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    A tidal wave of information will allow future businesses to make very precise decisions, predicts Price Waterhouse

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #334  March 19, 1996 High Tech Office  column

    Looking forward to the rest of the decade? Price Waterhouse is: the PW Technology Centre recently unveiled its latest forecast of where it expects changes in computing and communications to take us by the end of the century. Here's a taste:

    * The raft of mergers and shakeups in the computer and communications sectors will continue. Over the past year, we've seen IBM buy Lotus, Corel buy WordPerfect, and Apple hover on the brink. Expect more of the same.

    * The move away from isolated desktop computers to networks--including the biggest network of all, the Internet--will continue. Client/server will remain a buzzword for the rest of the decade, but it should be more of a reality, and less of an abstract goal.

    * Intel CPUs will remain the dominant computer architecture. Expect to find Windows/OS2-type operating systems on computers using keyboards and mice.

    And what sort of computer will you find on your office desk at the turn of the century? PW thinks it will feature a processor running somewhere between 400 and 800 mHz--10 times faster than today's Pentium 100. You'll have between 64 and 256 megs of memory, and a 10-gigabyte hard disk, recordable CD, video-capture capabilities, and high-speed ATM or ISDN connections.

    You'll use it in new ways--desktop video-conferencing, increased access to information from far-flung databases, image processing, virtual reality and multimedia.

    PW expects sweeping changes in the communications industry as well, with increased deregulation and competition between the cable and telephone sectors resulting in rapidly falling costs and increased services.

    With increased and inexpensive bandwidth making it easier to share data, look for an increased flow of information that will transform the entire chain between manufacturer and retailer, creating a more direct relationship between customer demand and production and distribution.

    Information itself will increasingly become a product to be distributed: "data warehousing" has become a growth area over the past year or so, and increased access to data will affect businesses in many key areas. There will be more "micro-marketing" as knowledge of individuals' buying habits allows each of us to be precisely targeted by advertisers. Lenders will be better able to quantify risks, and inventories will be more precisely managed as vendors at all levels gain access to more focused information about customers. PW sees computer and communications technology as increasingly enabling "decision-support systems," meaning that businesses at all levels will be able to use customer information to make better decisions. And the growth in groupware-using computers and networks will bring improved communications within businesses.

    We've gotten this far and barely mentioned the Internet. Price Waterhouse wonders whether the current Internet craze will crash, like CB radio in the 1970s. Still, a core 'Net would remain, distributing information between businesses, including electronic publishing and digital commerce.

    And while PW points out that no one really knows how to make money over the 'Net yet, we can expect digital cash and home banking to grow, especially as we begin to see solutions to the perceived lack of security.

    Other challenges remain for the 'Net. How will we get broadband access to homes? Can we ensure universal service and equal access? What about censorship? Is the 'Net robust enough to handle increased demand? Will "Internet appliances"--consumer-oriented computers priced at less than $1,000--change the computer market? Will "network-centric" software models like Sun's Java change how software is written and distributed and make computer operating systems irrelevant?

    Putting it all together, Price Waterhouse sees a transformation in many of the traditional ways we've been doing business. Among the changes foreseen are more kiosks and automated sales tools; focused direct marketing; changes in advertising as consumers use the 'Net for entertainment and information; fewer intermediaries, as consumers become more directly connected to manufacturers; and major impact on content providers, such as this newspaper. There will be less need for physical premises, including banks and retail outlets, as consumers shop electronically or respond to focused direct mail. There will be less need to maintain inventory. Inexpensively-transmitted digital bits of information will replace the expensive moving of physical products.

    If the next few years unfold as the seers at Price Waterhouse predict, there will be lots of business opportunities. While some will find it hard to avoid being swept under, the agile will succeed in surfing the technology wave.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan