology, which is already starting to impact on Web usage. More sophisticated versions of the current agents will be able, for example, to 'read' a word written with the smart quill and automatically scour the Net and other data sources for relevant material.
IBM's director of research from its Zurich R&D centre, Karl Kuemmerle, focused on voice controlled searching of the network. Interactive telephones "which can process and understand languages" would be common, he said.
He also foretold the decline of the PC in favour of tiny, intelligent devices attache to the network - a step further from the network computer concept. These would include intelligent storage products - he demonstrated a tiny microdrive developed in Zurich.
John Taylor, director of HP's UK based laboratories, saw personal digital imaging as another powerful tool that consumers would use to interrogate and retrieve customised information.
However, a note of caution was sounded by Eric Bantegnie of French company Simulog, who said these visions would only become reality if the back end technology was tested more rigorously, so reducing the chronic unreliability of most IT systems.
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