Comdex 2001, Monday/Tuesday

In this issue:

Progress report: Comdex from a distance

Havenít had enough? Hereís more.

A few product notes

General comments and observations

Keynote highlights: Sony, Cisco, Oracle

 

Comdex definitely looks different from Massachusetts. Itís colder, for one thing. Thereís a lot less walking involved. My ears donít ring at the end of the day, although the eyestrain is a bit worse. Iím getting more sleep than usual at Comdex. And I havenít lost nearly as much money, even though my car seat cushions could give any slot machine a run for its money. Or my money, for that matter.

 

Mostly, itís much harder to get information. Love it or hate it, the traditional trade show is the most efficient way to find out something about everything, quickly. More important, itís the best way I know to get a good sense of where the tech industry is going and where it might be a year from now. You donít need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows, but Comdex sure helps.

 

Itís harder to find things out, but far from impossible. Enough of the Comdex buzz fits through my cable modem, and Iíve got lots to talk about. Iíll start with the keynotes, which are easy, but Iíll tell you that, when it comes to product demos and announcements, some of the good stuff is out there too.

Havenít had enough? Hereís more.

In the course of researching these dispatches, I take lots of notes. Most of that information, but not all, ends up here. If youíre interested in seeing the raw notes (theyíre not pretty, Iíll warn you), check my website at http://www.waystation.net/stillman. These dispatches are archived there as well.

 

I would ask, if you forward these reports, to let me know who youíre passing them on to. Iím particularly curious this year to find out who reads them.

 

General observations from the show

Just reporting on the public announcements might be enough, but doesnít get below the surface. You trust me to ask the hard questions, so here are some.

PC Magazine Technical Excellence awards

When Iím in Las Vegas, this is my favorite party to crash. Over the past few years theyíve moved it around and made it a bit harder. But itís worth the effort for the quality of the invited guests and the awards show itself Ė if not for the food, which is on the low end of the scale for Comdex parties. This year, I only get to read the results. If I turn up the volume on my subwoofer and play loud music while Iím reading the web page, I can almost feel like Iím there.

 

In a win almost predictable for a show that has been built around the Wintel PC, Windows XP beat Mac OS X for the desktop software award. Consider that OS X was originally slated to go head to head with Windows 95. Still, itís a great product in itself. The wildcard in this category was Groove, the collaboration platform touted by Bill Gates himself during his Sunday keynote. Successful collaboration software has been a long time coming, but with a powerful list of key partners including Microsoft, the momentum is finally here.

 

In the PC category, two of the three finalists had pen-based designs. Neither used the pen as a text input device, instead capturing the ink for note-taking or drawing applications. The IBM Trans-Note, a marriage of an ultralight notebook PC and a Crosspad, took home the prize.

 

An interesting nominee in the Development Tools category is IDA Pro, a code disassembler. This commercial-grade product can convert almost any compiled program back into usable source code. While some consider it a hacker tool, it has found a home in Fortune 500 companies, and its authors call it ďethically neutralĒ. Itís produced and marketed by the same company that makes the F-Secure virus tool. Look for them at http://www.datarescue.com.

 

Intel and Transmeta: Where have all the Crusoes gone?

Intel is fighting hard to undermine the market for Transmetaís low-power processors. The first part of this was the release of the low-power Mobile Pentium III for portables earlier this year. The effect of competition on Transmeta is apparent Ė the majority of portable to ultraportable devices introduced at Comdex and for several months before are Pentium-based, while Transmetaís Crusoe processor powers niche machines like the Fujitsu P-series and Sonyís Vaio Picturebook.

 

Intel adds another front to their fight with Transmeta by their introduction this week of a second low-power Pentium III designed specifically for ultradense, or blade, servers. These servers are designed to be packed several to a cabinet, allowing up to eight to fit into the rack space occupied by a single ďpizza-boxĒ sized server. The pizza box machines, which were until recently considered small, are 1U, or 1.75 inches, thick and are offered by almost all major server manufacturers.

 

Ultradense servers, pioneered by startup companies like RLX (http://www.rlxtechnologies.com), a PC Magazine Technical Excellence Award finalist, and FiberCycle, use Crusoe processors to deal with the considerable problem of cooling servers that are packed so tightly together. With Intelís release of low-power Pentium III processors linked to low-power error-correcting cache memory, they become competitive in this area, and the vendors set to release Intel-based blade servers Ė HP, IBM, Dell and Compaq Ė have much more name recognition than the manufacturers of Crusoe-powered products.

Wireless networking gets real

OK, I admit it. Wireless networking was already pretty real. However, you have to wonder about the robustness of the prevailing 802.11b standard, which transmits data in an uncontrolled frequency band thatís shared with microwave ovens, cordless telephones, and Bluetooth. But help is on the way, in the form of 802.11a, an older standard that has been too expensive for widespread acceptance - up to now. 802.11a broadcasts in the 5-gigahertz band, a frequency shared withÖ not much. It broadcasts at 54 megabits per second, compared to 11 megabits for 802.11b. It also offers better security tools. Cisco and Proxim are both announcing 802.11a networking products at the show. They cost about 25 percent more than comparable 802.11b, but the higher data rate should make them attractive for people further down the technology curve than the usual early adopters.

Document mobility gets real, too

As Iíve mentioned in these pages, collaboration is all the rage this year. A product that allows multiple conference participants access to a spreadsheet, document or chart, where any edit is immediately viewed by all other participants, wouldnít be big news ordinarily. But what if those participants are working wirelessly Ė on Palms? Cutting Edge Software (http://www.cesinc.com/press/releases/pr_2001.11.12_qoconference.html) isnít releasing another NetMeeting clone. This is peer-to-peer conferencing software for the Palm, meant to add value to conference calls and other conversations held by people on the run. So far, thereís no interoperability with PC software Ė in fact, the product itself wonít ship until first quarter of 2002. But the spreadsheet sharing capability is being demonstrated, today, on the floor of Comdex.

Access your data from anywhere

Want access to files based on your PC or the Web? You could try vVault Anywhere (http://static.vvault.com/static/frontdoor/company/en/US/news.php?id=28&first=29&last=32), which allows a subscriber to view files that live on networked PCs and secure Web storage on a WAP phone or wireless PDA, or fax or email those same documents to a client, business partner, or themselves.

Mobilize your enterprise applications Ė in a day?

Do you find that your mobile workers are always too far from your critical applications? Consider the Infinite Mobile Delivery Server (http://www.infinite.com/) from Captaris. I checked out Infinite at Comdex last year, when they were a separate company selling a unified messaging solution. They had literally years of experience combining email and voicemail, offering either hosted mail services or the server product itself. Infinite was acquired by AVT, which then renamed itself Captaris. The product has been enhanced with mobility features: an Open Data connector, to give mobile applications access to ODBC-compatible databases, an Enterprise Mail Connector, which mobilizes Infiniteís core unified messaging product, and a turnkey solution for mobilizing Microsoft Exchange. Captaris claims the Exchange connector can be installed in less than an hour, a claim no one seems to have tested. But this is a serious company, with seven years in the messaging business, and I wouldnít doubt their claims too quickly.

 

Product notes

It is possible to see product demos from Comdex, although the choice is limited. Comdex offers videos of some highlighted products, and a little investigation of company websites can yield information based on a mention in an article or press release. Here are some nifty products I found in the first two days of Comdex:

SimulRing

 

This gets my vote for the best new service at the show. Itís a mobile professionalís dream or nightmare. Using standard protocols, SimulRing can make up to five phones ring when a single number is called. Picking up one will disable the call on all the others. If nobody answers, the call is forwarded to a single voicemail box. Effectively, this service networks your office, home office and cell phones, along with any others you might need Ė your hotel room? The phone in the airplane seatback? into a single number with up to five extensions, and funnels all your voicemail into a single mailbox. Great stuff.

 

This concept is not new. Numerous telephone companies offer this service within their own networks, but SimulRing is the first to consolidate phones from multiple telcos. Basic service is $10 per month, deluxe service $25. Currently operating only in California, the New York City area, and Dallas, they are expanding to other major markets. Look for them in your neighborhood. http://www.simulring.com.

Handspring Treo: Somebody actually designed a PDA Phone that works

In the world of consumer electronics, the combination of a PDA and cell phone seems natural. Many companies have tried it and failed, mainly because combining two different devices that are both designed to optimize smallness is hard. Qualcommís merger of a cell phone and Palm made it impossible to read the screen and talk on the phone at the same time, a usability nightmare. Nokiaís 9000 series uses a clamshell design and two separate screens and keyboards in a product that has a well-established niche, but is nearly big enough to require its own wheels. Handspringís earlier effort, a phone cradle for the Visor, added so much bulk to the PDA that no one wanted to carry it either. So this is far from the first time somebody has brought a combination product like this to market, but it may be the first time that itís a product people might actually buy.

 

The Treo (pronounced Trio), due out after the first of the year at a price of$399 with a service contract, is the size of a standard Handspring or Palm and runs PalmOS. It can be held to the ear like a standard phone, but it also includes a speakerphone and an earbud so the organizer can be used while talking. This will be a GSM device at launch, with a firmware upgrade to GPRS when the new cellular networks are rolled out. Always-on email capability will follow with the GPRS upgrade.

 

An interesting feature of the Treo is the optional thumb keyboard, which looks like it was stolen directly from a BlackBerry. In fact, the form factor of the device is similar to the RIM 857 used on the BlackBerry service, but about half again as big. The Treo is also available with a Graffiti panel in place of the keyboard at the same price, but my guess is that Handspring found that the keyboard works best for the more demanding text input needs of email users. http://www.handspring.com/products/communicators/index.jhtml;jsessionid=HCMMMR0C1ZBJPQFIAE1CFFOAVAATKIV0?prod_cat_name=Communicators

Acer Tablet PC: The coolest hinge at the show?

Acerís upcoming Tablet PC took a place of honor during Bill Gatesí keynote on Sunday night. Starting as a standard-looking mini-notebook, the screen spins 180 degrees and folds flat, covering the keyboard and turning the unit into a tablet that can be set to portrait or landscape orientation. The unit is based on the Mobile Pentium 3, and Acer claims the lowest power consumption of any Intel-based PC on the market. The company feels that the hybrid design will speed the acceptance of tablet PCs, since people can use the machine as either a conventional laptop or a tablet.

 

Look for this machine in the second half of 2002, around the same time Windows XP Tablet Edition rolls out.

Ricoh iMove: Networked camera for commercial applications

 

Everybody talks about convergence, but few companies do anything about it. Ricoh has introduced a video camera with a built in Web server and 802.11b wireless networking. At a price of $2500, this is clearly not for everyone, but Ricoh sees a market for shared video, allowing an architect, for example, to tour a construction site from a distance as an on-site worker carries the camera.

 

Ricoh expects to roll this product out in the next few weeks.

Nokia 9290 Communicator

The latest entry in Nokiaís 9000 Communicator series enhances this full-sized cell phone (about the size of a standard telephone handset) with a color screen and software that allows the processing and editing of standard email attachments. Nokia also offers thin clients for SAP, Oracle and Sybase, so companies can mobilize their enterprise applications more easily. The $799 phone, due out in early 2002, should find the same corporate market that has been buying 9000s for the last few years, but with smaller and cheaper phone/PDAs like the Treo on the way this will not be a mainstream device.

Dell Latitude C400 ultralight laptop

Lovers of tiny notebook computers should rest easy: the form factor is far from dead. Introduced Monday at Comdex, the C400 is a 3.6 pound machine with a 95 percent keyboard, touchpad and trackpoint mouse, 12.1 inch XGA display and up to 7 hour battery life on an optional high-capacity battery. Modem and wireline networking are built in. I would expect, as companies start designing their tablet PCs, that laptops this small and even smaller will start appearing in most vendorsí product lines.

 

Without the chance to see the system, I canít judge its usability, but in my experience, 95 percent keyboards are an acquired taste. You might also want to visit your eye doctor before committing to 1024x768 resolution on a 12 inch screen. Just a word of friendly advice.

Sony Microvault: Why did they bother?

 

For the last couple of years, Sonyís Memory Products division seems intent on capturing the title of Most Redundant Product Introduced Just To Say We Did It. Last yearís entry, the memory stick, went head to head with industry standard compact flash, offering a proprietary product at a premium price. This yearís entry is the Microvault, a USB device that allows someone to carry 16 to 128 megabytes of data from one computer to another. Itís about half the length of a pen and about twice as wide, probably has a memory stick inside, and retails for $50 to $300 depending on capacity. The fact that portable compact flash readers do the same job, at a lower price, with higher capacity, appears to have been lost on Sony. Maybe Iíve missed something, but I donít really understand where Sony is going with this line of products. Give this one a miss.

 

Compaq Evo D500: Legacy-free desktops make it to the market

 

In an effort to find new products that will sell in the moribund desktop PC market, Compaq and other vendors defined the legacy-free PC category. Prototypes of these PCs were shown at last yearís Comdex. The boxes eliminate the traditional serial, parallel, keyboard and mouse ports in favor of USB connectors for all peripherals. They are generally smaller, less power-hungry, and quieter than standard PCs, to fit better into open-plan office environments.

 

The Evo series, Compaqís entry in this area, was introduced in September. Wireless and wireline networking are standard parts of the package, and Compaq commits to the availability of this box, in its current form, for at least one year to warm the hearts of corporate IT managers looking for a stable PC platform standard.

 

Note that, although the D500 was announced in September, it will not ship until first quarter 2002. Initial units will have a Celeron processor, with a Pentium 4 version following in the second quarter. No prices have been announced.

Keynote highlights

 

Cisco: A network connector for everything, and everything on its network

John Chambersí keynote on Monday morning had a split personality. How split? On the Comdex website, itís the only keynote video posted in two pieces. The first part covered Ciscoís business strategy. Much of that part amounted to little more than an advertisement for Cisco, but Chambers sounded a common theme of interaction between companies Ė what he called ďthe transparent corporationĒ, a single organization across the world that includes your company as well as its suppliers and partners. If youíre watching on the Web, Iíd skip this part. The second half was all demonstrations, and was a fascinating look into the effect of integration on how the interaction between businesses and customers can change when both are provided with information at the right time.

 

Jim Grubb, Ciscoís self-titled Chief Demonstration Officer, came on stage and demonstrated a connected coffee shop that looked not unlike a Starbucks. The first significant networked feature of the store was the 802.11b service provided by Wayport, which allows customers to connect to the Internet from their PCs while in the store.

 

That in itself is not so unusual, but the Cisco product includes some added bells and whistles. First is Ciscoís VPN client software that provides a secure connection from the PC to the userís corporate LAN, through the firewall. Logging in to the corporate network allows the use of the Cisco IP Softphone, an emulated, on-screen telephone tied to the userís office phone. If the office phone rings, the computerís phone application rings, and the caller can be connected using voice over IP. In this way, any network touchdown point becomes a fully capable office location.

 

The coffee shop also displayed ads on a giant flat panel screen. The content for the screen is controlled at corporate headquarters, and new ads can be regularly downloaded to each store.

 

Things got more interesting when the demo moved out of the coffee shop and into the car. Grubb demonstrated a sophisticated enhanced GPS that could search near the carís current location for 802.11b hotspots, restaurants and other services, and stores at which the carís owner was a known customer. Screen content could be customized, allowing a point-of-sale terminal to be displayed, for example, if the driver wanted to place an advance order at a restaurant on the route. Known customers could order a ďusualĒ meal with a single button click. Restaurant ordering could be combined with promotions, such as MP3 tracks which, once purchased, would be uploaded to the carís stereo.

 

In addition to acting as a mobile web browser, the car can also be the object of network-based communications. From a Web page, the carís owner could lock and unlock the doors, raise and lower the windows, or start the car and turn on the heat. Since the browser could be based on a WAP phone or wireless PDA, the potential for car owners (or for new-age car thieves) is significant.

 

The Cisco demos were entertaining and demonstrated the power of networking every significant object in a personís life. But for entertainment and networking potential, it was eclipsed by the following keynote, given by Kunitake Ando of Sony.

Sony: I can hack your Handycam with my watchÖ

In what was almost an all-demo keynote, Sony COO Ando showed the more personal side of networking. He demonstrated Sonyís vision of a world where virtually everything talked to everything else, from PCs, televisions and home stereos to watches, digital cameras and earrings. What truly made the whole thing work was an elegant user interface design in which moving two things close together connected them and performed whatever function best fit those objects in that context.

 

Sonyís goal was to address the difficulties inherent in adapting the PC-centric environment from the office to the home. Ando described the companyís vision of a ďubiquitous value networkĒ, or UVN, whose underpinnings were ease of use and near-universal inclusion of all personal items. In Andoís first demo, passing a pair of sunglasses close to a GPS-enabled cell phone/PDA downloaded a local map that was then readable on the heads-up display in the glasses. Anything with a screen became a video mail terminal, digital video playback system, or anything else that made sense at the time. A Walkman, for example, was used to carry a video clip from the home entertainment center to the carís video screen, simply by passing the portable device near the television, and then near the dashboard.

 

Of course, Sony is a product company, and their demo included a number of gee-whiz devices. A few examples: the AirBoard, a portable combined HDTV and tablet PC with a touch screen; a tabletop storage device that holds a terabyte of DVDs, music and pictures; a wristwatch-sized video phone, complete with built-in camera, that looks exactly like the one Dick Tracy wore in the comic strips; and a connected Handycam that can upload movies to a PC or TV, send and receive email, and surf the Web. The earring I mentioned before? Also networked, and used as an authentication device for secure content on the larger gadgets.

 

The Handycam was being demonstrated on the show floor, and demonstrates the way current technology limits Sonyís vision. The camera itself can communicate only over short distances, and network access is accomplished through a cell phone connection. The idea of emailing movies from the camera over current cell phone networks shows that we wonít be seeing some parts of their vision realized anytime soon. Time will tell if Sony can make it real, but their successes in the past far outweigh their failures.

 

By the way, the internal name for Sonyís new user interface is FEEL. Donít ask me what it means Ė Ando didnít say.

 

Ando also used the keynote to announce several significant partnerships. With Nokia, Sony will be developing standards for cell phone messaging, user interface, digital rights management, and content download formats. What makes this particularly interesting is Sonyís previously announced partnership with Ericsson. There is substantial overlap between the two agreements. Consider this: What changed the microcomputer industry from a collection of companies selling incompatible products into a unified powerhouse? It was the release of a half-decent product from a company with enough market power to create a standard and make it stick. Maybe the Sony-Nokia-Ericsson axis can do for the cell phone what IBM and Microsoft did for the PC back then. It will be interesting to watch.

Larry Ellison asks: Canít IBM and Microsoft do anything right?

You canít beat a Larry Ellison keynote. His sheer audacity and willingness to say virtually anything (he illustrated the concept of a fault-tolerant database with the example of an office building falling down Ė twice!) makes his speeches canít-miss events. Last year, he firmly predicted the imminent demise of the PC and its replacement with network terminals, an idea that had its day in the mid-90s and that nobody but Ellison seems ready to bring back in its pure form (believe me, he was talking way beyond the current concept of software as a service.)

 

This year, he set his sights on IBM and Microsoft. The big announcement of the presentation was the Oracle E-mail Migration Service (http://www.oracle.com/consulting/offerings/platform/index.html?email.html), which replaces the Microsoft Exchange server with an Oracle 9i database.

 

Ellisonís pitch: Oracle is more scalable, more resistant to security breaches, easier to maintain and requires fewer servers (50 to 1 was his claim). Users continue to run Outlook or any standard IMAP4 client, so thereís no client-side impact. Got an email virus? Search the database for all instances, and delete them. A broadcast message to all employees is stored as a single copy, with pointers. Message delivery is instantaneous, since thereís only one server instead of a geographically distributed network of them. Reliability goes up, because the server can be made fault tolerant, and maintenance costs go down because fewer people are needed to maintain fewer servers. (The cost of the actual Oracle software and the hardware required to run it were not mentioned.)

 

If Ellisonís approach to Microsoft was one of integration, he took a very different tack with IBM. Attacking IBMís DB2 UDB Unix database platform, he presented a series of distortions about DB2ís architecture. According to Ellison, adding servers to an IBM database cluster makes it less reliable and slower, and requires unloading and redistributing the database to take advantage of the new serverís disk. My database experience is limited, but it appeared to me that any IBM DBA who attempted to manage a database according to Ellisonís approach wouldnít last an hour in the job.