Security, Web services likely to dominate Comdex

Just as it does at this time every year, the focus of the world’s technology industry turns to Las Vegas, home of the annual Comdex Fall show that is set to begin next week – although this year the industry is one much changed from 12 months ago.

The September attacks on the U.S. has made security a sudden, urgent concern, in terms of company data and IT systems as well as personal safety. Meanwhile, the bursting of the dot-com bubble and lackluster economy has also ravaged many tech companies, pushing them deep into debt and forcing large layoffs of staff.

Microsoft Corp., fresh from an agreement with the federal U.S. government (if not all of the states) to settle its antitrust case, will use the show to plug its upcoming Tablet PC, a stylized notebook computer that’s carried like a clipboard, connects wirelessly to the Internet and lets users write and edit handwritten text with a touch-screen pen.

First shown at Comdex a year ago, the product isn’t due until the second half of 2002, but that likely won’t stop Bill Gates from making it a highlight at his opening keynote Sunday. The Microsoft chairman and chief software architect plans to show variations on the device and announce new partners who’ll help bring it to market, according to various sources.

Gates’ overview of the Tablet PC last year was “interesting, (but) rather crude,” said Tim Bajarin, president of consultancy Creative Strategies Inc. But in the past year, he said, “both the concept and the development in terms of hardware partners have evolved dramatically.”

Another feature of Gates’ keynote will be the company’s bold push into consumer gaming. Its Xbox console is due to be launched on Thursday during Comdex week, and Microsoft will have 30 of the consoles on display for attendees to play with.

Microsoft won’t stop there, and is expected to also unwrap a new .Net service for the financial industry to build so-called Web services. The service comprises software that automates business processes, such as billing or making reservations, over the Internet.

A Novell Inc. executive, Darin Richins, in his keynote scheduled for Wednesday, is also expected to enthuse over Web services, as the industry rallies around the emerging trend.

“Comdex this year will provide a good glimpse of the kind of software we’re going to see, the thinking of software design and development, over the next two years,” Bajarin said.

Closer to the here-and-now, businesses can look forward to new technology in areas like systems management, wireless data delivery, and ERP (enterprise resource planning).

Samsung SDS Co. Ltd., for example, said it plans to unveil ReQube, a Web-based tool that lets fairly nontechnical employees pull information from a relational database and use it to build reports. ReQube will also help them display those reports on the Web without much coding skill, Samsung said. The product works with all the major databases and SAP AG’s R/3 software; pricing and availability will be announced next week.

Security will be a top concern, seen in products for locking down PCs and networks, and in tighter security rules for show-goers that were put in place following the September attacks on the U.S.

“In terms of biometrics, smart cards (and) firewalls, the market seems to be very interested right now in things that make people feel safe and secure,” said Rob Enderle, a research fellow with Giga Information Group Inc.

Biometrics products, which use fingerprints and other physical characteristics to verify a person’s identity, are drawing interest not only because of security fears, but because of improvements in technology over the past 18 months, according to Thor Christensen, president and chief executive officer of BioconX Inc.

The Minneapolis-based company will show its network security software working with a computer mouse rigged with a fingerprint reader by Siemens AG. The system compares a user’s fingerprint to a stored template, then grants access only to the servers and applications the user has been authorized to use.

A system from SSP Solutions Inc. combines a smart card reader and fingerprint scanner for a double-dose of security. A user’s fingerprint is stored on a microchip in a smart card, to insure that the person who presents the card is the same person it was issued to, a company spokesman said.

The cards could be used to verify that the person on the other end of a Web transaction is who they say they are, or to secure access to buildings and airports.

Services giant Electronic Data Systems Corp. (EDS) has scheduled a press conference Monday to announce a new product and service offering in the area of cybersecurity, and will demonstrate the system in a “real world” scenario involving airport security, a company spokesman said.

Telematics, or the business of zapping data to automobiles for reasons of safety, to provide mobile workers with corporate data, or just to satisfy the digitally addicted, will also be on the front burner.

MobileAria Inc. will drive to Vegas a BMW 325 fitted with its True Hands Free service, which “voice-enables” a laptop computer and mobile phone to create what the company calls an in-car productivity service. Users can send and receive e-mail or dial phone numbers using voice commands, receive driving directions thanks to a Global Positioning System, or access streamed content like news and sports results. Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz will show a car equipped with “DriveBy InfoFueling,” comprising high-bandwidth data transfer into vehicles.

True Hands Free will be tested in the San Francisco area later this year, with plans to roll out across other parts of the US early next year. The hardware, including a Bluetooth notebook PC card, will cost about $300, with a monthly service fee of $20 to $30, said Michael Hearney, Mobile Aria’s vice president of marketing.

Internet appliances will be on parade after a difficult year that saw some high-profile efforts falter. Looking to buck the trend, National Semiconductor Corp. will show its Geode SC3200 processor in a conceptual device called the Origami Mobile Communicator, which takes the appliance idea into overdrive.

Named for the art of paper folding, the Origami has sections that pivot and twist to become no less than eight gadgets, including a Web pad for surfing the Internet, a digital camera and a videophone. Measuring eight inches by four inches and weighing 10 ounces, the prototype on show at Comdex runs an embedded version of Windows XP and connects to a network via Bluetooth or 802.11b. National Semi hopes manufacturers will offer the device to end users in the second half of 2002.

Four other vendors will show appliances using the Geode including Philips Electronics NV, which will show a portable Web Pad, and Sageport Corp., which has an easy-to-use desktop Internet appliance targeted at seniors.

(Martyn Williams and Elizabeth Heichler in Boston contributed to this story.)