Mobile show spotlights gadgets on the go

As its name suggests, the annual DEMOMobile show in California last week is all about demonstrating new mobile technology products. The gathering, a spin-off of the more general-interest DEMO show, features gear, software, and services offered by everyone from big-name companies such as Logitech Inc. and Sprint Corp. to inventive start-ups with names like MyCasa Network Inc. and Xpherix Corp.

In past years, one big tech trend has sometimes dominated the event. Last year, it was Wi-Fi. This year, though, the show seems to be about trendlets, ranging from the growing viability of cell phones as data devices to the reemergence of Bluetooth.

PowerPoint-style shows are few in number; many presenters are aiming for laughs, with accoutrements ranging from a guitar to a bottle of vodka. But neither prop guaranteed success--many demos were hobbled by technical gremlins.

Still, the show is a useful, sometimes entertaining snapshot of new and upcoming mobile technology.

New in the Air

Some highlights:

Pocketable PC. Antelope Technologies Inc.'s Modular Computing Core looks like a compact hard drive, but a whole PC running Windows XP Professional is in there. It just lacks a screen, keyboard, ports, and power supply. Slip it into a sleeve and it becomes a tiny, rugged handheld computer; put it into a docking station, and it's a desktop PC. Based on an IBM Corp. research project, the device--with sleeve and docking station--will sell for US$3970 when it ships later this year.

Bluetooth on Your Desk. Bluetooth, a technology for personal wireless networking, has been hyped for years without ever quite catching on. But it seems to be gaining at least a little traction. One piece of evidence: the $180 Cordless Desktop MX from Logitech, which bundles a Bluetooth wireless keyboard, mouse, and hub. Bluetooth has a reputation for thorny setup; Logitech says it's taken pains to smooth things out. And the product comes with software for such tasks as wireless PDA syncing and PC-based messaging over cell-phone SMS networks.

A Playful PDA. Crossbreed a Palm handheld with a Game Boy, and you might get something like Tapwave Inc.'s Zodiac. Built around the Palm OS, this $299 pocket-sized device runs any Palm application, but it's optimized for action games. The unit has a big color display, stereo sound, an analog joystick controller, force feedback effects, and built-in Bluetooth for wireless multiplayer gaming.

Mobile phone sightings

A Phone With Windows... Microsoft is Corp. showing the Motorola MPx200, the first wireless phone for the U.S. market that uses Microsoft's Smartphone operating system. A sort-of Pocket PC OS that's been shrunken even further, Smartphone has a Windows-like look but is designed for one-hand operation. The MPx20 is due to be available from AT&T Wireless Services Inc. later this year.

...and Linux. The Windows-Linux war is moving off the desktop and into mobile phones: Smartphone will compete with Openwave Phone Suite 7 for Linux, a front-end application bundle for mobile phones. The company is showing Sharp phones running its software, but isn't ready to announce anything about product availability in the U.S.

...and Flash. The splashiest Web sites tend to use Macromedia Inc.'s Flash technology. At DEMOMobile, the company is previewing FlashCast, a software/service combination for cell phones that delivers news, photos, and other information with the slick animated look of Flash. Macromedia hopes that wireless carriers will offer services based on FlashCast, but it hasn't announced any partnerships yet.

Useful and unique

Server Come Home. Mirra, from Ispiri Inc., is a US$399 "Digital File Genie"--a personal file server with software that automatically backs up data whenever users create or save a file. What's the mobile angle for this product? It also lets users access their home files from the office or the road, via any PC with an Internet connection.

LAN Speed on the Road. Bytemobile Inc. is showing Optigo Enterprise Optimizer, a software package designed to accelerate mobile data access, such as Web connections over wireless phone networks. Though it's aimed at corporations with roving workers, the demo involved loading Dilbert.com to read the comics. The company is vague on how its software works, but it certainly did seem to speed up operations in this instance.

Unofficial Best of Show? Handheld manufacturer Handspring Inc. isn't at the event; and it will vanish altogether if its proposed merger with Palm Inc. (soon PalmOne Inc.) happens. But its upcoming Treo 600 seems to be everywhere. I saw at least three people toting the slick phone/PDA hybrids, even though they aren't shipping yet.

Wireless Notworking? A huge percentage of the demos had a wireless angle, and a fair chunk of them didn't work as expected. And when they didn't, vendors pointed fingers at everyone from service providers to audience members who were on the show's Wi-Fi network. Consider it real-world proof that wireless technologies of all types--nifty though they may be--are far from bulletproof.

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