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Intel's Ottoman Empire

Michael Kanellos has seen the future of computing and it is a footstool. But does the family room really need such things?

Tech Industry
PALM SPRINGS, California--I have seen the future of computing, and it is a footstool.

Behold the Ottoman PC, a Ottoman PC concept PC developed by Intel and industrial designer SozoDesign. The Ottoman is one of the many "concept PCs" being shown off by the chipmaker this week at the Intel Developers Forum here. It's powered by a Pentium III and can connect simultaneously to a digital camera, a stereo, a video camera, and a printer. Flip up the top and you have a 15-inch monitor.

"Family friendly with PC style, the Ottoman PC functions as a home system and a beautiful piece of furniture, fitting the family life of the 21st Century," according to the product literature.

Then there's the Vesta, a touch-screen, voice-activated computer designed for the kitchen that features an easy-to-clean surface. Also shown was the Barbie PC, festooned with purple and pink decals celebrating the dune-buggy-driving American icon.

"We're bringing the Internet to the family room," is the common refrain. The question is: Does anyone really want it there?

Family rooms and dens, after all, are the repository of mistaken purchases, the last stop on the line for bumper-pool tables, magnetic chess sets, and old sofa beds. When you get down to it, there's not a lot of reason to hook up such rooms to the Internet or wire them to complicated home networks that promise the ability to monitor devices from afar.

Family members of the future might be busy, but not so busy that they're going to wonder whether the Hamm's Clock (the one with the cartoon bear on it) that dad stole in college is five minutes off.

On the other hand, "Did I leave the Minnesota Vikings football helmet light on?" is one question the man of the future won't have to worry about anymore. He'll remember how connected his abode is and say: "Thank God it's connected to the Internet. I'll just check right now."

And such home networks could open the door to nefarious elements. On the Net, no one knows you are a dog, but hackers will be able to tap in and see that you have a collection of Jackie Collins novels and use a "3 kinds of popcorn" tin to hold firewood.

And although the stylized PC represents the next wave of computing, the industry may also have sown the seeds of its own destruction. On one hand, the technology is brilliant. PC companies have harnessed the computing power that 20 years ago managed missile guidance systems for Norad and turned it into a tiny household device that can be decorated with daisy stickers or a cushion.

On the other hand, the Ottoman PC is what it says it is: a footstool. Countless hours of R&D and it ends up a piece of patio furniture. It also doesn't work perfectly. At its debut, the product manager had to confess that someone kicked it before the presentation and dislodged the hard drive. Developments like this certainly won't turn the heads of the Nobel committee.

A similar phenomenon that's taking place with PCs occurred with the handheld calculator. Back in the early '70s, parents gave calculators to kids as Christmas presents. I know. I got one in 7th grade, along with a pair of skis and some models I would later light on fire. Calculators were amazing devices. They could do four-digit long division in under five seconds.

Soon, however, manufacturers had to start adding complexity to their products. Not long later, all new calculators came complete with automatic buttons for calculating sine and cosine, in case anyone had any burning calculus problems.

But after hitting a peak, the calculator calmed down. The key for pi disappeared. Buttons became larger and easier to use. Insurance companies began giving them out instead of fridge magnets. In the end, the calculator became a remarkable disposable, a wonderfully intelligent device that nobody really gives much though to anymore.

Think of it. What is more remarkable: A hand calculator or the "Squish your Pennies" thing in any tourist attraction?

By personalizing PCs, the IT industry is making them more familiar. But familiarity may just breed boredom.

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