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More evolutionary than revolutionary

Excitement at an annual computer show takes a pause while technology moves into a digital age that is "wireless, wearable, Webified.''

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 23, 1998


LAS VEGAS -- Considering all the electronic gadgetry jammed into the Comdex show last week, the buzz seemed muted, the hype half-hearted.

Sure, high-tech companies showed off their latest and greatest, devices with more power, speed and functions, along with the familiar theme of smaller and cheaper that has dominated electronics for years. And 220,000 people showed up to look (and play) in the aisles of two sprawling convention centers.

But only a few products generated the gee-whiz talk that this annual show built its reputation on. Experts described the technology this year as more evolutionary than revolutionary, tweaking many of the products already on the market and preparing for future trends.

The pause, said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Inc., a high-tech consulting firm, is a result of technology "moving into the digital stage," using chips and sensors that allow devices of all sorts to handle more functions, work at greater speeds and interact with other gadgets. This evolution had experts eagerly anticipating, and trying to predict, what the technological landscape will look like in a few years.

Cheryl Currid, president of Currid & Associates in Houston, ticked off a list of products that were developed separately but are starting to work together to make high-tech life "wireless, wearable, Webified."

For example, you can scan a document while in a car or at a meeting using a new hand-held device from Hewlett-Packard, then transfer it through infrared sensors (no cable required) to a Nokia wireless phone that comes with a built-in Palm Pilot personal digital assistant. You can use the Palm Pilot's software to create a fax of the scanned document and send it over the phone, all without ever touching a keyboard or being near an office.

"This is getting to be a very device-oriented world," Currid said. "The technology is there. What are we going to do with it?"

Technology to create office-style networks in homes was prominent at the show, with about a dozen companies touting their networking technology. A number of companies, including Philips, displayed products that will connect devices within a house wirelessly.

But Bajarin and Sean Kaldor, a vice president at market research firm International Data Corp., predicted that home networking will be a slow-developing trend. Kaldor pointed out that there aren't that many devices beyond computers in the different rooms of a home that can be connected.

The expanding uses of wireless technology and the increasing role of the Internet were also main themes at the super-show, with its 2.55-million square feet of exhibit space.

One of the few products that did create a buzz was the WebPAD by the Cyrix Corp. (www.cyrix.com). The wireless device, which is expected to be available next year, will allow someone to surf the Web and check e-mail from anywhere in a house. It uses a touch screen (a keyboard will be optional), weighs less than 3 pounds and is the size of a sheet of letter paper, 8.5 inches by 11 inches. It can receive its signals by radio waves from a home PC, a special set-top box for Internet access or its own stand-alone base.

While the price has not been determined, Cyrix's promotional material says the costs may be "low enough that ISPs (Internet service providers) can give it away free with Internet services."

Some of the other technologies on display in the 2,400 booths and meeting rooms, though, brought shrugs or a wait-and-see attitude:

* High-definition TV: It delivers an incredibly crisp picture, but its immediate future has "'a dark side," said IDC's Kaldor. Price, for one. Sets cost $5,000-$10,000, with little programing available and not much expected for a few years.

* Convergence: Combining gadgets, such as a PC and a TV, has gotten a lot of attention, but some experts doubt people will want these hybrid devices. They may be perfectly happy with separate units that each do something they want -- and do it well.

For example, in the kitchen, people have an oven, but they also may have a toaster oven, toaster and microwave for specific purposes, Kaldor said, adding that his firm sees "divergence, not convergence" of technology.

"I have a hard time imagining I want to watch a movie on a PC," said Bajarin, referring to plug-in cards for a PC that allow TV viewing by computer.

* Digital video discs: Kaldor says it will take time to wean people away from their VCRs and tape collections, but he predicts DVD will succeed. He doesn't like the chances of Divx, a DVD competitor developed by Circuit City that is opposed by many in the industry and has fewer movie titles available.

* Information appliances: Demand will grow, Kaldor predicted, for things such as Internet TV, hand-held devices that can access the Internet and screen phones. Internet TV will grow in phases, with set-top boxes dominating before we see an "Internet-ready" television.

* Personal computers: No one predicted their extinction, though other devices will continue to pick off some of their functions. "The PC is no longer the center of the world," Kaldor said.

* The next "hot" items: IDC's Kaldor saw a growing role for electronic books, portable digital music players and set-top boxes that convert digital signals so current analog TVs can receive programing.

Even without a dazzling display of new inventions, some technophiles found cause for celebration in the evolutionary developments on display at Comdex.

PC Magazine editor in chief Michael J. Miller cited the quality of digital cameras, which can compete with film cameras at prices that are far lower than they were a year ago. Electronic books made their debut at the show this year. Flat-panel monitors for computers have improved in the last year, with prices dropping by more than half in some cases.

And Microsoft's Bill Gates used the show to unveil a new technology that he says will make text far easier to read on computer screens.

"I'm pretty jazzed," said Miller. "There's a lot of cool stuff."

But Miller says the electronics industry needs to improve in one important area.

"The industry has made advances on ease of use, but not enough," he said. "They're better than a year ago, but are they as good as they ought to be? No."

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