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Published: Tuesday, 4/3/2001

U.S. love of tech goodies bodes well for stocks

Pardon me, Ma'am, what do you have in your purse? Excuse me, Sir, empty your pockets.

What are you carrying around? A lot of technology, in all likelihood - probably more technology than existed in the entire world 50 years ago.

Never mind satellites and fiber optics, giant Cray computers, or Star Wars space-defense technology. We're talking about just plain old walking-around technology.

We take so much day-to-day technology for granted, it's no wonder that the Nasdaq composite index, heavy with tech stocks, is down 65 percent in the last year. The marketplace is flooded with high-tech equipment, ranging from computer chips to cell phones.

But a quick census of the everyday tech most of us carry around makes an investor wonder how long technology will remain a beaten-down sector.

Let's look at some of this stuff.

Cell phones are so common that when a phone rings in a public place, a dozen or more people dive for their own mobile phones. Some of these phones are extremely sophisticated - capable of tapping into the Internet, changing time zones automatically as the motorist travels across the country, and offering caller ID, e-mail, voice mail, customized phone book, and an appointment calendar.

Let's see - there's a calculator barely bigger than a credit card. It has more calculating power than desktop models had at one time.

There's a driver's license, with a hologram making identification much more reliable; an electronic library card that allows a reader to check out a stack of books in seconds; a business card that gives half a dozen ways to reach someone, including e-mail, fax, and cell phone; a pack of gum bearing a bar code; and a grocery receipt that (thanks to bar codes) shows exactly what the consumer bought, by brand name, and even an instant coupon tailored to his or her product preferences.

A typical man's pockets or woman's purse might contain car keys with computer chips capable of opening doors and trunk and perhaps even starting the engine remotely. There likely will be electronic entry cards for admission to the office, private clubs, and even the copying machine - and those cards not only serve a security purpose, but also an accounting function, keeping track of work hours, for example.

The typical purse or wallet might contain seven to eight credit cards or debit cards. electronic marvels that give a consumer freedom from carrying cash and the ability to spend money on a whim, even at 3 in the morning. Per- haps there's even a “smart card” or two, offering the convenience of prepaid long-distance telephone charges or prepaid gasoline.

Chances are, there's a lottery ticket printed out from an electronic terminal, a checkbook whose usefulness depends on machine-reading of routing symbols, and a bank or credit-union receipt bearing a 24-hour-a-day help-line number accessible through a touch-tone phone. There might even be a stock-trade confirmation from Ameritrade or E*Trade - more evidence of the technology we take for granted.

And don't forget the lowly dollar bill. The bill itself is not a paragon of high-tech, but its usefulness often depends on sophisticated recognition equipment that allows the consumer to translate bills into vending-machine food, postage stamps, and change.

Technology isn't dead. It's only sleeping. Nearly everyone, it seems, has a cell phone and a personal computer. Nearly all sports fans and entertainment addicts have the biggest and newest TV they can afford. There's too much tech stuff in inventory, and thus a lull in sales.

But is there a future for technology stocks? Someday, yes. Our walking-around technology is only the beginning. You haven't seen anything yet.

Homer Brickey is The Blade's senior business writer. E-mail him at homerbrickey@theblade.com.



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