Preview: Mobile connectivity rules

You can't be too mobile, wireless, or connected at the Comdex trade show, where a smaller than usual field of about 1000 exhibitors are gathering this week to show the computer industry's latest gadgets and technology.

Organizers of Comdex Fall 2002, which runs through to Friday, hope to draw about 125,000 attendees to prowl about a half-million square feet of exhibits. Exhibitor participation has shrunk about 34 percent from last year, but attendance is projected to be about the same, according to Key3Media Group Inc.

This year's buzz--if at lower volume--is on emerging wireless technologies and mobile gadgets. New high-capacity storage devices like writable DVD drives and micro-drives for tiny devices are likely to garner attention.

"This year we are focusing on practical innovations," says Mike Millikin, senior vice president of Key3Media.

The innovations follow the themes of security, wireless technology, data storage, and so-called "digital lifestyle" products like next-generation handheld PCs and cell phones that connect to the Internet and come with keyboards and cameras.

Have Device, Will Travel

Many of the mobile devices, in particular, have been recently introduced and are being shown off for the first time at Comdex. For example, Dell Computer Corp. is launching its US$199 Axim X5 line of Pocket PCs. Also, Hewlett-Packard Co. is showing its affordable new $299 H1910 IPaq and a souped-up $699 H5450 with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi wireless support and a biometric fingerprint reader.

Many Tablet PC makers and Tablet PC software vendors have their first big showcase at Comdex. They only recently unveiled their wares, after Microsoft released its Windows XP Tablet Edition earlier in November. Now, the Tablet PC proponents are gearing up to convince buyers they need the new device. Hewlett-Packard, Fujitsu, and Toshiba are among those displaying recently announced products.

"It will be interesting to see the formal coming-out of the Tablets," says Roger Kay, IDC's director of client computing. "Several non-name-brand vendors are coming out of the woodwork."

One such firm is Gerak Mobile Technology, which is launching at Comdex what it calls the world's smallest Tablet PC. Software firm FrogPad is hopping onto the Tablet PC pad, with peripherals like a one-handed keyboard. Corel is showing Corel Grafigo, a Tablet PC program for sketching, annotating, and creating graphics.

No Strings Attached

Wireless networking is another dominant theme of the week-long trade show, which features a Wi-Fi Pavilion with familiar and new participants.

Chip makers Broadcom and Intersil are among those looking beyond the IEEE 802.11b specification. Both are demonstrating 54 megabit per second wireless networking products based on the IEEE 802.11g prototype specifications.

Other wireless promotions come from Proxim, Texas Instruments, and others. They're showing dual 802.11a and 802.11b products that support both wireless standards. The trade group Wi-Fi Alliance is promoting its Wi-Fi Protected Access initiative for securing wireless LANs.

Philips Electronics is hosting a Wi-Fi Digital Home that features wireless everything--from its LCD TVs, speakers, and media receivers to Wi-Fi Internet radio.

LCD-Palooza

Comdex has no shortage of large LCDs, with nearly a dozen vendors showcasing big, bright, and affordable flat panels. Exhibitors include NEC, BenQ, CTX, and Eizo Nanao.

Samsung is showing what it touts as the world's biggest LCD: a 40-inch monitor. Toshiba is offering a technology preview of a LCD display that can render images in 3D--and no funny glasses are required.

Even Mira, Microsoft's delayed wireless display technology, is getting a boost. Microsoft Chair Bill Gates is expected to discuss the technology at his Sunday night keynote address.

Storing More

On the storage front, Comdex exhibitors are addressing growing appetites for mobile, small, and high-capacity drives. Samsung is unveiling its first DVD-RW drive, and Maxell is adding to its line of DVD drives.

But don't expect the scrapping among competing DVD formats (DVD-RW, DVD-RAM, DVD+RW) to ease. Instead, look for vendors pushing dual DVD drives that support multiple standards.

Several companies are pushing the mobile storage envelope with ever-smaller storage devices. Netac Technologies is showing its latest CompactFlash card with a built-in USB port to plug your digital camera's CompactFlash card directly into your PC--sans card reader. Flex-P is showing its recently announced 1GB Type 1 CompactFlash card. Iomega is promoting some new 64MB and 128MB USB drives developed in partnership with M-Systems' DiskOnKey.

Tech Heavyweights

This year's Comdex includes keynote addresses from Microsoft's Gates, Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina, and Scott McNealy, chief executive of Sun Microsystems.

Among the companies with the biggest presence at the event are Microsoft, HP, Samsung, Nokia, Toshiba, and BenQ (the re-branded name for Acer Peripherals).

"This has been the most difficult time in the tech sector in years," Millikin acknowledges. But he remains optimistic about the success of the annual tech event.

"Even in its hampered state, the tech sector is still a $1.3 trillion market," he notes. "People aren't going to lose interest in buying and investing in technology anytime soon."

But even Key3Media is feeling the economic pinch and pain. The firm that organizes Comdex says it may not be able to make debt payments and may have to file for bankruptcy protection.

- Gillian Law of the IDG News Service contributed to this report.

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