Features

TECHNOLOGY: Joining the digital age

National | The IRS and foreign casinos are using the Net to get your money; Windows 2000 hits store shelves; monitoring your health online; and the ubiquitous cell phone

Issue: "1st-grade murder," March 11, 2000

IRS: Internet Revenue Service?
Hate the 1040 tax form? Soon you may never have to see it, at least not its paper version. The IRS says electronic tax returns are coming twice as frequently as last year, as more taxpayers turn to the Internet or software-based preparation services. To encourage the trend, President Clinton asked Congress this year to approve a $10 tax credit for people who file electronically. This would cover the typical cost of paying a service. (One company, H.D. Vest, will file people's returns for free as a promotional effort.) As part of an effort to clean up its image, the IRS set a goal of 80 percent e-filing by 2007. (Last year, only about one in four returns were filed electronically.) "These taxpayers reap the benefits of having more accurate returns and faster refunds," boasted IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti. The real kicker is that the agency claims e-filers are 40 times less likely to be audited than other taxpayers. Tax preparation software like TurboTax and TaxSaver typically takes about 30 minutes to file, as opposed to about three and a half hours for the old-fashioned way. This year, 33 million people were sent special codes letting them submit paperless forms without a pen-and-ink signature. This replaces the old system, where e-filing must be accompanied by a form signed and sent by regular mail. Yet even with more convenient filing, the IRS is still the IRS, with all its problems and scandals. A 1999 congressional report said it sent out millions of dollars in fraudulent refunds last year, can't keep track of assets like cars and computers, and has lousy computer security. If anything, e-filing is a late development. After all, banks have let customers do computerized transactions via ATM for 20 years. Changing a form doesn't change the system. Go broke from the comfort of home
Who needs Las Vegas when we have the Internet? Online casinos have quietly attracted millions willing to lose money in exchange for a quick thrill. Online gaming analyst Sebastian Sinclair says the roughly 200 companies in this business will take in nearly $1.5 billion this year and $3 billion by 2002. That's still a fraction of the revenues of commercial casinos ($20 billion) and American Indian operations ($7.2 billion), according to 1998 figures from the American Gaming Association. But it's growing. Lawmakers and law-enforcement officers are trying to figure out what to do about this explosion. Today, federal law prohibits the use of the Internet for sports betting. A bill banning casino-style games is bouncing around Congress. While operators would receive fines starting at $20,000 and possible prison sentences, most online casinos are based in Europe, Australia, and the Caribbean-beyond the reach of U.S. law. And online gamblers will be hard to track. Players say online gaming offers the thrill of regular casinos without the time, expense, and discomfort of Las Vegas and Atlantic City. The downside is that one never really leaves the casino. Someone who flies into Vegas will lose money and go home, but an online gambler can keep trying and trying. Windows 2000: 63,000 ways to go wrong
Finally! Windows 2000 is alive. After spending $1 billion and four years of effort on development amid many delays, Microsoft's new operating system finally made it to store shelves. The software giant's latest attempt to crack the business computing market is considered one of the most complex programs of its kind ever written. The controversial successor to Windows NT takes up about 35 million lines of code and contains features few people can explain or even understand. Windows 2000 is intended for serious computing tasks that require more stability, security and-for laptops-better power-management features. Even though it looks like a twin of Windows 95 and 98, it is structurally different from its consumer-oriented cousins. The program also has its share of critics: The trade publication Smart Reseller claims the software contains 63,000 possible defects. Many users are still angry about Windows NT's notoriously unpredictable nature that can lock up unexpectedly via the infamous "Blue Screen of Death." This causes users to reboot and lose time and data due to the crash. To boost Windows 2000, Microsoft rolled out a massive promotional effort, including more than $200 million in advertising alone. Yet the business market has fiercer competition, with products like Solaris, NetWare, and Linux all jockeying for corporate support. Microsoft's success here is not guaranteed. For many, Windows 2000 is just another upgrade from the last release of Windows NT. But Windows 2000 is a big test for Bill Gates & Co., especially as Microsoft looks to future development. Can the leader stay on top? Will any bugs be fixed? Will companies stick with a familiar look and feel? Or will they move to something that promises not to crash as often? Phone everywhere
More and more Americans are using their mobile phone as their main phone. About 2 percent of 86 million wireless subscribers use their mobiles as their only phone, according to the Yankee Group research firm. Why? Many services offer flat long-distance rates and the ability to talk from remote locations. Also, some people don't like waiting for a conventional wired phone. Ed Reynolds, president of BellSouth Mobility, says customers reach for their cell phones instead of waiting for someone else to finish or wandering around looking for a pay phone. Cell phones are being used in all sorts of strange circumstances. A Virginia medical student called for help when a carjacker forced her into the trunk of her car. A police dispatcher kept the unidentified woman on the phone while officers tracked the call by identifying the tower receiving the signal. (Officers finally found him and chased him until he crashed on an exit ramp. The unidentified woman only received a bump on the head; the alleged gunman was charged with carjacking, armed robbery, and eluding police.) The technology's usefulness is still expanding. Oracle Corp. launched a new company called OracleMobile.com that will make popular sites like Amazon.com, eBay, and Etrade readable on mobile phones. It is also working with Motorola on voice recognition and other ways to put lots of content into a little phone. Some companies, like Sprint and BellSouth, offer some Internet services, but they are primitive and hard to use. Future wireless phones will be more like portable desks-and the Internet will be everywhere. Everything from cookbooks to calendars to cattle futures will be available by reaching into your pocket. Online health: Just don't get a busy signal
In the future, doctors might not make house calls, but they may use the Internet to see how you're doing. The medical technology company Medtronic developed a special heart monitor called Chronicle that lets physicians track chronic disease over the Web. The device is being tested right now in 120 patients who had tiny monitors implanted inside their hearts to record every beat and twinge. Soon they will be able to upload their latest details straight to their doctors over the Web. The beauty of this is that it can track blood pressure and other subtle danger signs that were checked previously only with a hospital visit. The doctor receives his updates and decides if a medication change or other treatment is necessary. Richard Miller, director of the Mercy Heart Institute in Sacramento, Calif., is trying out a similar device called the Health Buddy. He says this is a step toward full online monitoring of patients, and he says they love it: "They feel as though they're in touch with a caregiver on a daily basis." The hope behind Chronicle and Health Buddy is that congestive heart failure can be more easily tracked. Congestive heart failure can be really scary: One day you're fine, the next you're gasping for air as you're raced to the hospital. Doctors could head off thousands of these crises just by changing some dosages. Eventually some sort of health-tracking device will become commonplace. Promoters of nanotechnology say that, as computers become tinier and tinier, one day-decades from now-doctors will use computers to fix broken body parts. After all, if computers can make us wealthier, they may also make us healthier.

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