Handhelds grab the eyeballs but PCs here to stay

One day into the Comdex trade show was enough to make it clear – PCs remain at the heart of computer industry, but shiny, tiny machines provide the glitz, and a glimpse into the wireless future.

Industry leaders took to the stage here and did their best to remind – or convince – attendees that the PC still is the preferred productivity tool and Internet access device for most users, and that servers are selling like hot cakes. But in several cases their words were undercut by non-PC devices they demonstrated, which ended up stealing the show.

Kicking off Comdex on Sunday night with his perennial opening keynote speech, Microsoft Chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates derided the idea that stripped-down Internet access devices would replace PCs. In a dig at Sun Microsystems Inc., Gates said the company – which generates significant revenue from selling Web servers – promotes the idea of “get rid of the PCs – if you lose your privacy, get over it.”

But one of the biggest crowd pleasers at the Gates keynote was a demonstration of the Tablet PC. Due out in 2002, the device is the size of a pad of paper. The device draws on Microsoft technology such as handwriting recognition. And despite Gates’ insistence that the PC will remain at the center of computing, the Tablet PC shows that Microsoft understands that there will be many variations of the traditional PC concept.

The Tablet PC shows that the company understands the future of small PCs, said Charles Kim, president of Royal Western Computer Co. in Silver Spring, Md.

“That computer is going to give us more freedom of space,” Kim said. “We’ll be able to take computers to the living room, the backyard, wherever.”

In her keynote, Hewlett-Packard Co. chairman and CEO Carly Fiorina roamed even further than Gates from PCs or server hardware. Despite the fact that HP is one of the largest hardware suppliers in the world, Fiorina mainly discussed software services designed to let users access online information, corporate data and e-mail, from a variety of devices.

One of the highlights of her speech was the announcement that HP has entered into an agreement with Nokia Corp. The deal calls for Nokia to use HP software to let mobile phones, for example, communicate with hardware devices such as printers.

Users are snapping up servers and the storage devices that back them up, fueling revenue in those areas for Dell Computer Corp., said company Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Michael Dell in his keynote address here Monday. The explosion in the use of the Internet will assure that there will be a great demand for servers in the foreseeable future, he said. Meanwhile, handheld devices and Web-enabled phones will complement, rather than replace the PC, as the preferred access device for the Internet, Dell said.

Product announcements commanding the spotlight at the show included new all-in-one consumer entertainment devices and wireless connectivity technology.

LG Electronics Inc., for example, unveiled the 64.5-by-93.5-by-23 millimetre Digital Music Eye – a combination MP3 player and digital still camera. The product features 2M bytes of built-in memory – enough for 30 images in VGA quality. To store music, users will have to use a removable MultiMediaCard (MMC). Information on pricing, and the timing of the device’s release, was not immediately available.

Wireless connectivity also was a big theme here, with vendors offering a range of products for Internet access.

Metricom Inc. and National Semiconductor Corp. announced a partnership to develop the WebPad Metro, designed to offer wireless Internet access at speeds of up to 128K bps (bits per second) and slated for release in the United States early next year. WebPads are tablet devices with an LCD (liquid crystal display) and various programs for accessing Web services. The Metro will run Microsoft’s Windows CE operating system.

Looking to gain an edge on its rivals in the market for handheld devices, Microsoft unveiled a test version of the Windows Media Player designed to let users stream and download multimedia files into Pocket PC devices. The early version of the software, dubbed Microsoft Windows Media Player for Pocket PC Technology Preview Edition, is designed for those who want to evaluate the application. Microsoft developed the specifications for the Pocket PC platform, and is working with manufacturers to spur adoption of the devices.

Not to be outdone on the connectivity front, Compaq Computer Corp. demonstrated on Sunday embedded USB (Universal Serial Bus) modules for standards-based wireless LAN (local area network) and Bluetooth connectivity, that fit in the MultiPort slot of its next-generation Armada enterprise-class notebooks.

Handspring Inc., meanwhile, made the most of its booth space by playing host to twenty partner companies showing off modules, services and accessories designed for the company’s Visor handheld devices. Several of the Visor Springboard add-on modules featured wireless communications capabilities.

The variety of mobile and handheld computer technology on display here, however eye-catching, does bring up practical considerations for corporate users, however.

“Everything seems to be moving toward mobile,” said show attendee Bill Janke, director of infrastructure at Proware, a Cincinnati-based company that develops software for court systems. The key question: “We’re trying to see how that fits into our own business,” Janke said. For now, Janke said, he is reserving judgment.