Network: What changes will 1999 bring to your online life?

The year's biggest changes will be driven by that most urgent of human desires - the Need for Speed
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The Independent Culture
THE INTERNET changed our daily routines beyond all recognition in 1998. For the first time, many of us logged on and shopped for our Christmas presents online. You have sent your share of Christmas e-cards featuring South Park cartoons. You have probably been on the receiving end of at least a few of those killer attachments (and filtered out for ever the over-enthusiastic senders who clog up your in-box with animated bursts of Flash creativity).

You have watched Paul McCartney cooking live on, and even downloaded Linda's recipes from the website, since she seemed to be the only person on Earth who could make mung beans look tasty. Finally, you dragged your new, wafer-thin Viao laptop to your mother-in-law's for Christmas dinner. Now you can play new scenarios for Civilisation II and pick up your e-mails using the infrared system on your newly acquired Nokia mobile phone and impress all your relatives with the magic of wireless communications. With all these new tricks we learned in 1998, is there anything left to discover in 1999?

You will be pleased to know that there will be plenty of new gizmos coming our way, and some of them may even turn out to be useful. My money is on a boom in hardware, driven by new hand-held devices, and particularly those that can keep us entertained while waiting for the night bus in Trafalgar Square. The Son-of-the-Palm-Pilot-and-Game-Boy will be born anytime now, so you will be able to find the number for your local minicab and play a quick game while you are waiting for it to turn up. Personal digital assistants are merging not only with mobile phones but also pagers, Walkmans, Minidisc players and even watches. This trend towards combining personal organisers and entertainment will produce many new multifunctional gizmos that can be held in the palm of your hand. This is also driving developments in wireless connectivity, where everything has an infrared connection to other gizmos. True portability is just round the corner, freeing us forever from the narrow confines of the office.

However, the biggest developments in 1999 will be driven by that most urgent of human desires - the Need for Speed. I feel this need is beginning to affect my normally rational behaviour. Recently, I've started to contemplate moving to an area that provides cable modems. Migration patterns of the population following bandwidth availability have already been noted in leafy Hampstead. This quiet suburban backwater has suddenly shot to fame, with the claim of being the first area in London where you can obtain an ASDL connection. Plugging this beauty into your PC means sudden elevation to a higher level of the wired experience. A mere 56K mortal will feel like she or he has never surfed the Net before. Suddenly, online shopping takes two minutes instead of 10, video streams flow off the pipe in a pleasing, jerk-free fluidity and online radio becomes a viable alternative to Kiss FM.

The rollout of ASDL will also bring demands for more video on websites, and with rapidly decreasing costs of desktop video editing, more programmes will appear on topics not related to gardening, motoring or Delia Smith, and that is something I can't wait to see. I gave up on terrestrial television a long time ago, but still lurk at CNN and SkyNews. Now with ZDNet putting a new show online every day, I hope that my channel-zapping days are well and truly over. I predict 1999 will also be a big year for satellite Internet connections, with football clubs cooking up new video-Web programmes that will not be available to the non-satellite Internet users.

I also expect online banking will take off next year, as the well-known British pastime of spending lunch hour queueing at the bank simply to pay the gas bill falls somewhat short of the desirable 21st-century banking experience. If my bank doesn't get its act together pretty soon, I will follow its CEO and move to an American competitor that understands my lifestyle and online payment systems. Bill Gates has been making noises about starting an online bank, and despite various misgivings about his style of software development, I would sign up as his e-wallet proposition is a lot more innovative than anything Barclays or Lloyds have yet to come up with.

Finally, I hope that 1999 will also be the year when I will receive an e-mail response from my local MP. Even if it's an automatic acknowledgement, I will frame it, cherish it and hang it above my bed, thankful for the pleasure of living in the era where the Government understands that its function is customer service. Complaints departments will have to answer in 24 hours and deal with the matter within a day or I shall withdraw my taxes. If it wasn't for the incomprehensible lack of progress of the Inland Revenue's own online efforts, I could even be withdrawing my taxes electronically.

All in all, there's sure to be plenty of entertainment to look forward to in 1999, that is if Y2K doesn't muck up our computer-based society well in advance of the Big Day. Meanwhile, I wish you a year full of of techno-adventures - and a cable modem.