Peripheral vendors--companies that specialize in modems, digital cameras, add-in cards, and the like--will likely experience an upswing in business following Microsoft's Windows 98 rollout, since the new operating system will bring built-in support for a number of emerging hardware technologies.
One of the glitzier functions of the updated operating system (OS) is built-in support for TV-tuner circuit boards that will allow users to turn their PCs into TVs. Broadcasters can also mix in the display of Web pages with TV content, which is expected to lead to new types of interactive content.
While few computers will contain these boards as standard equipment, a number of third party vendors are waiting in the wings. Hauppauge, for example, will fill the void with three new WinTV boards for Windows 98. The basic model, which lets users watch TV on their PC monitors and take advantage of supplementary data broadcasting, costs $79. WinTV with a high-end TV stereo system will cost $99, and WinTV with a FM radio receiver will retail for $129.
By far the most practical addition to Windows 98 is built-in support for the universal serial bus (USB) connector.
USB is a one-size-fits-all connection, expected to replace both the slower parallel port and serial port connections. For the last ten years or so, all PCs have had serial and parallel connections, or "ports." The serial port is used, for example, to connect external modems to the PC, while the parallel port is typically used for devices such as printers.
USB technology has the advantage of being "plug and play," eliminating the need for cards, reconfiguration, and rebooting when connecting a device such as a printer or scanner. Although Mac users are quick to point out that Apple has long had a similar, proprietary technology, configuring hardware has long plagued PC users. USB, if implemented properly, can mitigate these problems. USB devices can also be strung together in succession.
Despite its advantages, USB products will be comparatively scarce in some categories for some time to come.
For one, customers interested in hooking up a printer with USB will have a difficult time. "There's virtually nothing out there with USB [in terms of printers]," said Paula Bursley, printer analyst with Dataquest.
So why aren't there more companies offering USB printers for the $8.2 billion printer market? "Up until now, there has been no reason to implement it on low-end products because it adds to cost," Bursley noted. "That said, we expect within the next year some inkjet printers will offer USB connections. Many already offer USB printers in Japan," she added.
But peripherals manufacturers are working on USB devices as PCs, toward the day when Windows 98 and USB connectors become more common. Eventually, economies of scale will help persuade companies to come out with more USB products.
"There will be a pretty impressive showing of peripherals this summer," said Rob Bennett, group product manager for Windows 98. "There are 250 devices due to be launched around Windows 98 and 100 in development [to be] released in the next year," he said.
"It's the ideal scenario. USB will be standard on newer Macs as well as Windows machines. That simplifies the manufacturing process," said a spokesperson for Umax, which manufactures scanners and computers.
Umax said it will offer one USB scanner, the Astra 1220u, which has 36-bit color and 600-by-1200 dots-per-inch resolution. The scanner will be available for $149 in July. Customers get a $10 rebate if they also purchase Windows 98, which already includes the Umax scanner driver software.
Storm Technologies will offer the PageScan USB, which it claims is the first portable sheet-fed scanner with USB technology. The device sells for $119 after a $30 rebate.
In modems, there's 3Com's US Robotics Sportster external 56-kbps fax/modem, a device with speakerphone capability and a $249 price tag. Analysts expect some cable and DSL (digital subscriber line) modems to be available by the end of the year as more regions around the United States begin offering high-speed access services. Mitel and Nortel will offer phones with USB connections that permit users to manage all of their voice and data through the PC.
Digital camera users will have the Kodak Digital Science DC260, which offers 1.6 million pixels per image for $999, the highest resolution currently available in a consumer digital camera. The DC220, with shorter optical zoom, is priced at $799.
Monitors too, will get USB ports. The Philips 151AX flat panel, for instance, comes with a USB hook-up to allow users to easily connect the display to other peripherals. It will be available in the third quarter for an estimated retail price of $1,199, the company said. Samsung offers the SyncMaster 700Up monitor, which contains a self-powered USB hub for connecting up to three devices. No pricing is available.