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Gadgetry as art form

PDAs target the fashion-conscious, Internet providers plan a road trip, and .com is getting a new .neighbor


If any device is worthy of the term gadget, it is the handheld electronic organizer. It's useful for a handful of purposes, mostly as a substitute for bulky paper planners, but it's also a status symbol of high-techiness. Now the makers of the dominant device, Palm, are trying to expand its reach to younger users. The new entry-level model, the m100, replaces the old, clunky Palm IIIe and promises lots of fashion sense at a low price. It boasts curvy edges, a double-hinged flip top and removable front plate-and a price tag of about $149. Snap-on face plates will sell separately like their cell phone counterparts in silver, two shades of blue, green, and ruby. Palm faces heavy competition from Handspring and Microsoft's Pocket PC, and it is jazzing up its lines. Users can buy some models in colors like "champagne" and "millennium blue." The idea is that people want their gadgetry to reflect their personality, something the industry has resisted. Except for the translucent iMac, technology tends to look drab, if not ugly. Just look at any boombox, personal stereo, or desktop PC. The Palm facelift is part of the high-tech industry's love/hate relationship with building attractive products. Yale computer science professor and social critic David Gelernter wrote in his book Machine Beauty (WORLD, Sept. 26, 1998) that our computers and other devices had lost their sense of design. These are seen as expensive, but disposable, hunks of plastic and metal, not something to take pride in. NAME IT AND CLAIM IT

Is your car stereo obsolete? It will be if Internet-enabled car radios become standard. Manufacturers hope drivers are willing to pay up to $30 a month to use such gadgets, which may be standard equipment by 2004. Motorola is testing the iRadio that lets users speak single-word commands like "stocks" or "traffic" and receive the appropriate response. When the owner drives into a new city, the radio automatically knows what all the rock stations are. Commuters will also be able to check e-mail, send voice mail, and receive driving directions. Clarion has its own souped-up system called the AutoPC, and others are scrambling to come out with similar products. Ford and GM are working on placing Internet access in luxury cars. A Cadillac DeVille is coming that lets people download e-mail and do some limited Web browsing, but only while the car is in park. These gizmos already have people worrying about safety problems, but manufacturers are downplaying the dangers. "We do not foresee people surfing in the driver's seat-that's never going to happen due to the complexity of the Internet," said Motorola VP Brian Santoro. In time, all this in-dash Internet access will combine with the already-available cell phone. Drivers won't have all the features they have on their desks, but they'll be able to conduct business from the freeway. While the automobile was once a fortress of solitude, it is slowly becoming a mobile office. Being away from your desk won't be an excuse anymore. ANYTHING IS A DOT-POSSIBILITY

Soon the Net could be more than a dot-com universe. A group of Internet bureaucrats will consider a new set of online addresses that could make finding a domain name lots easier. A quasi-governmental body called ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, will accept proposals next months for new suffixes to supplement the current threesome of .com, .org, and .net used in the United States. These TLDs, or top-level domains, date back to the 1980s, when the Internet was still the domain of academics, scientists, and government officials. When the commercial Internet boom hit, people gobbled up every possible name, especially in .com. Registering domains is a finders-keepers business that proved to be a bonanza for earlybirds and frustration for everyone else. That's why we could see TLDs like ".movie," ".travel" or ".museum" to expand the possibilities. "We're within striking distance," said Andrew McLaughlin, ICANN's chief policy officer. "Barring some disasters, we'll start seeing new names early next year." If new domains are created, will anyone use them? People are as adjusted to .com as they are to area codes, radio dials, and zip codes. These domains could confuse novices. If it took years to get the masses to accept FM radio and UHF television, how long will it take to assimilate .money?

Chris Stamper

Chris Stamper

Chris is a former WORLD correspondent.