Comdex 2001, Wednesday to Friday


In this issue:

-         Keynote comments: Community is everything

-         Mobility and Biometrics

-         Product news

-         Wrapup: Farewell for this year


Comdex is winding down and it shows, even on the Web. The amount of new information is diminishing, and even some of what was there – the streaming videos of keynotes, the opinion columns, the links to press releases – is starting to disappear. So even if it’s possible to get some of the Comdex experience from a distance, it doesn’t appear it’ll be possible to do it at a different time. Maybe that barrier will be lifted next year.


Reports from Comdex indicate that attendance is way down, from last year’s 200,000 or so to about 125,000. Vendor participation is down about 15 percent, due more to the failure or constrained fiscal circumstances of many dot-coms than to any decisions that followed September’s terrorist attacks. There was a benefit to all this for attendees, though. The increased size of the just-renovated Las Vegas Convention Center was enough to swallow just about all of this year’s exhibitors, with the overflow moving to the Hilton and other nearby hotels. This meant no more bus trips to the Sands halfway across town, and better booth visibility for many newer companies that had been marginalized there.


Reduced attendance was not the only symptom of hard times. The normally bountiful and worthwhile giveaways, or swag, of previous years were nowhere to be found, with most companies simply giving out bags in response to the show’s prohibition against attendee-supplied bags. One commentator likened the swag situation to Russian nesting dolls, since the only things you could get to put into your free bag were other free bags.


But I digress. And I haven’t even started yet.

Keynotes: Today, this was the good stuff


I’d like to start today’s dispatch by talking about the Comdex keynote speeches by Meg Whitman of eBay and Don Listwin of OpenWave systems. Rather than reporting on the literal presentations of today’s two keynotes, I’d like to talk about the common thread between these two very different companies, and about how successful services on the Internet, from email to IM and now wireless, are first and foremost about building community.


As different as auctions and cell phones seem on the surface, the keynote speeches of OpenWave and eBay showed they actually have a great deal in common. The past and future strategies they described say everything about what creates a breakout application in the industry that is developing as communications and IT merge. The key word, which both Meg Whitman and Don Listwin used repeatedly, is community, and to fully understand its importance requires going one step beyond the standard Moore’s law explanation for the success of technology in recent years.


While Moore’s law has gotten great press for the past decade, there’s a second, less well-known law that’s just as important to understanding what makes technologies succeed. Just like Moore’s law, it was written by the founder of a major technology company, Robert Metcalfe of 3Com. It couldn’t be simpler to state:


The usefulness of a network equals the square of the number of users.


If ever thirteen words about technology deserved their own paragraph, those are the ones. Personal computing was not successful because computers got faster, smaller and cheaper – although that certainly helped. It succeeded because it allowed people to connect to other people in large numbers, in ways they never could before. And not in a many-to-one way like a typical commercial website like Apply Metcalfe to Amazon’s business, or any e-retailer’s, and you’ll see that the addition of an extra customer makes the network’s value grow linearly, as a single company adds a single new revenue source.


In contrast, look at eBay. Is it a product company? No. A service company? Not in the usual sense. EBay’s sole purpose is to create a space where multiple buyers interact with multiple sellers. Unlike the typical commercial site, every new buyer gets instant access to millions of sellers, and vice versa. This is a Metcalfe market with no artificial restrictions. As a result, you can watch the value of the network created by eBay grows exponentially. The increasing value of its community draws.more buyers and sellers, who feed the cycle.


As increasing numbers of traditional businesses from computer companies to clothing stores become sellers in the eBay community, it becomes clear that it’s the connectedness, not the auction model, that’s at the core of eBay’s success. To confirm that, look no further than eBay’s recent history and strategy – adding fixed price sales through Buy It Now, integrating their subsidiary into the core eBay site, and their active recruitment of traditional businesses to sell goods and services, at fixed prices, on the site. They are subtly moving away from a pure auction model, but maintaining and expanding their community. It’s what they are, and where their value is.


OpenWave (, on the other hand, learned the hard way about community. Their initial product, the WAP Web browser for cellular phones, was intended to allow people to connect to information sources wirelessly. Both laws of the technology world failed them. Moore’s law advances had not yet delivered devices and networks with sufficient power. But just as importantly, this many-to-one model did not spawn the kind of exponential growth that a more Metcalfe-oriented approach would have. If you doubt the importance of Metcalfe in this equation, look at the success of DoCoMo iMode services in Japan. IMode was introduced on equipment and networks that were initially about as basic as ours, and succeeded in building nationwide communities bound together by wireless messaging. OpenWave’s Listwin, in his keynote, contrasted iMode’s success with the failure, despite strong commercial backing, of  OpenWave’s own WAP in Europe. It just didn’t catch on with the people who had to use it.


Back to OpenWave. These guys have clearly learned from their mistakes, and are no longer pushing passive Web browsing as the best way to use the Internet from a phone.. The product introduced this week at Comdex, and the follow-on scheduled for next year, leverage Metcalfe well beyond anything we have seen. What they are attempting is the Holy Grail of connectivity: seamless integration of computer-based messaging and the phone system.


Imagine this scenario, which is apparently possible with the instant messaging client and server OpenWave announced this week:


You are on your PC, running OpenWave’s instant messaging client. Your buddy list, which shows both OpenWave and MSN Messenger lists, shows not only which of your buddies is online but also whether they’re on a PC or a phone. (They promise interoperability with Yahoo and AOL IM services next year). You can use this information to decide whether to make a voice call or send an IM. Instant messages delivered to the phone can be cleverly formatted, for example with multiple choice answers to minimize keystrokes. Message entry from the phone is simplified with support for user-configurable phrases that can be entered in advance, and summoned by pressing a couple of keys.


As with any instant messaging client, conversations can be maintained with many people at once, even from the phone-based software. The chat thread, or history of all messages in the current chat session, is available to both the PC and phone users. And when it’s time to walk away from your PC, your active chats can be transferred seamlessly to the phone – all connections and chat history are preserved.


That’s today, and it’s pretty good. But the real power in this system comes with the next version, due in 2002. Start with what’s already been described, and add the following features:


-         Address book integration: Your address book shows not only names and numbers, but uses presence information to show whether they’re reachable, and by what method. The effect: Your address book effectively becomes your IM buddy list.


-         Context sensitive buddy lists: You can tie people to a context, like home, work, or clubs, and independently report your presence to each group. So you can be available to your family, but not your job, on weekends, or make yourself available to an outside organization only during pre-arranged meeting times. The effect: You can choose who can knock on your virtual door, and when.


-         Multimedia IM content: Within the ever-expanding limits of mobile phones, deliver integrated voice and images to IM clients on both PCs and phones. (Note: small-form cell phones with integrated cameras are already on sale in Japan.) The effect: Blur the line between PCs and cell phones as communication devices.


-         Click to conference: Automatically initiate a voice call between all the participants in an IM chat, whether through an office phone or through the same mobile phone used for the IM. The effect: Frictionless transitions between data and voice communications, enriching both by breaking down the wall between them.



The overall effect? Create a single communications system out of multiple disparate channels, where the transition from thought to contact, between voice and data, or across communication devices does not interrupt the flow of conversation. This integration is essential to building a unified communications system that people will actually understand and use. Listwin calls it “the Mom factor” – products like this succeed when they’re both easy and compelling enough that your Mom is willing to use them.


Can OpenWave succeed? They have one strong advantage: their WAP and other messaging products are already part of the infastructure of Sprint, Nextel, AT&T and most other major phone carriers, and their browser software has shipped with most mobile phones sold in the past two years. They may even have the clout to get competing IM services (read: AOL and Microsoft) to talk to each other. Two years ago I predicted that the merging of IM and mobile phones would break the market open. Here it is. We’ll see if it does.

Keynote miscellany

Things other than the mantra of “community” were discussed in the eBay and OpenWave keynotes. I also attended a third keynote, this one by Jeff Hawkins of Handspring. Here is a short list of other significant utterances:


EBay chair Meg Whitman, in addition to describing the business strategies mentioned above, announced eBay’s entry into the wine auction market. They will be partnering with and New Vine Logistics to create a workable, legal auction market for both wine stores and private sellers. She also gave examples of three businesses that benefited from selling their items on eBay: a clothing retailer who started by trying to sell 120 leather coats and ended up creating a massive, eBay-only retailing operation; a used mainframe broker who found higher prices and more customers on eBay; and Palm, which sells both new and refurbished products directly to consumers through the service. Other companies setting up a presence on eBay: IBM, Sun, Dell, Ingram Micro, Iomega, Acer and Xerox. Another sign of eBay’s success: their eBay Motors site is now the third largest car dealer in the United States – without a showroom or service department.


OpenWave’s Don Listwin lead with his company’s chin, stressing more than once the failure of their own product, WAP, in the European and American market. He cited the “WAP is crap” jokes made in Europe and pretty much agreed with them.


He contrasted WAP with the success of iMode in Japan – one of his many invocations of community – and tried to dispel the myth that it was purely a youth phenomenon. There are not 40 million Japanese teenagers on subways tapping out messages to each other, he said. Instead, studies showed only seven percent of iMode users are under 20, and the rest are spread pretty evenly across age groups with 20 to 24 year olds at 24% and people 40 and over at 27%. While iMode may have started out as a teenage fad, it has apparently taken hold across Japanese society.


Listwin identified three factors needed for success in the mobile Internet, and described them all as ready or almost ready:


-         A great network, which he said would arrive with the widespread rollout of 2.5G or GPRS networks in 2002


-         A great mobile device. Good ones are already shipping in Asia and will ship in the US soon. One Japanese phone has a built-in IMAP client, allowing reasonably full access to Internet standard email. Customer demand will drive the development of even better devices, which Moore’s law will make possible. A major advance in usability, according to Listwin: Many new phones have a built in mouse.


-         A great user experience, which OpenWave now believes is based on the community-building and community-support features of messaging.


Handspring’s Jeff Hawkins went through a history of mobile computing – much of it seen from the inside at Grid Systems and Palm – and concluded with the thought that the form factors of PCs and laptops haven’t changed much since their introduction. The real action in design has been in handheld and mobile computing. He took pains to describe the handheld industry as something distinct from the PC industry, citing the failure of the railroads at the turn of the 20th century to realize that their business was transportation, not railroading.


What’s the most successful mobile computing device of all time? The cell phone, said Hawkins, which is carried by one person of every six worldwide. Second most successful? The pager, with tens of millions in the field. Both of these are simple, targeted devices, a lesson that informed Palm’s decision to make their PDA as simple and focused a product as possible. Hawkins identified four design points, which seem like an excellent list of criteria for evaluating any mobile device:


-         Size: the smaller the better, unconditionally. According to Hawkins, making things smaller forces more efficient design. While small devices can be awful, good small devices are almost always better than good, slightly larger ones. Besides, no one wants to carry something that won’t fit in a pocket, purse or belt holster.


-         Ease of use: again, the cell phone and pager were cited as examples. Handheld computers are more complex, and ease of use is harder to come by but not impossible. For example, usability tests showed that it was too hard to navigate to the calendar, address book and other common information views on early PalmPilots. The four view buttons were added to the Palm to fix this problem.

The ease of use issue also explains why the basic design of the Palm OS never changes. Added features introduce complexity. Hawkins described the decision to add no new features to the Palm V during its development. If he had added three new features, he said, the analysts would have created charts comparing those three features to the thirty new features on Microsoft’s PocketPC. By leaving the OS and user interface alone, he reinforced the core function of the device and forced the analysts and others to focus on the physical improvements that were the point of the new model.


-         Reliability: All successful mobile devices must be rugged enough to withstand more abuse than typical desk-bound equipment. Since people tend to rely on them heavily, they can’t break or lose data. This is a tough one for PDAs, which have more fragile components than other mobile devices. Did you ever drop a cell phone? Did you ever drop a Palm?


-         Communications: To Hawkins, every function of a mobile device is related to communications. For mobile phones and pagers, this is obviously the case. But even PDAs are mainly about storing contact information and meeting schedules – both functions that enable communications. The Treo, Handspring’s new combination PDA/phone, is designed to merge all of these functions into a single device.


The Treo borrows liberally from other successful cell phone designs. It’s somewhat smaller than a standard Nokia 6000 series phone. The screen is protected by a hinged lid that doubles as the earpiece and is transparent to allow screen information, like caller ID, to be read. It can operate as a speakerphone or with an earbud, allowing the user to refer to the PDA screen without interrupting the conversation.


The Palm operating system is changed mostly in ways that allow integration with the phone. The Palm contact list is now an active dialing directory, and is integrated with a more conventional, phone-style speed dialer. Names not on the speed dialer are matched character by character, with a special search mode that looks for first initial followed by last name. Handspring studies showed that this method usually generated a match with the shortest number of characters, a sign of their efforts to “design for impatient people”. The built-in Web browser operates through a proxy server that can translate and reformat any Web page for the Treo’s screen. The screen, by the way, is 240x320, substantially improved from the Palm standard of 160x160, and will be offered in both monochrome and color versions.


In a departure from prior PalmOS hardware, the Treo ships in two forms: one with a traditional Graffiti handwriting area, the other with a small, RIM-inspired keyboard. Hawkins, the inventor of Graffiti, feels the keyboard is a better input method for email and other higher volume text applications. The keyboard also doubles as the phone dialer. Hawkins expects the keyboard-based Treo to come into its own as Short Messaging Service, or SMS, becomes more popular in the US.


Hawkins sounded one cautionary note – as smart, programmable devices begin connecting to communication networks and the Internet, the potential for hacking increases dramatically. He didn’t offer a solution for that.


In other news:


My focus while “attending” Comdex this year was to look mainly at the advances in several areas, including biometrics and mobility. As it turned out, mobility became my main focus, but there were items worth seeing in the other areas. Here is a quick review of the floor news from Comdex:



WiFi (802.11b), Bluetooth and 802.11a were the big stories here, and in that order. Within a year, it may be very difficult to buy a laptop or handheld that does not have one of these wireless connectivity solutions, primarily WiFi, as part of its standard equipment. I expect WiFi access points to begin appearing in restaurants and other stores over the next year, as they seek to attract high-end customers. 802.11a will be a high-end corporate solution for a while, thanks to higher costs.


WiFi security issues, a serious concern for some, have been addressed by the addition of a number of third-party products, according to David Cohen, the chair of the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance. The position doesn’t seem to truly address corporate-level network security, but it is true that a combination of third-party hardware and software, along with data encryption, can make a WiFi network pretty secure. Besides, according to Cohen, the primary problem with the built-in security in WiFi is that people don’t bother to turn it on.


Bluetooth is a whole different beast. Assuming interference with WiFi doesn’t cause problems (they broadcast in the same frequencies), Bluetooth is poised to break out in the next year. The first Bluetooth products are actually on sale, to real people, and include cell phones from Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola, phone headsets, digital cameras, a camcorder from Sony, and printers from HP as well as PCMCIA and PCI expansion cards for PCs.


Microsoft announced at the end of October that they had qualified the next release of the Windows CE operating system, CE.Net, with the Bluetooth standards organization. This virtually guarantees that the next-generation PocketPC will talk to the full range of Bluetooth devices. It is also in contrast to Microsoft’s decision to dump Bluetooth support from Windows XP late in the development process, a sign that Microsoft sees Bluetooth’s role as a connector for portable devices than as a personal network centered around a PC.


With products finally shipping, it’s safe to say that Bluetooth will succeed despite its detractors, and for exactly the reason its designers intended – people hate cables. It’s cheap to add to a device, and requires virtually no user interaction to make it work. Put your printer on the table next to your PC, or your PocketPC next to your printer, and they connect. Leave your cell phone in your briefcase and your headset in your ear, and you’re ready for true hands-free calling. (This is the real niche for the Sybersay headset, the best swag I ever got at Comdex – I’m still using mine after a year and it works great, so I’ll give them another plug (


Bluetooth isn’t likely to replace the office LAN, but that’s not what it was intended for. People casting it as a head-to-head competitor with 802.11 are looking at it the wrong way. Think of it as a head-to-head competitor for wires – wires that break, get tangled, get lost, get left home. In that arena, with products in the market, its future is virtually assured.


As expected, biometrics got a big play at Comdex this year. Face and fingerprint recognition appear to be the dominant technologies, while handwriting and voice recognition have fallen out of favor. Retinal scans are somewhere in between, with some controversy about the potential health risks of shining lights directly into people’s eyes.


The security companies expect that cheap cameras, sensors and software will drive the adoption of biometric recognition in PDAs and cell phones, which will in turn make wireless e-commerce more secure and more widely accepted. One product manager predicted that face recognition technology would appear in the door frames of cars within the next few years. The industry seems to be poised to move from the traditional “something you have, something you know” model embodied in ATM cards and PINs to a “something you are” model. It is difficult to know how secure the new model will be – it’s so new, and in such limited use, that identity thieves haven’t yet tested its weaknesses.


If you want to test face recognition for yourself, click on over to Cognitec ( They offer face recognition software for PC logons. Cognitec claims their software works with any PC camera, and a demo version that enables one user is available at their website. So you don’t have to take my word for it, or theirs.


A word of caution – I tested this software and, while it was amazingly good at face recognition, it didn’t do so well at permitting system logons. So if you try it, don’t set it up as the only way into your system. But do try it if you’d like to see the state of the art for cheap biometrics.


Comdex Cavalcade of Products


Here are a few more products I ran across that are worth mentioning. Some are promising, some are out-and-out weird. I present them, in no particular order, so you can make up your own mind about which is which. Unless I can’t help making snide comments.


Eyeball Chat released the 2.0 version of their Instant Messaging client. I don’t know how, but they claim to support AOL, MSN and Yahoo instant messaging in a single, interoperable buddy list. They also offer video chat services for subscribers to their own network and SSL encryption of messages. ICQ support is coming soon, they say. Did I mention that it’s free? I downloaded the client (you can too, at but haven’t tested it yet. Maybe I’ll let you all know how it works.


National Semiconductor Origami – this concept demonstrator shows how it’s possible to go too far creating all-in-one products. Or else it’s the Swiss Army Knife of portable devices. It’s a digital camcorder and videoconference terminal. An MP3 player. A PDA. A cell phone. A tablet computer, with a CF slot for networking. Or a subnotebook with a full keyboard, running Windows XP. As far as I can tell, no valet parking option is available or planned. It’s a fairly big 7.5 by 4 inches, but it is a technology demo and a real product might conceivably be smaller – if it gets built at all. For a sense of how truly weird (uh, innovative) this thing is, go to the press release at,1735,702,00.html and check out the picture.


Gmate Yopy (Korea)– For the Linux advocates in the room who have been trying to run their favorite OS on an iPaq, here’s a full-function Linux-based PDA. It looks quite nice - very small and thin, with a full color, icon-based screen, full alpha keyboard in a 6x6 square format rather than the usual QWERTY, and jog control and application buttons built into the inside of the cover. They’ve included a slot for removable SmartMedia which allows memory expansion but nothing else. The unit features IR beaming support, an MP3 player, handwriting recognition and a voice recorder. A wireless CDMA modem backpack module makes it a cell phone. In the spirit of most Linux users, software includes an engineering calculator. For the gearheads, the hardware is a 206MHz StrongARM processor, 240x320 16 bit TFT color display, 64MB RAM. Price will be about $440. The unit will be released in Korea in December and late 2002/early 2003 in the US.. (,



Making keyboards smaller is one of the most intractable barriers to making devices smaller. Screens can be made to look bigger through optical trickery, but fingers aren’t so easily fooled. Voice isn’t likely to become the mainstream means for data entry, for many reasons. So it’s interesting to see the fresh approaches to the input problem that pop up at Comdex every year. Here are two highlights:


Ericsson digital pen and paper – last year, Ericsson demonstrated a Bluetooth pen and paper set as a simple drawing tool. The paper has a matrix of small dots, which are tracked by a microcamera in the pen. The pen uses the movement of the dots to determine the movement of the pen, and sends the information using the pen’s embedded Bluetooth transmitter. Last year, a sketch artist used the pen to make drawings that appeared on a PC screen across the room.


This year, they’ve actually found a use for the device. They have the pen talk to a Bluetooth-enabled phone, which transmits the digital ink over the cellular network to a server capable of character recognition. The server interprets the writing and sends it back to the phone as text. The user can then instruct the server to send the input as email. The device, which is still in the technology demo stage, will be priced somewhere around the cost of a phone. Ericsson is not predicting when it will be available.


Senseboard, a Swedish company, has come up with a the ultimate in small keyboards: they’ve eliminated the actual keyboard entirely. Wrap a strap around each hand behind the knuckles, pretend to type, and the Senseboard deduces from the movement of your muscles what you would have typed if, in fact there had been any keys to hit. It seemed to work well during the demonstration, but it apparently requires some training to adapt to the hand motions of each individual. If this sounds strange, don’t worry. It looks stranger, as you can see if you check out the picture at with Palm.gif . For the whole story, check out,


So, equipped with a Senseboard, a Sony heads-up eyeglass display and a Bluetooth headset phone, you could talk to people who aren’t there while typing on an invisible keyboard and staring blankly into space at a monitor that doesn’t exist. Better clear this one with your boss.


Digital cameras and other consumer devices: quick takes


Shubur produces the Ipsen digital camera, which has a few interesting features. The best one is a backlit LCD-in-viewfinder arrangement that dramatically reduces the size of the display panel and dramatically extends battery life. It’s no fun if you want to show off your pictures on the back of the camera, but for actual photography, you have to ask: why didn’t anyone think of this before?


Samsung announced their SyncMaster flat panel monitors, 15 and 17 inch displays with an integrated TV tuner and inputs for both TV cable and computer VGA. At $1400 for the 17 inch, they’re a little pricey for the mainstream, but the rep being interviewed identified one of their target markets as – I’m not making this up – yachts.


I recently saw a similar panel, 15 inches, cable-ready, for sale at Micro Center in Cambridge for about $650. So flat-panel TVs aren’t as far off as they might seem.


As if the world needed more mechanical dogs, Sony introduced a new Aibo model with a 75 word vocabulary, a more aggressive personality, the ability to read the contents of email and Web pages out loud, and an 802.11b Ethernet connection. They’ve sold 100,000 Aibos in the past year, so they must be doing something right. But the idea of spending $1500 on a device that can follow me around the house reading me spam advertisements for weight-loss plans doesn’t do it for me.



Comdex is over for me this year, and it wasn’t a bad show as these things go. I’ve gotten more sleep than in most years, and the food was better. The keyboard on my PDA will probably last an extra year since I didn’t need it to take notes on the show floor. I made it to more keynote addresses than usual, and got a lot out of them. And the press releases and articles from Comdex itself, as well as other news sources, gave me the hooks I needed to investigate corporate websites and commentary to put together a picture of the new products, services and technologies.


But there’s no substitute for being there, for handling a PDA and realizing that the case is too flimsy for real-world use, or finding the unfortunate placement of function keys on the keyboard of a subnotebook, or the poor picture quality of a flat screen monitor. There’s no way to catch the rumors or hidden truths that come from a spontaneous exchange with an engineer on the show floor, or from an unguarded conversation at a Comdex party. And it’s difficult – although not impossible – to find those weird but interesting products that I’d never know about if their booth wasn’t on the way to somewhere else I wanted to go.


 Do I feel I got the gestalt of the industry, as I would have in person? Sorta. Will I go in person next year if I get the chance? In a heartbeat.


Being there is half the fun, and all the broadband technology in the world can’t change that. Thanks for being part of the experiment.