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Y2Krystal ball

Welcome to the year 2000. We’re not flying around in bubble cars or getting seven-course dinners from a pill, but at least our computers still work.

And the Internet is still humming, too. With Y2K fears fading like old newsprint, 2000 is primed to be a major Web growth year. The only question: What on earth will we do with the Net in the coming 12 months?

More than ever before, I think. Here are a few predictions about what’s in store, as we usher in the 21st century – Internet style:

CABLE ME

If 1999 was the year of broadband hype, 2000 will likely be the year that delivers. Broadband – the ability to send Net content at very high speeds – has been a buzzword since 1997. But infrastructure has been a constant problem: The wires weren’t in place, even though customers were.

In 1999, that began to change. AT&T’s acquisition of cable heavyweight TCI has made the huge corporation one of the country’s top cable operators – and it’s rushing to deliver its high-speed, cable modem-driven Internet access to its 12 million customers.

But quicker than you can shout "cyber monopoly," competition is also on its way. It’s called digital subscriber line technology, or DSL. DSL uses existing telephone lines to deliver high-speed Net access. Cable-challenged Internet service providers – such as Earthlink, for example – are already sewing up DSL distribution deals of their own.

But the real proof that broadband is here to stay? Beleaguered Detroit cable operator Comcast has announced it’ll bring cable modems to the city of Detroit this year. And if DSL takes off too, a broadband price war will surely follow.

ENTERTAIN ME

Speaking of broadband, Web video will become commonplace in 2000. In fact, broadcast-quality transmissions will finally arrive. Much like we saw with radio last year, 2000 will usher in the era of television stations broadcasting over the Net.

The implications go beyond TV channels. Imagine: No more trips to the video store. Every movie ever made will be available online – just click on the film and watch it instantly.

While this dream may not materialize this year, startups such as MeTV are already paving the way. Using new digital compression techniques, MeTV brings near-VHS quality video to the Web.

Currently, the MeTV Web site merely demonstrates the technology, with free showings of B-grade films, such as the early-’80s pre-Scream teen horror flick Graduation Day.

But the technology works. I tested MeTV with a cable modem and got a full-screen and flicker-free connection. MeTV plans to go live this summer, offering more than 1,500 films for instant download at $3-$4 a pop. Blockbuster Video, watch out.

VOTE FOR ME

Expect 2000 to be the year politics hits the Web. Actually, it’s already happening. Politicians such as George W. Bush are running interactive banner ads in early primary states, including a particularly clever one that lets users calculate how much they might save under Bush’s tax plan.

So what’s the problem? According to Federal law, TV and radio stations must divulge who spent how much on campaign ads in order to maintain equal access to public airwaves. But no such disclosure laws exist for the Web.

It gets worse. Since Web companies often maintain targeted demographic information about their users, they could sell exclusive advertising opportunities to the highest bidder. For example, according to online industry magazine The Standard, a site such as Yahoo could "theoretically offer its entire inventory of New Hampshire Republicans to the Forbes campaign at a premium price."

Can you say, "campaign finance reform"?

But the Web also has much political promise. In March, the Arizona Democratic Party will hold its presidential primary election over the Internet. Said state Democratic Party chairman recently in PC Week, "This is going to cause the biggest increase (in voter participation) since we eliminated the poll tax 35 years ago."

I’d say that’s a little optimistic. But it will surely open up some interesting debates. With the practical problems associated with election booth voting removed, who needs an electoral college?

UNPLUG ME

Finally, even as our homes get wired for high-speed, 2000 will also be the year we cut the cord. I’m talking about a usable wireless Web – on the bus, on the street and in your pocket. By the end of 2000, these devices may be as ubiquitous as cell phones.

Why? In 2000, they’ll actually work. Last year’s models – such as 3Com’s Palm Pilot VII – weren’t very functional. Their tiny screens only showed specially formatted Web pages. And you paid for every page viewed.

Not so with the new GoAmerica service, running on the ultracool RIM 850 handheld device. For a flat fee ($59.95/month, but competition should drive prices down), you get unlimited e-mail and Web access on a nifty unit that works for weeks on a single AA battery. Plus, it can access just about any Web page your desktop computer can.

Sounds better than a bubble car to me.

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