The year 2001 is nearly here, and nobody's chatting with HAL just yet. But not everybody's crystal ball is as cloudy as Arthur C Clarke's turned out to be. So we've been listening to the experts at technology confabs such as last week's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference to catch their vision of the PCs of the near future. Some observations are familiar: PCs will get smaller, faster, and (ahem!) easier to use. They will hear our commands, help us communicate via voice and visual cues, and connect to everything under the sun. And, yes, most will still run Windows. At WinHEC in th US, Bill Gates offered Microsoft's vision of a PC circa 2003. The chic prototype came loaded with a built-in video camera and microphone for videoconferencing and dictation. This nimble powerhouse had a rewritable DVD drive and high-bandwidth Universal Serial Bus 2.0, and snapped to attention in less than ten seconds. On its tiny LCD "digital dashboard," you could play music and check for new e-mail without having to boot up. Tomorrow's PCs will look a lot cooler, and you can already buy some early models. Forerunners include Compaq's iPac, Dell's WebPC, and Gateway's Astro. They'll get even jazzier and sleeker, says Patrick Gelsinger, vice president and chief technology officer of Intel's architecture group. "PCs are just going to be really cool fashion statements next year," he says. Speed, simplicity, and style will replace the big beige boxes of yesteryear. Streamlined looks will come with streamlined innards, as vendors finally retire some old (in Internet years, that is) technology. Most notably, "It's time to bite the bullet" and drop ISA slots and parallel and serial ports, says Michael Slater, executive editor of Microprocessor Report. Replacing them with USB ports is the best way to improve PC design, he says. Slater calls USB the "single most important improvement in usability in recent years." With USB, you never have to open the box. That encourages small, sealed boxes that look better, are easier to configure and manage, and are more reliable, Slater says. USB 2.0, boosting bandwidth from USB 1.1's 12 mbps to 480 mbps, should show up in devices by the end of 2000. The technology will link low bandwidth products such as mice and scanners, as well as speed-hungry devices such as portable external hard drives, DVD-ROM drives, and some digital video cameras. Leading chip makers are cramming more functions onto CPUs. "PCs on a chip" could radically change systems' appearance and price. Intel's Timna CPU will integrate the processor, graphics, and memory controllers onto one piece of silicon, creating a cheaper part that supports a very small form. At WinHEC, Intel showed a Timna-powered motherboard the size of a thin paperback. Timna, by the way, is a code name; we'll learn the real name when the chip hits the market. "Developers can wrap whatever kind of form factor they want to around these," says Steve Whalley, Ease of Use Initiative manager for Intel. Timna, expected to debut in the second half of 2000, should power petite PCs priced at less than £400. Both Intel and Advanced Micro Devices are revving for ultrahigh-end PCs. Each is preparing advanced chips this year: AMD will launch an Athlon (code name Thunderbird) with a performance-boosting on-die L2 cache; and Intel, its next-generation Willamette CPU. Intel says it will launch the chip at 1.4GHz or higher. Kevin Krewell, an analyst with MicroDesign Resources, expects the new chip to easily reach 2GHz within a year of launch. AMD and Intel won't forecast year 2003 chip speeds. But processors could hit 2.5- or 3GHz speeds by then, Krewell says. Naturally, you may not need this kind of power to handle word processing. But two kinds of apps can really use it: speech and video. Voice input could be common in our near future, Gates hinted at WinHEC. Microsoft is doing extensive voice recognition research, although mum's the word on when voice functions will be part of Windows. You'll see it first in Microsoft applications and games. Even with beefy processors, today's speech recognition programs aren't ready to go mainstream, Krewell says. They take too much training and simply don't work very well, he says. But voice recognition experts at Lernout & Hauspie are more optimistic. By 2002 you won't have to laboriously voice-train your applications, says Bill Destefanis, senior director of product management for L&H's PC applications division. Advanced natural language functions will help PCs and other devices interpret voice commands, identify meanings, and respond, he says. For example, a Net-connected application could understand your comment, "I need to travel to LA on Tuesday" and check flight schedules and hotels. Destefanis predicts that most applications will support natural language commands. Gates says digital video cameras will hang off most future PCs, and 3Com, which sells one, shares that digital vision. "People are geographically spread out, but the Internet has broken those geographic barriers," says Anna Pappas, network devices product line marketing manager for 3Com. A digital camera literally puts a picture on Internet communication. Video cameras will also be popular as security systems, she adds. You may remotely monitor a room using a home-networked video camera connected to the Internet. And once digital video is standard on PCs, you'll have built-in software and a processor with the horsepower to easily edit it. For example, Microsoft's Windows Millennium Edition will ship with Movie Maker for simple video editing. And Sony's latest desktop already comes with MovieShaker, aimed at consumers. You'll find other familiar software on future PCs. Even if the US Justice Department breaks Microsoft into a bevy of Baby Bills, 88 percent of PCs will still run a flavor of Windows in 2004, essentially the same market share as today, say IDC researchers. Underdog Linux will be popular with developers and single-purpose device PCs, but only six per cent of PCs will run Linux, according to IDC projections. Apple's Mac OS, which has a five per cent market share, and alternatives such as BeOS will struggle to stay in the race, says Dan Kusnetzky, an IDC analyst. Future Windows are opening soon. Windows Millennium, the consumer successor to Windows 98 Second Edition, is expected to ship this year. By 2002, Microsoft plans to merge its Windows 2000 and Windows 95/98 lines into a next-generation OS code-named "Whistler." Whistler will ship in both business and consumer editions, says Carl Stork, general manager of Windows hardware strategy. The business version has small improvements, but the consumer Whistler is a comparably bigger jump from Windows ME, Stork says. Its "refreshed" interface will have advances like custom start screens. It will support digital home entertainment and home networks. And consumer applications such as digital imaging, video editing, and communications will be built in. In three years, home PCs will have built-in home networking, says Karuna Uppal, a senior analyst with the Yankee Group. By 2003, about ten million households will have some type of network, Uppal forecasts. What's the driving force? Sharing an Internet connection. Most of us will run a 10-mbps network based on the HomePNA standard, linking PCs over existing phone lines, Uppal predicts. Networks over power lines may find some success with consumer electronics but probably won't take off for PCs, Uppal adds. Uppal expects that by 2003 the 802.11B wireless standard will beat the slower HomeRF spec. Now, HomeRF is cheaper and supports some voice functions, but business use of 802.11B equipment will push down its price, she adds. Also, look for growing use of Bluetooth, a low-power and short-range radio link technology aimed at portable and handheld devices. Microsoft's push for easier networking first pops up in Windows ME, with Universal Plug and Play. Microsoft has talked this up since last year's WinHEC and cautiously predicts the technology will take hold by 2003. UPnP is designed to make it easier to connect devices to a home network. For example, add a printer to your network and - bingo - UPnP helps everything from PCs, scanners, and digital cameras recognize and use the printer. UPnP competes with several other initiatives, including Sun Microsystems' Java-based Jini. Experts say we'll need this type of smarts as more handheld and Internet devices link to home networks. The desktop PC will remain the center of this sprawling networked universe - although you may have a hard time recognizing it in its slick new form.