Where innovation is alive and kicking
By Paul Taylor
Financial Times November 19
Is innovation dead in IT? The great and the good of the IT industry gathered in Las Vegas over the weekend for the annual Comdex Fall geek-fest to prove that innovation is not only alive, it’s kicking.
Led by Bill Gates, Microsoft's multi-billionaire chairman and chief software architect, IT industry vendors set out to persuade cautious consumers and business customers battered by the dotcom bust and the weak economy that the sector still knows how to innovate and create new 'gee whiz' products.
While this year's show is dominated by wireless networking, along with the home and office devices designed to take advantage of these wire-free connections, Mr Gates set the pace with a slew of new announcements from Microsoft itself.
He kicked off his speech on Sunday by talking about the current 'digital decade' in which all types of human activities will become digitised, from note taking to bill paying, and computing power will become nearly ubiquitous. "It's not just sitting in front of that desktop PC," he said. "That's very important, but that's just a piece of what we are trying to do. The magic of software is spreading out to all different devices - and those devices are connecting in different ways."
To prove the point the Microsoft chairman showed prototypes of a new technology designed for the home called 'Smart Personal Object Technology' or Spot. In this case the technology was built into a wirelessly connected alarm clock hooked up to a home PC which, in addition to waking its owner, fetched timely and relevant weather and traffic information and calculated the time to its user's first appointment. The same technology could be built into watches and other small personal and home devices.
Microsoft, which has been working on smart objects for three years, aims to have the first crop of devices on the market by the end of next year. The company has been working with chipmaker National Semiconductor to develop low-cost chips that can make the devices affordable. Mr Gates promised more information about Spot will be divulged at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.
He also announced a new program, called OneNote that will be built into Microsoft's Office software suite and which is designed to enable users to better organise meeting notes, capture graphics and preserve URLs from the web as well as find information easily from a hard drive. He predicted that the combination of OneNote and hardware devices like the Tablet PCs launched 10 days ago would transform the way people work in the office and use technology at home.
Among the new hardware devices unveiled at Comdex this year are the first smart displays – tablet-style LCD screens wirelessly linked to a home PC that enable users to walk around the home or sit on a sofa watching television while accessing information on their home PC or the Web. ViewSonic, the Taiwanese display specialist, is showing two smart display models - boasting 15- and 17-inch screens - at Comdex this year. They will both go on sale in Asia, Europe and the US in early January.
Meanwhile NEC, the Japanese hardware vendor, is showing off its super-thin and light Tablet PC that will be available early next year. Six other Tablet PC vendors, Toshiba, Fujitsu, Hewlett-Packard, Acer, ViewSonic and Motion, have already begun shipping their machines. During the show Gateway Computer is expected to announce that it has formed a partnership with Motion to ship Motion's 'slate-style' tablet PC.
Gateway, along with US PC-maker Alienware, is also expected to announce that it will begin shipping a Media PC based on Microsoft’s Windows XP Media PC edition software. Until now Hewlett-Packard has been the only PC maker to launch a Media PC package.
Another hardware area attracting attention is the handheld PC market, where machines based on Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system have been making inroads into a market once dominated by Palm PC devices. At this show Dell Computer, which traditionally waits for a market to become established before producing its own devices, is launching the Axim - its first handheld machine. This comes in two models, including a $199 version which looks like a winner.
Hewlett-Packard, which inherited the iPaq brand when it acquired Compaq earlier this year, will also be showing two new versions - a low cost model and a high-end device with built in Wireless networking. For its part, Palm was showcasing its new $499 Titanium Palm, a sleek handheld that runs on an a much faster processor than the company's earlier devices and uses a new operating system.
The most interesting feature of the Titanium is its built in support for Bluetooth - the short-range wireless technology that has been developed over the last few years. This feature enables the machine to be used with a Bluetooth enabled mobile phone to make wireless voice and data calls without a physical connection between the two devices.
There are several Bluetooth products on display this year including wireless headsets for mobile phones and a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse set from Microsoft. Most telecoms equipment vendors are showing 3G wireless handsets designed to exploit the high speed data capabilities of the CDMA2000 1X and GPRS networks that are being deployed by all the leading network operators in Asia, Europe and the US.
Mobile phones that include a digital camera enabling the user to snap and send digital images to friends and family are also on display from vendors like Samsung, Sanyo and Sony Ericsson.
Within the home, 802.11b or WiFi wireless networking equipment is expected to be one of the hottest sellers this Christmas season. The basis kit needed to set up a WiFi home network now costs little more than $100 and has become much easier to set up and manage. Meanwhile companies such as Netgear and Proxim are showing higher speed wireless network equipment based on the 802.11a standard.
In the US market at least, WiFi connectivity is rapidly becoming ubiquitous and is being built into most new notebook PCs and a growing number of handhelds. Outside the home or office a growing number of hotels, conference centers and airport lounges are deploying WiFi networks for public use.
For further afield companies like Canada's Sierra Wireless are selling high speed data PC cards that enable mobile users to exploit the high speed data connections offered by 3G wireless network operators.
Other than wireless connectivity, the other main theme of this year's Comdex is the rapid adoption of DVD recording products and software despite a continuing standards battle. Panasonic, Sony, Pioneer and others all have new DVD recorders on the market - some that plug into PCs and others that operate as stand-alone units and are expected to eventually replace the humble VCR.
One of the most offbeat products on display at Comdex for the first time this year is a line of watches developed by Fossil that incorporate a fully functioning Palm PC - including a pointer stored in the watch strap. It seems wearable PCs have finally arrived.