Comdex '99: Post-PC gadgets finally get practical

Comdex/Fall '99 was different from previous years: The fancy futuristic stuff was real, abundant and within reach of the most tech-wary consumer

Walking the show floor at Comdex as a consumer is usually more of an exercise of "ain't that neat" rather than "I've gotta have it."

Booth after booth of gizmos line the aisles, promising passersby a gadget-packed tomorrow -- eventually. But Comdex/Fall '99 was different from previous years in one major respect: The fancy futuristic stuff was real and in abundance and within reach of even the most tech-wary consumer.

The gadgets are personal, portable and perhaps most shocking of all, actually practical.

Boosted by the promise of broadband and wireless technologies, companies are showing off portable gadgets that people might actually use -- and use soon. From Web watches to digital Walkmans, Comdex was chock-a-block with products that combined the Internet with small appliances, offering the promise of an untethered world where people can leave their PCs behind and yet still roam the Web.

One of the leaders in the movement is consumer electronics giant Sony. At Comdex, the company, which had an enormous presence on the show floor, announced plans to beef up its popular Walkman brand with a digital twist.

During the show, company president Nobuyuki Idea introduced the company's new Memory Stick Walkman, providing up to 80 minutes of music on a 64 MB memory stick no bigger than a stick of chewing gum. He also showed off the Music Clip, a pen-sized digital music player with a universal serial bus (USB) interface that can play music for up to five hours.

Already an expert at capturing the hearts and minds of consumers on the entertainment front, Sony also plans to blur the line between PCs, games and music with weapon No. 1: it's upcoming PlayStation 2, set to be released next autumn. "We believe (PlayStation 2) will actually accelerate the deployment of broadband networking into consumers' homes," Idea told the crowd during his keynote. "This is the first mass-market product for the broadband world."

Those who don't want to stay home, but still want to keep in touch, soon can get themselves a collection of wristwatch gadgets a la Dick Tracy.

At the show, companies ranging from 5-year-old Conversa to stodgy Valley legend Hewlett-Packard unveiled plans for watches that let users send or receive information from their wrists. Conversa promised to release its watchphone -- essentially a cell phone-watch combo -- late next year.

Meanwhile, HP CEO Carly Fiorina said her company would pair up with The Swatch Group, maker of the wildly popular plastic timepieces, to develop watches that can recognise their owners and send them customised information.

During her keynote address Fiorina spoke of making "the Web work for you". Her goal? Developing stuff that's practical. "We are committed to freeing our intellectual property from the labs," Fiorina said during her speech.

For example, she envisioned an alarm clock that would reset itself if it received news that traffic is light, or a home printer that would automatically print out a customised newspaper every morning after getting the information from the Web.

What's more, products featuring National Semiconductor's Geode Chip or new wireless technology such as Bluetooth promised to make it easier to get info on the go.

Information appliances are hardly new. In fact they've been around in concept as long as the interactive TV trials of the 1970s. Yet Palm Computing's (now 3Com's) successful foray into the handheld market has only recently convinced the industry that the market has strong potential. More than five million Palms have been sold since their debut in 1996.

What's more, TiVo and ReplayTV Networks have capitalised on America's love of the boob tube, creating set-top boxes with a PC-like hard drive, which can record several tens of hours of TV programming for viewing at anytime.

While only two years old, both companies have lined up an impressive list of investors and funding, even if they're not widely used, yet.

Tim Bajarin, President of research firm Creative Strategies, thinks it'll take at least a year before the information appliance market really takes off. "They need to flesh out the design concept and the distribution strategy," Bajarin said of companies breaking the PC mould. "I think they'll really hit their stride in 2001."

But this year's Comdex comes closer to any so far to actually delivering on the promise of the practical. Bajarin, who spent a few days weaving among the crushing crowds on the show floor, thinks that Web-mail terminals -- simple messaging devices that connect to the phone -- will be among the first information appliances to reach mass appeal because many people are already addicted to email.

Bajarin said Comdex has a decidedly different feel this year, with mainstays such as IBM staying in the background, yielding to broadband, wireless and Internet firms. "The old guard is pretty much gone," Bajarin said. "You've got a new crew in there."

What does the new category of devices mean for the more established firms? Look beyond the PC, or get left behind. "The PC is being challenged by information appliances," Gerry Kaufhold, principal of multimedia research, Cahners In-Stat Group, said. "It is a new market with new rules."

Even traditional desktop companies such as Microsoft and Dell Computer are getting that message, though they've come to the realisation reluctantly.

Bill Gates, who until last year touted the PC as the end-all be-all of computing, is now buying into the portable promise. During his keynote, Gates pushed a world of connected devices. However, these devices still rely heavily on the PC (and therefore on his dominant Windows desktop OS), leaving the purely wireless portable market to newer or more agile players. "The PC has gone to new heights. I believe it will continue to do so," Gates told attendees.

And even Dell CEO Michael Dell, who's long snubbed the handheld market, reportedly plans to license Research In Motion's BlackBerry, a wireless two-way communication device.

Perhaps the greatest testament of all: He reportedly carries one himself.

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For full Comdex coverage, see the Comdex '99 Special Report .