Low-key Comdex to highlight handhelds, Tablet PCs

The annual Comdex Fall trade show will begin in Las Vegas Sunday with 27 percent fewer exhibitors than last year, but organizers hope visitor numbers will remain high with people keen to see new handheld and Tablet PC products.

The drop in exhibitor numbers, from 1,500 to 1,100, reflects the "challenging" conditions of the IT and high-tech markets over the past few years, a spokesman for organizer Key3Media Group Inc. said Thursday.

"Some companies aren't spending as much as they used to on marketing, and others are just not among us any more. If you think how many companies, which may have exhibited at Comdex in the past, have gone since the Internet bubble burst, you can see why," he said

However, Key3Media still expects to attract 125,000 visitors, about the same number as last year, the spokesman said. Experienced show-goers last year, however, were saying that the real attendance figures were probably closer to 100,000.

Those visitors can expect to see a focus on gadgets, especially handheld devices, which are differentiating to cover as many market segments as marketers can dream up. The open source movement is also likely to be a strong presence at the show, as developers try to push their message.

Roger Kay, director of client computing at IDC in Framingham, Massachusetts, said Tuesday that he expects Tablet PCs, wireless technology and PDAs to be the major theme of this year's Comdex, along with the synchronization software needed to make them work together.

Microsoft Corp. launched the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition software and trotted out a host of manufacturers displaying Tablet PC hardware in worldwide events Nov. 7, but more product unveilings are expected.

"It will be interesting to see the formal coming-out of the Tablets. Several non-name-brand vendors are coming out of the woodwork," he said.

Wireless technology, too, will see some interesting developments, Kay said. "The development of a hot spot infrastructure (such as those in boutiques and coffee shops) will make mobile computing interesting," he said.

Vendors in the wireless LAN segment will look beyond the IEEE 802.11b specification, demonstrating products that squeeze higher performance from that widely used technology as well as ones that combine 802.11b with the faster 802.11a standard. Some also will be demonstrating or discussing implementations of the emerging 802.11g technology, which will bring higher speed to networks that use 802.11b's 2.4GHz spectrum band.

Two follow-ups are emerging to the popular 802.11b standard, which uses the 2.4GHz radio band and offers maximum bandwidth of 11M bps (bits per second). Products using 802.11a, now in stores, use the 5GHz band and offer up to 54M bps. The 802.11g standard, expected to be completed next year, should offer 54M bps on the 2.4GHz band and be compatible with 802.11b.

The Wi-Fi Alliance will sponsor a pavilion on the show floor where vendors will demonstrate wireless products and take turns giving presentations on stage.

Wireless LAN users have several ways to boost their performance and will have one more after 802.11b/802.11g products come out, but the networks may not be there to support the higher speeds, said Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at IDC, in Mountain View, California. (IDC is a division of International Data Group Inc., the parent company of IDG News Service.)

"In a home, where you can control everything, it's fine, but outside of that it just falls back to (11M bps)," O'Donnell said of enhanced 802.11b systems.

"I think we're going to have the same issue with the 802.11g stuff," he added. "People aren't going to rip out their 802.11b base stations."

Despite the promise of a faster 2.4GHz technology next year, 802.11a won't be irrelevant because it has more channels to support more users, according to Gerry Purdy, principal analyst at MobileTrax LLC, in Cupertino, California.

"I believe g is going to be positioned as a turbo b," Purdy said. "Your robust, next-generation, industrial-strength wireless LAN is going to be 802.11a," he added.

One area that may not produce a lot of news this year is security. Despite a keynote on security, featuring executives from leading vendors, those vendors have taken a pass on exhibiting at the show. So, while RSA Security Inc. CEO Art Coviello chats on stage about the state of corporate IT security with CEO Tom Noonan of Internet Security Systems Inc. and Gene Hodges, president of Network Associates Inc., attendees will not find booths hosted by any of those companies among the show's exhibits.

Which is not to say that this year's Comdex will be without some security announcements. Sun Microsystems Inc. and Check Point Software Technologies Ltd. are expected to unveil a new security appliance at the show, while VeriSign Inc. will be announcing new developments in its Trusted Commerce business initiative. That initiative is aimed at developing industrywide authentication standards and increasing merchant and consumer awareness of the importance of authentication in secure transactions.

In addition, several smaller security companies plan to take advantage of the lack of bigger competitors and announce their own products during the show.

Charles Kolodgy, a security analyst at IDC, says the lack of major security vendors exhibiting is part of the trend away from monolithic industry shows and towards smaller shows focused on particular technologies or market sectors.

"A couple years ago, security was really big at Comdex, but there are so many security shows these days. A lot of the pure security guys have just found that there was not enough of the type of people that they need to have at these shows."

Indeed, visitors to Las Vegas will have a choice of shows to visit, including a BioSecurity Summit at the MGM Grand hotel.

ApacheCon, the conference of the Apache Software Foundation, will also be running at the Alexis Park Hotel from Nov. 19 to Nov. 21. and Comdex attendees will be able to visit free of charge.

(Tom Krazit and Paul Roberts in Boston and Stephen Lawson in San Francisco contributed to this story.)

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Gillian Law

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