CES: It's the triumph of the nerds

Computing industry geeks will dominate this year's giant exhibition of the latest and greatest in everyday devices - a testament to what a techno culture we've become

Just a few short years ago when these consummate geeks spoke, the only ones who really listened were their own nerdy kind.

But now look who's talking at the Consumer Electronics Show, the giant exhibition of the latest and greatest in everyday devices that begins here Wednesday evening. Not Howard Stringer of Sony of America, who headed the list of biggies last year. Not anyone from a TV maker, or a record label or a stereo manufacturer either.

Instead, it'll be Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy. They'll be joined by Eric Benhamou, the CEO of 3Com, the company that makes the Palm Pilot but still gets the lion share of its revenues from networking equipment.

Call it the revenge of the nerds, part deux. If the worldwide awareness of the Y2K bug wasn't enough to convince you we've evolved into a techno culture, then the stardom of Gates, McNealy and Benhamou at CES should: Their stature here symbolically underscores, yet again, just how mainstream and how ubiquitous information technologies have become.

The Internet and high-tech features are quickly becoming must-have items for any consumer electronics device. "The Internet is impacting consumer products of all sorts," said Claude Leglise, vice president and general manager of home products for PC chip maker Intel. "The actual consumer devices are all becoming computers. (High-tech) companies, Intel included, actually have an advantage in this world."

On Wednesday, the PC chip giant announced that it had eschewed its traditional role of making PC parts and will now make entire Intel-branded devices. The goal? "We want to go to homes that don't have a computer," said Leglise.

As high-tech companies invade new parts of the home, the lines between computers and ordinary home appliances will continue to blur, said Rob Schoeben, senior director of marketing for Microsoft's WebTV Network subsidiary. "Terms such as PC and TV tend to get antiquated really quickly. A TV that has a 15GB hard drive, a processor and a 32-inch screen -- what is that?"

WebTV pushes a mix of traditional TV, the Internet and the ability to pause live TV as the new replacement for the boob tube, what Microsoft calls "enhanced TV". The ability to pause live TV and search and record programs are two big features of a new technology called "personal TV", a central feature of new technology from startups TiVo and ReplayTV Networks

Television isn't the only appliance being changed by the high-tech honchos. Both Sun Microsystems and Microsoft have created networking technologies aimed at linking traditional appliances -- such as microwaves and washing machines.

For Sun, its appliance networking technology, known as Jini, is part of a long-standing bet on networking being the most valuable part of computers. "We haven't wavered in our vision at all," said Curtis Sasaki, director of product marketing for the consumer embedded group at Sun. "We think the network is going to be the key driver behind all these things."

Microsoft's technology, known as Universal Plug and Play, is similar in many ways to Jini, but relies on the software giant's base of Windows technology.

At least one analyst believes the PC industry is hedging its bets. Consumers may want a PC. Then again, they may not. So high-tech companies want to have a product for them in any event, said Rob Enderle, director of desktop and mobile technology for Giga Information Group. "In this case, it is not a case of trying to expand, this is more of a case that they are not frozen out of the market," he said of Intel's decision to move into information appliances. "Appliances are coming home. This is a way for Intel to make sure that the manufacturers are not using other companies' processors."

Yet, Sun's Sasaki waves off any claims that Sun or the PC industry sees dire straits ahead. "I don't think PCs lose," he said. "We are trying to think of it as, if you have broadband pipe into the home, what can you do with it? You can do a hell of a lot more than faster Internet access."

It's that thinking that puts the PC companies squarely in consumer electronics territory -- and suddenly changed some geeks into the coolest guys around.

For full coverage, see the CES News Special.

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