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    Comdex: Spotlight's back on tech

    By Richard Shim, ZDNet News

    It's that time of year again, when geeks can forget about job insecurity, a slumping economy and security holes, and take time out to savor the gadgets of the future.

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       Can technology aficionados forget about security concerns, the slumping economy and their own job insecurity for a few days to focus on the latest advances in wireless networking and digital cameras?

    That's the key question for the scores of vendors who will be hawking their latest gadgets to shell-shocked visitors at the Comdex Fall 2001 show in Las Vegas next week.

    Although many other conferences have been canceled or postponed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a slimmer and more security-conscious Comdex is proceeding as planned. Some 150,000 attendees are expected this year, down about 25 percent from last year, and fewer major product announcements are planned.

    Much of the decline can be attributed to the severe beating the technology industry has experienced on retailer shelves and on Wall Street during the past year. But security concerns also are a strong undercurrent at this year's show.

    The show's organizer, Key3Media, has flip-flopped on some important issues, such as whether laptops will be allowed within the show and whether there will be a bag-check service. The latest policy is posted on the group's Web site.

    The show is not losing out only on attendees; some major exhibitors have pulled out as well. Following in the footsteps of Dell Computer and IBM, Gateway will not have a booth on the show floor this year.

    Gateway will instead focus on its sponsorship of ITEC, a series of local technology shows held in 60 different cities.

    Gateway spokesman Brad Williams said the Comdex decision was part of the company's increased focus on being a local technology provider through its Country stores.

    Despite declining interest, many companies will demonstrate products and try to ignite new trends.

    Wireless wonders
    Wireless networking will take center stage as companies look to make the most of their current PCs.

    "Where Bluetooth was a hot issue last year, 802.11b will be the hot issue this year," Creative Strategies analyst Tim Bajarin said.

    Although 802.11b wireless networking is far from ubiquitous, it is spreading from airports and hotels to coffee houses and beyond.

    "I fully expect to see (wireless networks) in restaurants, shopping malls. If you get enough of these hot spots, there will be a threat to these traditional cellular networks.

    Chipmaker Intel and networking giant Cisco Systems will be demonstrating wireless local area network products using the 802.11a protocol.

    The emerging standard--802.11a--is five times faster than the currently established 802.11b but is meant to complement 802.11b.

    Charles Giancarlo, Cisco's senior vice president and general manager of technology development, said Cisco has received strong interest from consumer electronics companies that are considering building wireless support into their audio and visual equipment.

    "The 802.11a technology is being looked at very carefully and strongly by the consumer electronics players who are looking at it as a wire replacement between components," Giancarlo said. "Because it can do full streaming video and audio, they're thinking if we can stick 802.11a on our components, we no longer have to have wires except for power and the speakers."

    Take one Tablet
    The wireless networking trend will be helped along by last year's hot topic, the Tablet PC, which was unveiled during Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates' keynote speech last year. Microsoft, Intel and Transmeta--as well as a few major PC companies, such as Compaq Computer and Toshiba--are expected to push the Tablet PC this year. The Tablet PC is a pen-based PC that computer manufacturers are expected to outfit with wireless networking capabilities. The concept was also demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show this past January.

    Intel will show prototype Tablet PC devices using its low-power Pentium III-M chips and low-power chipsets, a company representative said.

    The prototypes are expected to include two forms: a flat or slate-like device with no attached keyboard, and a "convertible" shaped like a traditional notebook, which would allow the screen to be opened, rotated 180 degrees and closed again to cover the keyboard and create a tablet.

    One of the more prominent designs will come from Fujitsu, which has been selling its Stylistic line of tablet-style portables in select markets for some time.

    Gates is expected to highlight at least one of the new prototypes in his keynote speech.

    PC makers have highlighted Tablet PCs since Gates' speech last year. But the price of these new PCs has been an issue, as the high price of components put the systems in the $700 to $800 range. Recent drops in component prices may help boost the viability of Tablet PCs.

    The bill of materials is now approaching close to $300, said former Transmeta Chief Executive Mark Allen, which could grease the skids for adoption toward the end of 2002.

    National Semiconductor is expected to jump into the Tablet PC mix with a prototype device that merges a Tablet PC with a handheld computer and a camera, Bajarin said.

    "There could be a lot of interest to people. The first and even the second generation of Internet appliances didn't take off, but they were kind of plain vanilla," Bajarin said.

    PC progress
    As it did last year, HP plans to show off a design for a PC of the future. This year's model includes a wide, flat-screen monitor; a cordless keyboard and mouse; and a case that can be stored some distance away from the monitor. An adaptation of last year's concept model, a slim Pentium 4 machine dubbed Deep Forest, is being added to HP's e-PC line.

    Dell Computer is also expected to release a new ultra-portable notebook at Comdex this year. The Latitude C400 will weigh 3.6 pounds and will come with integrated wireless capabilities.

    Handheld makers are expected to be quiet this Comdex after announcing major developments earlier in the year.

    Handspring Chief Product Officer Jeff Hawkins will give a keynote speech on Tuesday afternoon and is expected to mostly expand on the company's enterprise strategy. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company announced its cell phone and handheld combination devices, called Treos, in mid-October.

    Market leader Palm announced in late September that it would be postponing its wireless device and is unlikely to make any major announcements at Comdex following the resignation on Thursday of CEO Carl Yankowski.

    Microsoft's smart devices group announced its Pocket PC 2002 operating system back in September, and its hardware partners followed with product announcements in October.

    One Pocket PC device manufacturer--NEC--did not make a product announcement in October and is expected to make one at Comdex.

    Consumer electronics maker Sony is expected to announce a new PC-related music player at Comdex to improve U.S. adoption of its MiniDisc format. Kunitake Ando, Sony president and chief operating officer, will demonstrate the NetMD Walkman music player during his keynote speech Monday afternoon.

    The NetMD player will connect to PCs via the universal serial bus port to enable the high-speed transfer of digital music.

    Sony will also demonstrate the latest addition to its litter of robot dogs, called the Aibo ERS-220. The $1,500 dog is designed to appeal more to boys and men and will be available in late November.

    Hitachi will demonstrate the GMA-4020B drive, which supports several DVD recordable and rewritable formats in one drive. The drive will begin shipping worldwide in January, according to a Hitachi representative.

    Hewlett-Packard is expected to announce it will incorporate its DVD+RW drives into its line of Pavilion home PCs.

    News.com's Ian Fried, John Spooner and Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.

    Friday, November 9, 2001

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    Thursday, November 8, 2001

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    Wednesday, November 7, 2001

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