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Comdex preview: Giant trade show adds wireless

(IDG) -- Internet applicances, handheld computers, Web-enabled cell phones and wireless technologies that link them all together will lead the charge at this year's giant Comdex trade show, which throws open its doors in Las Vegas on November 13.

Organizers say the event will cover more than one million square feet of floor space for the first time, sprawling, as usual, out of the Las Vegas Convention Center and into the surrounding hotel-casinos. Some 200,000 people from around the globe are expected to clog the city's streets and taxi cabs for the week-long event -- about the same number as last year -- with the number of vendors that are showing products inching up slightly to 2,500.

Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates will open the show Sunday evening with his traditional state-of-the-industry speech. As well as highlighting initiatives in the smart phone and handheld-computing arenas, the Microsoft chief is expected to offer one of the first public glimpses of Whistler, the codename for Microsoft's next operating system for consumer PCs due next year.

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"You'll actually see the operating system that people have been asking for years and are finally going to get," said Rob Enderle, a senior analyst at Giga Information Group. "It should be more stable and more reliable. ... The breaking-every-day part goes away with this product."

Microsoft is keeping mum about Gates' speech and would not comment. Other speakers include Larry Ellison, chairman and CEO of Oracle; Michael Dell, chairman and CEO of Dell Computer; and, in a sign of the trade show's shifting focus, Kurt Hellstrom, president of mobile phone giant L.M. Ericsson Telephone.

In the PC arena, Intel will showcase the first powerful Pentium 4 systems, which will go on sale in the coming weeks. Rival chip start-up Transmeta will not be on the show floor, but partners such as Sony, Hitachi, and Fujitsu are expected to show off slim and light notebooks that achieve long battery life based on Transmeta's much-talked-about Crusoe chip.

The real eye-opener in the PC market, however, could be Saint Song, an innovative Taiwanese firm that will show off the latest version of its miniature PC. No larger than a handheld computer, the company's first product, called Espresso, packs an Intel processor, a 2.5-inch hard drive and its own graphics subsystem, and can run a heavyweight OS like Windows 2000. Multiple inputs give the PC a modular design that allows users to add a keyboard, monitor, floppy drive, and even a docking station, depending on their location and the computing job at hand.

"The next big wave for computers, at least as far as we can tell, is going to be these modular designs, so it's a race to see which major brand does it first," Enderle said.

Behind closed doors, at least one top-tier PC maker will be showing its own modular computer to industry analysts, one of the show's "hot little secrets," one industry source said.

In keeping with recent trends, PCs will take a backseat to sexier consumer-oriented gadgets, including easy-to-use Internet appliances such as 3Com's Audrey, smart phones that blend PDA (personal digital assistant) functionality, and handheld computers from Palm, Handspring, and Microsoft's partners, which will be shown with a variety of add-on packs to expand their capabilities. Also in the spotlight will be re-writable DVD drives, which are still struggling with pricing and compatibility issues, and, of course, wireless technologies such as Bluetooth, 802.11b, and HomeRF.

Mobile phone giants including Ericsson, Nokia, and Qualcomm all have a big presence at the show for the first time, and will show emerging types of feature-rich handsets that pack larger screens for Web browsing and other data capabilities.

San Jose, Calif.-based SyberSay Communication will give a first look at its Sonic Crystal, a wireless device that fits behind the ear and incorporates a microphone that lets cell phone addicts talk on the phone without wires. As well as shielding users from potentially harmful radiation from their cell phone, the device will allow users to dial telephone numbers by using voice commands, a company spokeswoman said.

Not to be upstaged, Microsoft plans to show off devices based on Stinger, its codename for feature-rich phones that combine basic Web access and e-mail with PDA functions such as an address book. At its large partner booth on the show floor, the company will also show off its Mobile Microsoft Explorer, a slimmed-down version of its Web browser for handheld gadgets.

Although the show continues to look more consumer-oriented, corporate visitors will not be left out. An ASP Summit at The Venetian Hotel and Casino will tout the benefits of hosted applications for areas such as ERP (enterprise resource planning) and CRM (customer relationship management). At the Las Vegas Hilton, the Linux Business Expo will give IT managers the opportunity to view open-source products up close, while the Forum in the Sands Convention Center will provide a central location to track down e-commerce products.

Samsung Electronics plans to introduce uniERP2000, which it is positioning as a low-cost ERP package to build an IT infrastructure for managing financial and personnel needs. Due in the first quarter of 2001, the product integrates with the Symix APS (advanced planning and scheduling) application and includes some CRM and online procurement capabilities, according to Samsung.

Although Comdex continues to showcase the latest in high-tech, a few big name vendors, including disk drive maker Seagate Technology, Texas Instruments, Dell Computer, and IBM, will barely be seen on the show floor. Analysts say Comdex has gotten so large and booth space so expensive that some vendors are steering clear of its public side, holding meetings instead in hotel suites high above the Las Vegas strip.

"There's been this long-term trend at Comdex for the action to move off the floor," said Roger Kay, a research director at IDC, in Framingham, Mass. "Originally a lot of the people who came were resellers, and serious business got done in the booths, and the booths weren't that expensive."

But booth prices have gone up while the quality of visitors at the show has gone down, as Comdex attracted more and more consumers, students, and others that come only to gawk, Kay said. Meanwhile, resellers looking for more focused events have headed to events such as PC Expo, held in New York, and the giant Consumer Electronics Show, held in Las Vegas each January.

"It's becoming more and more of an entertainment event and less of a trade show," agreed Giga's Rob Enderle. "Its a good place for people to go and talk about technology, but at some point it just becomes a fair and not really the trade show that it once was."

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