The last days of Comdex Fall 2002

Welcome back to the second installment of my Comdex Fall, 2002 reports. Rumors are flying about the show's impending demise, but in spite of economic troubles and very small attendance, interesting ideas are being presented and interesting products are being introduced. We'll discuss the fate of the show itself later. First, on to what makes Comdex worthwhile: the content.

Inside today's issue:

Trends and Ideas

Product Features

Odds and ends

Trends and Ideas

Last year, some of the biggest ideas to come out of Comdex were captured in the full-length keynote videos made available by Comdex on their web site. This year, those videos have shrunk to five-minute excerpts. But through those excerpts, along with printed interviews and other public information, quite a few interesting ideas are coming out of this year's show.

Following are some of the technology trends and issues that emerged from the flood of content that Comdex and its exhibitors placed on the Web this week. Some pertain to products you can buy today, some are just technology directions, and some have nothing to do with products at all. But they illustrate the richness of the discussions that take place when the whole industry - and a few strategically placed outsiders - meets to discuss the way technology affects their customers and themselves.

Wireless networking vendors kick it up a notch: 802.11g appears

There's no question that 802.11b wireless networking, otherwise known as WiFi, has been a success in both the business and commercial markets. And any product planner worth his or her salary knows that a large installed base is an opportunity to sell upgrades. In today's wireless networking marketplace, those upgrades take the form of increased speed. Two developing standards, 802.11a and 802.11g, both offer a nearly fivefold increase in maximum network speed, from 11 million to 54 million bits per second. Products supporting both standards were shown at Comdex, and will be shipping shortly.

Why two standards offering the same speed? 802.11a came first, aimed at the business market. It uses a different frequency range than WiFi, offering more freedom from interference and higher reliability. Its products tend to be more expensive, and because of the frequency difference will not communicate with WiFi networks, much as an FM radio can't pick up AM signals.

The 802.11g standard was developed mainly as an upgrade path for home users. It uses the same frequencies as WiFi and can coexist and communicate with WiFi devices, allowing a network to be upgraded piecemeal. However the frequency range used by both WiFi and 802.11g is an unregulated catch-all that is also used by microwave ovens, Bluetooth devices, and some cordless phones. This makes both networks more susceptible to interference than 802.11a, a problem made worse for 802.11g because of its higher speed.

The politics of the 802.11g standard also complicates its product rollouts. To date, there has been no agreement on the final form of the standard, and the battle has pitched two primary designers of 802.11g devices against each other. So, when 802.11g network cards and access points start rolling onto store shelves next month, don't expect any guarantees that different brands will talk to each other. If you're itching for more speed on your wireless home network, buy all your devices from the same company - and hope that they remain compatible, or that you don't need further equipment, when the final standard is reached. Corporate users should stick to 802.11a, or wait for the upcoming 802.11a/b hybrid devices that will also ship soon, with two transmitters and two antennas in each device.

Back to top

Wireless security: No longer a contradiction in terms

Security is one of the major controversies that has accompanied the widespread adoption of wireless networking. Early wireless networks included a security standard called WEP, or Wired Equivalent Privacy, but researchers quickly discovered flaws in WEP's encryption. Worse yet, virtually all wireless devices shipped with WEP's security turned off by default, turning most wireless networks into free public access points onto the Internet or, worse, into corporate intranets. The custom of "war driving", finding networks accessible from public streets, has spawned its own culture, community, and even chalked sidewalk symbols to help others easily find their way to free access.

The assault on wireless networking has also spawned a number of responses. Most important among them is the new WiFi Protected Access standard, or WPA. The WiFi Alliance, the industry standards board responsible for wireless networking, announced WPA last month as a software standard, replacing WEP with a much more secure encryption method that addresses the problems inherent in WEP.

Most WiFi device manufacturers have announced the adoption of WPA in their new products and the availability of upgrades for older equipment sometime in early 2003. There are both home and business versions of WPA, with the business version offering better security but more complex installation.

In the long run, a newer security protocol, called 802.11i, will supersede WPA. But 11i will require hardware upgrades and will not be compatible with older equipment. So, in the coming months, check your wireless vendor's download page for a WPA upgrade and watch those chalk marks disappear from your sidewalk.

Back to top

Long-distance WiFi? Now you can buy 802.11b for the back 40

To the impressive list of wireless network capabilities, add this: by using highly directional shotgun antennas, WiFi can work reliably, at full speed, over distances up to fifteen miles. At Comdex, 3Com showed such a relay system, meant to replace microwave point-to-point transmission for MAN, or Metropolitan Area network, applications. 3Com has not yet brought long-range WiFi products to the market, but the company seems serious about the technology.

If a fifteen mile range seems extreme for WiFi, which was designed to communicate over distances of 1000 feet or less, check out this WiFi installation that links a lab in San Diego with its remote monitoring station on San Clemente Island - a distance of 72 miles! Yes, they cranked up the transmitter's power to the legal limit, and the distance degrades the bandwidth to only one megabit per second, but the solution was far cheaper than any other - and it works. So fifteen miles isn't so unrealistic after all.

Back to top

Creative Content and Digital Rights Management: Can't we all just get along?

One of the biggest stories in the technology arena is the ongoing feud between media companies and technology companies over the treatment of creative content. Expressed way too simply, the argument comes down to this: Media people, who make their money from content, want to protect their investment in that content. Tech people, who make their money from delivery systems, want to sell more and better gadgets to deliver that content. Media people see technological restriction of customer rights as the first step toward securing their investment. Tech people feel that those restrictions stifle development of innovative new delivery systems. Tech companies also fought and lost the copy protection battle in the 1980s, and many in the industry feel that the resulting freedom of information in the marketplace helped fuel the wave of innovation that followed.

Because of this schism, the choice of Peter Chernin as a keynote speaker - head of News Corporation, CEO of Fox Corporation, and a full-blooded Media Guy - was a bit of a surprise. Chernin came to Comdex to find common ground with technologists, and to start a dialogue to determine how these two industries, which have had such an adversarial relationship for the past few years, could combine forces to shape the entertainment landscape of the twenty-first century. With the best creative and technical minds finally in the same room, the only thing left would be to set the agenda.

The title of Chernin's keynote? "The Problem With Stealing".

That title said it all. Given the opportunity to talk to the best tech people in the world about presenting content better through new delivery technology, Chernin chose to use the vast majority of his 90-minute keynote (you can read the transcript) to make the case that tech and media should unite to fight against a common enemy. The core problem with Chernin's approach was that he made no attempt to reconcile the media person's perception of The Pirate, who is stealing content and must be stopped at all costs, with the technologist's perception of The Customer, whose fair-use rights are being trampled in an attempt to eliminate the bad apples.

The disconnect between these two views sums up the media/tech problem. Both sides have valid concerns, and both have taken positions that have unpleasant consequences when taken to extremes. There is clearly a middle ground in this debate, but neither side has made an attempt to find it. Mr. Chernin squandered a golden opportunity when he pitched his take-no-prisoners argument in front of the very people who could help him solve his problem - if and only if both sides moderate their positions.

I wasn't there, so I can't tell how the audience received Mr.Chernin. His transcript, however, illustrates the gulf that separates the two sides of this debate, and why that gulf won't be bridged anytime soon.

Back to top

Smart Personal Object Technology: Microsoft moves to dominate the refrigerator magnet

On a more positive note, Bill Gates introduced a new initiative during his Sunday night keynote. Smart Personal Object Technology, or SPOT, is Microsoft's effort to create an interoperability standard for small devices. How small? The table in front of Gates included key rings, watches, refrigerator magnets that showed current weather and traffic conditions, and a travel clock that automatically changes time zones and resets its alarm based on traffic conditions and the first meeting in the sleeper's appointment calendar.

Gates clearly believes there's a big future in small devices, a belief he shares with a number of other companies exhibiting at Comdex. The era of small, cheap, self-contained, connected computing devices is here, and products are already on the market - see the reviews below. With SPOT, Microsoft is positioning itself to define the way these devices talk to the world. Whether they are capable of dominating yet another market remains to be seen.

Back to top

The browser wars are back: Now it's Microsoft vs. Opera

Remember Netscape? You may still use that Internet browser, especially if you're running Linux. It's hard to remember that Netscape controlled about 90 percent of the browser market when Microsoft introduced their first version of Internet Explorer. The battle between them took several years and involved the Federal court system as well as the free market. In the end, Microsoft and Netscape switched market shares. On Windows PCs, at least, Internet Explorer is the 800-pound gorilla.

As Microsoft consolidates their dominance of the PC browser market, however, a new front is opening up in the browser wars - cellular phones. And it's a battle that Microsoft may not win.

The competition this time is a Norwegian company called Opera. Opera's browser for the PC is a nice piece of code which is faster and, in some ways, slicker than Internet Explorer. The people at Opera Software aren't fighting for the PC, even though they've got a good product there. They are, however, aggressively battling with Microsoft for the hearts and minds of the world's phone manufacturers, and scoring some impressive victories.

Opera's biggest selling point is customization. An Opera browser on a cell phone can have whatever appearance the phone manufacturer wants. Look and feel, user interface, even basic browser function can be modified - the underlying code is still Opera. Microsoft, in contrast, promotes a common "look and feel" across all its products. The screen of a Pocket PC or Microsoft smart phone looks as much like a Windows XP computer as the device's size and shape will allow, and Microsoft will not permit its browser licensees to change that.

Phone manufacturers, who use innovative form factors, screen designs, user interfaces and software to compete with each other, see Microsoft's position as a threat. Standardized software could limit hardware options, and turn the phone hardware into a commodity - much like the PocketPC spec stifled hardware diversity among Microsoft-based PDAs. Microsoft's firm position on modifying their software's look and feel is a bone of contention for phone makers - and drives them right into the arms of Opera.

Opera has some powerful allies as well. Symbian is a company, controlled by Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, Panasonic, Siemens and Psion, that makes operating systems for smart phones. The companies that have a large stake in Symbian manufacture a majority of the phones sold worldwide. And Opera is the browser that ships with Symbian.

A highly visible battle in the new browser war took place about two weeks ago, when British phone manufacturer Sendo announced, and then abruptly cancelled, the Z100 smart phone based on Microsoft's platform.. The phone had been 18 months in development and was ready to ship. Microsoft had made a big deal of its partnership with Sendo and of the new phone, which was supposed to give Microsoft a presence in the European phone market. Along with the cancellation came an announcement: Sendo would be developing a new phone based on the Z100 hardware, using the Symbian platform.

Why did Sendo cancel and sign on with Symbian? Why did Sendo cancel and sign on with Symbian? Reuters reported the following response from Sendo CEO Hugh Brogan:

"He said one reason for the switch was that Sendo could get access to the source code for Nokia software and therefore customise products. It could not do that with Microsoft… Although the Microsoft software, which like Nokia's offers a range of programs including email and calendars, was satisfactory, Microsoft had not given Sendo the possibilities to make distinctive products in the way Nokia had."

Look for Microsoft's new war to heat up. As text phones become more important to consumers, phone browsers will become a critical part of the software mix. And Microsoft desperately wants to dominate this market. They did it on the PC and they're close to doing it on the PDA. But as mobile information and mobile commerce become more important, the phone may be both the most important and the most difficult front for Microsoft to win. This one will get interesting.

Back to top

Mobile text is gaining ground

One trend that seems clear from the sessions and press releases is that vendors believe wireless text is finally happening - in the United States, that is. Wireless text messaging and Web browsing have been well entrenched in Europe and Japan for several years. But service providers in the US are beginning to understand what they need to do to catch up. At least they're learning what people really want to use their phones for - and it's not watching movies.

MobileWeek president David Hayden, in a Comdex session, made the claim that all the pieces are in place for mobile text in the United States - "from devices, applications, networks, users and priced plans, it's all coming together", he said. To the American TV viewer, barraged by T-Mobile and AT&T M-Life commercials, his claim would certainly seem to be true.

But the street is the place to judge, and the people I see still have their phones pasted to their ears, not in front of them as they type on little keyboards. Mind you, I'm in favor of mobile text, probably more than just about anyone you'll meet. I just don't see the "users" piece falling into place quite yet. Good devices, flat-rate service plans, reliable networks and easy-to-use software will help. But as Bill Gates said in his keynote, the need is for technology that solves real human needs. I don't think American cellular phone companies have connected well with those needs yet.

Hayden did make one key point: "the killer app for wireless text will be email, or at least messaging". All that stuff about compelling video and multimedia zooming across cellular networks will have to wait a generation until the bandwidth - and the demand - catch up to the hype.

The MobileWeek president also saw Handspring's Treo as a clear market winner over Microsoft's SmartPhones, at least for now. He also had no problem declaring several mobile phone features "dead" in the US market. Among them: black-and-white screens (customers are willing to pay the difference for color) and handwriting recognition (Handspring reports that keyboard-equipped Treos far outsell otherwise identical pen-based models).

He also pointed out that headsets just don't sell in the US market. It seems that Americans know where their phones belong: right next to their heads. Pass the marshmallows.

Back to top

3-D displays: just around the corner?

One of the more interesting non-products at Comdex was Toshiba's technlogy demo of a 15 inch, 1600x1200 LCD display that can present 3-D images on a laptop screen without the use of special glasses. While a 3-D display has tremendous potential for CAD and for developing new general-purpose applications and user interfaces, the first target market will be in the home: computer gaming.

How does it work? I don't know. Does it work well? I don't know that either, since I wasn't there to see it. If they pull it off, it's a big win for Toshiba, but don't expect any products for at least a year unless the underlying technology is much simpler to perfect and manufacture than it seems.

I'm calling this a Big Idea instead of highlighting it as a product because it has implications way beyond this one prototype. Practical 3-D displays will enable a dramatic change in the way objects are represented on a computer screen. Toshiba's display is the vanguard of a whole new class of devices, which will usher in a whole new class of applications. Watch for them.

Back to top

Report on the war against spam: Spam is winning.

Check your inbox if you don't believe this one. It's a simple matter of economics trumping technology: spammers are so well entrenched that they're not about to give up, and the Internet mail standards are too loose to allow the development of reliable spam filters. Every time the filters get better, the spammers find another back door. At this point they're so brazen that two of them have given interviews - one to the Wall Street Journal and another to the Detroit Free Press showing off their wealth and explaining how they're just legitimate business people trying to get by in the world. Right. And maybe someday they'll get their own HBO series.

On the heels of some limited success against spam - Cloudmark got a Best of Show nomination at Comdex for their P2P community-based spam filtering software - there is a general feeling that those responsible for blocking spam are beginning to give up. A widely quoted statistic from Brightmark puts the volume of spam at 36 percent of the total worldwide email stream, up from eight percent a year ago. The folks who write Internet standards are seriously considering alternatives that would render current open email systems obsolete, replaced with new systems that would deliver mail only from recognized senders. In the end, spam will be eliminated. But, thanks to the efforts of spammers, the Internet will a much less open place.

Back to top

When will the next tech boom happen? Brian Halla knows.

Finally, a Big Idea that can make us all some money. National Semiconductor CEO Brian Halla has created a mathematical model that tracks the ebb and flow of technology and has come up with a prediction about when the next wave of technology - the fourth, by his estimate - will hit its stride.

Halla identified three previous waves: mainframes in 1974, PCs in 1984 and connected PCs in 2000. In his view, each wave builds on the remnants left behind by the previous crash: the availability of cheap leading edge equipment and very smart people with little or nothing to do.

From the boom-and-bust cycle, Halla extrapolates the next wave, which he predicts will be based on information appliances. Like Bill Gates and others, he expects everyone will own hundreds or thousands of embedded low-cost devices, creating tremendous opportunity for new products.

The date of the turnaround? June 21, 2003. Call your broker.

Back to top

Product Features

In the new product arena, there were disappointingly few announcements, and most of them were depressingly mundane - incrementally faster CPUs, quieter keyboards, cheaper LCD panels and really, really nifty CPU fans. But there were some jewels on the floor, products that prove that not everything has been invented yet. Most of these revolved around a few core themes: Make it smaller. Make it portable - in some cases, ridiculously so. Find a niche.

The Toshiba 3-D LCD panel described above is a good example of the kind of innovation that's still out there, and once released it will probably change completely the way we view objects on a computer. Although it will not take over the world overnight, it's probably the single most significant product prototype I came across at the show.

There is much going on in product design beyond 3-D screens. So here is some proof that innovation is not dead in the computer industry.

FrogPad: The keyboard gets simpler - and more complicated - and smaller.

One of the vendors exhibiting at the Mobile Devices keynote was FrogPad, a radical keyboard layout designed to fit into pager-sized devices and be operated with one hand. The device has fifteen standard keys, surrounded by four or five shift bars, which are used to generate all standard English characters. It can also be adapted for virtually any character set used on computers worldwide. For a view of the keyboard layout and some possible applications, check their Web site.

Since I wasn't actually at Comdex, I didn't get a chance to try this keyboard. It doesn't look terribly intuitive, although the key layout was designed to make commonly used characters easy to reach. Unless I'm missing something, the training required to use the FrogPad will be similar to that needed to learn typing on a standard keyboard. Remember that the need for (re)training was enough to sink the technically superior Dvorak keyboard layout in favor of the traditional QWERTY arrangement a couple of decades ago.

Of course, nobody's talking about attaining secretarial touch-typing speed with this device. The competition is microkeyboards like the BlackBerry, Treo and Sidekick, and handwritten character recognition systems like the Graffiti pad. Everybody enters text slowly on these devices, and even the best of the current solutions are less than desirable. FrogPad offers finger-sized buttons in a small device, a very compelling combination. And if the size of the keyboard isn't enough to tempt manufacturers, consider the cost of producing this 20-key device compared to the 32 to 50 keys on other microkeyboards or the cost of a touch screen on a pen-based system. In the cell phone industry, pennies count, and using the FrogPad will probably save more than a few of them. All they have to do is get customers to accept them.

FrogPad's Web site, by the way, has one of the best design statements I've seen to date:

"Frog Design has stated that the width of the keys may be reduced by 8%, and still be fully functional for the big American SUV hand."

I want to get my big American SUV hand on one of these. Now.

Back to top

ViewSonic's AirPanel: Where's the rest of your PC?

ViewSonic made a splash at this year's Comdex with the AirPanel, the first product on the market to use the Microsoft Mira technology that Bill Gates introduced in last year's Comdex keynote. The AirPanel comes in two sizes, a 10.4-inch or 15-inch touch screen LCD that acts as a portable computer display and keeps in touch with the computer via an 802.11b wireless connection. It looks a bit like a TabletPC, but relies on a separate computer to function. An analogy was drawn to cellular and cordless phones - TabletPC is like a cell phone, completely self-contained and able to function anywhere, while the AirPanel, like a cordless phone, works only within a certain distance from a base station.

The AirPanel can display video and play audio, and can accept input via stylus mouse, handwriting recognition, on-screen soft keyboard and microphone. 802.11b bandwidth is sufficient to make movie viewing practical on the device. It weighs about two pounds, has a 3.5 hour battery life, and the 15-inch version can be placed in a docking station and used as a conventional computer display.

The AirPanel is aimed at the consumer market, and designed to allow interaction with a computer from anywhere in the house without having to carry the whole PC around.

It's hard to tell how the market will accept the AirPanel and other products in this entirely new product category, but the powers that be at Comdex liked it enough to give the 15-inch AirPanel their Best of Show award in the Personal Hardware category (Note: in the past, this award has not been a predictor of commercial success). The 10-inch panel will cost $1000, while the 15-inch adds another $300. Both panels come bundled with an 802.11b access point and an upgrade copy of Windows XP Professional, pretty much all the pieces that anyone with a reasonably fast computer will need to get the panel working.

Both panels are expected to ship by the first week of January, just in time for the Christmas rebound season. Good timing, ViewSonic.

Back to top

Transmeta tries again

Following on the mixed commercial success of their technically brilliant Crusoe low-power CPU, chipmaker Transmeta was demonstrating their new Astro behind closed doors at the Bellagio hotel. Transmeta's goal for the Astro is to combine the Crusoe's low power consumption with desktop-like performance. Those who saw the 500 MHz chip benchmarked against a 1.8G Pentium 4m at the Bellagio said the Astro outperformed Intel's mobile flagship. Of course, companies are notorious for employing benchmarks that favor their own products, especially when nobody can perform independent tests to confirm them. Real-world performance of the Astro is something no one will know until a few of them hit the field.

Transmeta's stated goal for the Astro to move the company away from the ultraportable niche and into more mainstream notebooks and desktop replacement systems, where performance is more of an issue. The Astro's low battery consumption will help give it an edge, although the standard screen, memory and other components of a full-size notebook computer will eat enough power to drag an Astro-equipped system's battery life closer to that of its Intel and AMD-equipped rivals.

Expect to see Astro-powered notebooks on the market in late 2003, just in time for Transmeta to wish there was a trade show in Vegas where they could show off.

Back to top

Disposable computing 1: Painless GI exams, thanks to a camera you can swallow

For years, pundits have predicted that cheap, small computers will make our lives easier. Here's a perfect example of a product that makes life not only easier, but less painful. The Given Diagnostic System from Israeli company Given Imaging is a capsule - yes, the kind you swallow - that contains the following:

So the pill passes through the digestive tract, taking pictures along the way. When it's done, as the company's Web site delicately puts it, "The capsule is excreted naturally out of the body." I submit that this is the ultimate in disposable computing. The patient takes the belt pack to the doctor, who can watch a movie starring your digestive tract, from a Big Mac's point of view. No enemas, poking, prodding, anesthesia or other invasive procedures are required. You can watch samples of these movies on Given's Web site. I give the movie of the esophagus three stars - it's entertaining, but Fantastic Voyage it ain't.

Given's camera apparently received FDA approval over a year ago. For those people of a certain age (no snide comments here) who are looking ahead to their first colonoscopy, this device is exciting news. I sent a link to my doctor. Maybe you should too.

Back to top

Disposable computing 2: Smart pillboxes and "paper electronics"

The second example of disposable computing I found was also a medical application. Swedish company Cypak has developed a computer the size of a grain of rice, containing a processor and 32K of flash memory. They have developed a method for printing circuits on cardboard with conductive ink, allowing much of the device to be manufactured from paper. "Paper electronics", as they call it, holds a key to low-cost, disposable smart devices.

Cypak's first product demo is a pill dispenser printed on a card. Each pill is connected to an analog input line that signals the onboard computer when the pill is removed from the packaging and records the time and date of the event. The disposable pack can also contain an input pad where a patient can record the effect of each pill. An advanced design can keep continuous track of the temperature the pills are exposed to, useful information to have about medication that can be damaged by environmental extremes. The information in the computer's memory can be collected later on a special reader, and the one-time-use package can then be discarded, computer and all.

Cypak expects this smart pillbox to be used first by drug companies for clinical trials, where accurate data gathering is critical and extremely difficult by conventional means. Eventually, they expect to reach the mainstream market, making the monitoring of medication far easier for both doctors and patients.

Back to top

Supplement: I offer a TabletPC apology.

In Wednesday's Comdex dispatch, I was pretty hard on the TabletPC, saying that the market would not buy into the idea of a standalone computer totally dependent for input on handwriting recognition. Reading over my analysis, I realized that, by focusing on the prospects of the pure tablet in the general-purpose market, I ignored important niches where the TabletPC will be very useful and probably successful. Forms-based applications like medical record keeping, insurance claims adjustment, device controllers and dashboard systems come to mind. I also believe that the core technologies of touch screens and digital ink will find their way into mainstream computers, now that TabletPCs are driving up manufacturing volumes and driving down per-unit costs.

So, within a couple of years, expect to see touch screens on just about all laptops, along with the pen-based software extensions to Windows needed to make them work. Barring a breakthrough, though, handwriting recognition will still take a while longer.

Back to top

Odds and ends

Here are some miscellaneous observations about and from the show. Many thanks to Dan Giacomelli of Innovantage, who did attend the show on Wednesday and Thursday, for his first-hand reports.

Still, in the face of rumors that Key3Media would move Comdex to Houston or Miami or just declare bankruptcy and sell the show, Comdex Fall 2003 was announced: November 15 to 20, in Las Vegas.

So maybe there's a little float time left in the Titanic of technology trade shows. If so, Key3Media -or whoever buys the Comdex franchise from them - had better think about how to reinvent Comdex a trade show for a new audience with reduced interest in technology, smaller travel budgets, changing priorities, and far more online access to information than Sheldon Adelson could possibly have imagined when created the template for Comdex in 1979. I wish them luck - maybe I'll be back to Las Vegas for Comdex Fall 2003 after all.

Back to top
©2002 Rich Stillman