Focus on handheld devices at PC Expo

The biggest summer trade show shouts it loud and clear: the personal computer era is dead, long live the handheld gizmo!NEW YORK, June 30 (MaxisNet) - Visitors to this week's 18th annual PC Expo need not wander far beyond the big-name computer makers' facade fronting the entrance to see how much the industry has shifted away from bulky, general-purpose PCs.

The biggest summer trade show shouts it loud and clear: the personal computer era is dead, long live the handheld gizmo!

NEW YORK, June 30 (MaxisNet) - Visitors to this week's 18th annual PC Expo need not wander far beyond the big-name computer makers' facade fronting the entrance to see how much the industry has shifted away from bulky, general-purpose PCs. The 85,000 attendees at what is billed as the world's largest PC show received a panoramic view of what's ahead in electronic gadgets - from handheld computers to digital cameras, recordable compact discs and Web phones.

But beyond a few big names of the personal computer era - IBM, Gateway, Toshiba and Hewlett-Packard-- it's hard to find many of the beige boxes that ushered in a worldwide personal technology revolution two decades ago.

"It's all devices orbiting the PC," veteran industry analyst Richard Doherty, of Seaford, N.Y.-based Envisioneering Group, said.

Organisers of PC Expo say the PC is no longer the point. "It's mobile and wireless technology, it's Web-enabled solutions, it's pervasive business computing," said Randy Zane, spokesman for trade-show organiser Miller-Freeman. "We don't want to change the name because people know it."

Look closely at a major PC maker these days and you'll find an Internet appliance developer in the making. Those computers that PC pioneer IBM has put out front on display look like television screens with the computer box missing. Instead, the brains of the computer are built into the back of the flat-panel display.

Meanwhile, IBM is showing off Palm-based handheld computers, cellphones and wristwatch computers in private, part of a push in recent years into what it calls the next generation of "pervasive computing."

Compaq Computer Corp., the world's No. 1 PC maker, didn't bother to hire a major booth this year, opting instead to flog its products at kiosks located in the massive booths of partners' Microsoft and Novell. Second-ranked Dell Computer Corp. even dispensed with a kiosk, settling for one-on-one meetings with analysts and journalists.

Scouting around, one can find a kiosk for Compaq's new iPaq handheld computer, squeezed behind Tekware Solutions, a 15-person firm that sells handhelds used by sports stadium food franchises.

"You'll see us all over the place, just not in one location," Simon Eastwick, a Compaq server marketer.

There's no single star of the show but rather a chorus line of competing wireless handheld computers from Palm Inc., the industry leader, Handspring Inc., and newcomer Sony Corp., the consumer electronics giant, all based on Palm software.

Taking advantage of the growing convergence between computers and consumer home electronics, more than 50 of the conference's 600 exhibitors showcased a new generation of rewritable digital video disk players and related equipment, capable of videotaping and recording two-hour-plus videos.

"The show has more consumer electronics in it than any other PC show in history," Doherty said.

The absence for the first time of any PC makers from among the keynote speakers list signals the shift: Jeff Hawkins, a co-founder of Palm and now head of rival Handspring, kicked off the conference on Tuesday, while Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos spoke on Wednesday, while futurist Ray Kurzweil is set to speak on Thursday about technology in 2050.

There's no small distinction between PCs and the newer Web appliances: Many of the tools and services bundled onto PCs are now being split up and offered separately on a variety of special-purpose devices.

The personal computer industry is not so much dying as splitting into two: new access and data input devices emphasise simplicity, mobility and light weight. Complex tasks are handled via wireless links to data stored on centralised computers. For while PCs are adaptable, one-size-fits-all systems, appliances are targeted devices, designed for specific purposes such as personal organisers, wireless communications, or Internet music and movie players.

"There's probably not going to be one all-dancing, all singing device," said Al Kessler, chief operating officer of Palm Inc., the leading maker of handheld computers, said while speaking on a panel of Internet appliance makers.

But though much of the marketing firepower has shifted to small, sexy handhelds suited for quick e-mails and simple electronic transactions, only PCs can provide the processing power and flexibility necessary to run the majority of existing data processing software, despite their bulkiness.

Still, PCs used by home and office workers are projected to grow at an annual growth rate of 15 percent over the next three years and ship about 200 million units by 2003, according to a recent report by ING Barings analyst Robert Cihra.

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