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Where, oh, where has the wow gone?

Transcending 'cool' requires 2 things

Kevin Maney, 01.12.05, 2:38 PM ET

Where is the wow?

Not many years ago, it seemed like a constant stream of new technology made even hard-boiled techno-weenies go, ''Wow!'' We're talking epiphanies -- thunderbolts that get industry types thinking of products and applications they never considered before.

But, at least for the moment, that's missing. The wow is gone.

This was made clear last week in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show, the biggest tech trade show of the year. Companies go out of their way to introduce their hottest whiz-bang doodads at CES. Yet in one conversation after another, attendees had a similar reaction: Nothing at the show blew their minds. Most of the technology on the vast, cacophonous floor seemed like more of the same, just improved.

''Nothing breakthrough that I could see,'' says industry analyst Gary Arlen. ''This was a year of maturity and catch-up -- integrating ideas that were announced and developed the past few years.''

Don't get me wrong: CES featured plenty of stuff that was cool. Lots and lots of cool. Video players the size of a deck of cards. Wireless systems that can fling music and movies to any player in the house. Wireless headphones built into a knit ski cap.

But there's a difference between cool and wow. Cool is design. It's incremental. Sony's new PlayStation Portable, unveiled at CES, is cool. It takes handheld gaming to the next level. But it doesn't transform portable game playing or open up grand new possibilities.

Wow was Napster, which blew the doors open for online music. Wow was Mosaic -- the first graphical Web browser -- which made people realize the Internet could be used by everyone. Wow was the BlackBerry, which meant you could get e-mail anywhere, not just at your desk.

So why is wow on the wane?

Well, tech folks have a couple of thoughts. Part of it could be that we -- the tech industry, the media, many consumers -- are all just jaded. The Internet boom of the late-1990s was a truly miraculous wow. And it engendered a giddy feeling among the public that technology could do anything -- if not now, then a few years out.

Once astronauts landed on the moon, the space station and the shuttle didn't seem very exciting. Similarly, after the Internet, TV on a cellphone seems like no big whoop. It's kind of expected.

But the lack of exhilaration goes deeper than tech-world weariness. Real wows require two things to happen, and neither seems to be apparent at the moment.

First, someone has to invent a radical enabling technology -- hardware or software that's not much good on its own but can be used to build something that's never been built before. The microprocessor and MP3 compression for music were both enabling technologies.

Then, someone has to take that enabling technology and invent a life-altering way to use it. MP3 made it possible for Shawn Fanning to launch Napster from his dorm room. Apple Computer and others latched onto the microprocessor and created the PC.

''The PC changed my life, and I knew it right at the first moment I tried one,'' says Heidi Roizen, managing director of tech investment firm Mobius Venture Capital. That's what wow is about.

The products at CES this year probably didn't change anybody's life. Almost everything -- even the coolest stuff -- was an extension of a product that was invented years ago. Smaller and better cellphones. Bigger and better HDTV sets. Software that makes various devices work together.

''It's more of a case of digesting technology that's been invented than introducing new technology,'' says analyst Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research.

The most recent breakthrough in enabling technology was probably the great leap in disk drive capacity for ever-shrinking costs in astoundingly smaller packages. The wow products built on that advance: Apple's iPod and TiVo's digital video recorder -- both now a few years old.

Is wow gone for good? Nah. As Elmer Fudd might say, this is just a wow wespite.

No question that groundbreaking enabling technologies will emerge -- they always do, because corporate labs and garage entrepreneurs keep banging at the edges of research and development. Some wow-producing technologies are probably floating around already, though it can be hard to identify them [not for readers of this website! Ed.].

One possibility: ''Very shortly here, unimagined computing power and memory is going to be traveling around in everyone's pocket on their cellphones,'' says Joel Jewitt, an executive at wireless e-mail company Good Technology. ''There is going to be one honking amount of real estate for applications developers to play on.''

Some company about to open its doors [or a little company in Bothell, WA... Ed.] might be the one that creates the wow out of this power in a pocket, Jewitt says.


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