COMDEX : Show pushes toward consumer focus

Some years it is truer than others that Bill Gates sets the tone for fall Comdex with his opening keynote address. This was one of the years when the Microsoft Corp. chairman and chief software architect gave attendees a glimpse what has become an important show focus when he spent nearly half of his speech, which lasted almost two hours, on consumer products.

Over the years, Comdex has displayed an increasing array of consumer gadgets and gizmos. The show was smaller this year and there was more of a presence of companies from gadget-hungry Asia. Japan, China and South Korea were among the nations amply represented this year, so it was probably a given that there would be more of a consumer focus. But it’s also the case that business and home electronics continue to overlap, with more of us working at home and relying on, for instance, handhelds to keep track not only of our business meetings, but also our social plans and the busy schedules of our kids, as well as our merged address books. And, let’s face it: A technogeek at work is just as much, and probably more, of a geek at home.

Numerous attendees interviewed on the show floor about the array of consumer goods said they liked that aspect of the show, enjoying the ability to check out the latest business productivity software and then wander over to see new handhelds, home networking gear or software that can be used to create online photo albums or home movies. Sprinkled in with the more serious products were a cartoon character mouse; a logo vendor displaying golf balls, pens and the like that can be emblazoned with company names and given out to employees and customers; a Mercedes Benz display with eight high-tech vehicles visitors could sit in and wish for; and a company showing something called iSeePet, a food dish for Fido whose contents are controlled via the Web after a chime goes off when the critter walks-or knowing my own kitties, gallups-near the dish looking for a bite to eat.

Gates didn’t show off anything quite like that, but he did talk a lot about what is to come for home users and declared “the TV experience will be a deeply changed digital experience.” We’ll be able to get increasingly more information from our cars and from common household items like refrigerators and alarm clocks as our electronic worlds edge ever more toward being interactive in what he termed this “digital decade.”

“We can say that the idea of personal computing is far broader,” he said, touching on hardware development-particularly new chips to run this new way of life-the booming digital camera market and the continued increase in wireless use. By the end of this decade, the typical computer will be able to hold 1T byte of data, he predicted. Considering all we’re evidently going to be doing with our consumer computing devices, we’ll need at least that much.

Some of what Gates mentioned at Comdex he said will be elaborated on at the Consumer Electronics Show in January in Las Vegas, fuelling rumours that Comdex is becoming more of a preview for CES than its own sustained show or that the two are going to merge (never mind that they are operated by totally separate companies). Rumours aside, attendees noticed distinctly more consumer products in the exhibition halls, but also more of a consumer push from many vendors.

The booming digital camera market was represented by not only by new cameras on display, but supporting software. Attendees gathered three and four deep around the booth for 3D Album, software from Micro Research Institute that allows users to create online photo albums with digital photographs. The completed photo albums can be copied onto CDs, uploaded to Web pages, sent out as e-mail attachments or made into screensavers. The photos can be made to spin, flip, float, explode, dissolve, glide or curl-among other things-with an array of design schemes available.

Not everyone gathered around to see the demonstration was interested in using it at home. John Bussineau works on graphics for a small IT team for a major U.S. automotive manufacturer near Detroit, and as he watched the demonstration it occurred to him that the software could be useful for his job.

“I like what I’m seeing here because it automates,” he said. “I like this because it breaks into frames and to create some slick animations.”

The cross over between work and home use seemed to be a phenomenon that attendees thought about.

“I’m having a hard time deciding if I’m here for myself or for my business,” said Jim Welch, president of Office Technology Support Inc., in Helena, Montana. His company provides technology support to clients in the Helena area, but he was quick to say that he’s a technogeek through and through, so was enjoying the consumer wares on display, too.

While this was the first time Welch had been to Comdex, many attendees this year, as in the past, are show veterans. Mike Jones, chief operating officer, at Opera Glass Networks LLC in New York has been to the show before and also noticed the heavy consumer orientation of this year.

“It’s just kind of a shift” in emphasis, said Jones. Jones’ company provides multimedia entertainment systems for sports stadiums, so he’s interested in the consumer gear for work. One project his company has in the works is to rent handheld devices to sports fans attending games so that they can check out instant replays, search for statistics or find other information that people who love sports would be inclined to want to know during a game they aren’t watching on TV or listening to on the radio. The idea merges the in-person experience with broadcast coverage.

Right now, the company has deals with the Denver Broncos football team and the San Antonio Spurs basketball team. The Denver stadium (which, of course, can’t have a normal name these days and so is called Invesco Field at Mile High) has PC kiosks set up so that fans can check out statistics, replays and surf the Web for information about other games going on at the same time or anything else that catches their fancy.

So, Jones’ company is heavily focused on consumers and he was finding plenty at the show to feed that.

He hadn’t heard the Gates keynote, which wound down with Gates describing smart personal object technology or SPOT, which is meant to lead to the development of “smarter everyday objects,” including refrigerators that, with the push of a button, will give live sports scores (a must have in the kitchen of any sports enthusiast), weather information or traffic details for the route to work or anywhere else. More about how objects will be more simply made and easier to use and be wirelessly connected with PCs or TVs or each other to create digital home hubs will be offered at CES.

It’s highly likely that, assuming Comdex survives the probable bankruptcy of Key3Media Group Inc., the show will continue to focus on how the digital lifestyle crosses the boundary between work and home.

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