Comdex '99: The battle for the 'information appliance'

Symbian, Microsoft, Sun, Palm -- all have their own vision for the info appliance of the future. But none of those visions are compatible

Tuesday evening at Comdex in Las Vegas. The venue, the ballroom at the lush Venetian hotel. The topic for debate: information appliances -- What they do now, what they will do tomorrow. The usual enemies stepped up for battle: Sun, Microsoft and Palm. Psion was there also with columnist Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal mediating.

Insults flew, particularly from Sun's founder Bill Joy who could not resist jabs at Microsoft's senior vice president of consumer strategy Craig Mundie. Mundie spent most of the debate defending his leader's commitment to the PC and the curious prediction that consumers will employ Windows 2000 as a server in their homes.

While the gurus battled it out, one thing became clear: no one agrees on what the consumer needs to survive the second millennium on the Internet.

Mossberg, arguably the closest representative of the consumer, said he wanted a mobile phone that would double up as an email device and a Web surfing device, but couldn't decide whether or not he'd need a PC to synchronise all his data. "Why would you synchronise on a PC when you can do it on the Internet?" countered Joy, touting his company's Jini language.

And so began the battle of the camps. Microsoft's Mundie reckons CE devices are the future, Palm's Kessler says simple Palm devices, Psion's Potter predicts Symbian.

The only consensus here seemed to be that no one single solution would provide an answer. We all want simple, intuitive designs that will get us on the Net, give us reliable email and, if we're lucky, built in telephone capability. Reliability was uppermost in the debate with Microsoft's now legendary "blue screen of death" receiving special attention, particularly from Joy and Kessler who questioned Microsoft's prudence in the handheld arena with the struggling CE.

Standards were bantered about with each speaker proclaiming his own company was working for the benefit of the consumer with various standards. The reality however is that the major players all believe passionately in their own designs and neither share a vision that supports a single standard.

The result? Ultimately the consumer will have to decide for himself on what product to use. "Consumers will probably have to use a combination of devices to satisfy their needs," said Potter, "choosing a couple of devices, be it a PDA, a smartphone or whatever, in combination."

The disappointment for the consumer is that despite the intellect flying around the Venetian ballroom, there was no agreement on what the devices of the future will look like, how they will communicate or whether they will replace the PC. Bluetooth got a mention, and despite reports that Microsoft will announce its support for the wireless technology next month, Mundie gave nothing away.

At the end of the debate, attendees were left wondering what they had learned. "None of them are interested in the consumer's needs," said one developer. "They're only interested in their own agendas, making sure this gold rush continues so they can get rich in the confusion. We're still going to have to use two or more products to get what we want and that will suit at least two of them just fine."

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