November 14, 2002 4:00 AM PST

Comdex: It's a wireless thing

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Wireless will be the word at Comdex.

Wireless networking, particularly Wi-Fi, along with the home and office devices that take advantage of these connections, will be a dominant theme at the weeklong technology trade show that starts Sunday in Las Vegas. Wireless is expected to be a big part of Microsoft CEO Bill Gates' keynote address Sunday night and will play a role in many of the hot products at the show.

Microsoft will discuss a number of products that take advantage of wireless technology, including two types of tablets and a new technology for linking various devices around the home. Meanwhile, the show floor will be covered with handhelds, PCs and other gadgets that thrive on wireless networks, both home Wi-Fi and improved cellular networks. Chipmaker National Semiconductor will show off the GXO, a prototype, full-fledged Windows XP computer that measures about 5 inches by 7 inches and is designed for executives accessing the Internet remotely.

"Wireless is definitely here?It is a major enabler," said Mike Polacek, vice president of the information appliance division at National Semi.

That show floor, though, is likely to be easier to navigate. Comdex kicks off its 23rd year amid a prolonged economic slump that has led to a major decline in trade show attendance. Earlier this year, the event's organizer, Key3Media, decided to scrap several of its less well-attended shows, and even its signature event is expected to be a more intimate affair than in years past.

Attendance at Comdex dipped significantly last year following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and with the economy continuing to limp along, companies have been significantly scaling back their attendance at various industry showcases. This year, organizers are expecting about 125,000 people, roughly the same number that attended last year and well down from the 200,000 or more who attended in the event's heyday.

Additionally, many major companies will be making only modest appearances. This year, Sony joins Intel and a long list of other businesses that have passed on shelling out for a company booth on the show floor.

For the companies and curious who do show up, Microsoft will lead a charge toward taking computing everywhere, through tablet PCs, smart displays and smart objects. Tablet PCs are portable computers with handwriting recognition. Having released devices earlier this month, several manufacturers will be giving the general public its first touchy-feely experience with the devices at the show.


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What to expect at Comdex Fall 2002
ZDNet's David Coursey, News.com's Michael Kanellos and Stephen Shankland
Also on display will be Microsoft's other tablet: the Windows powered Smart Displays formerly known as Mira tablets. While tablet PCs are meant for business users, Microsoft is aiming its smart displays at the home, offering people a more portable way to grab information off their PC. Unlike tablets, smart displays don't have a hard drive and don't access the Web independently, but the devices cost less and last longer on a battery charge. ViewSonic has already announced its models, which are expected to be on sale early next year. A number of manufacturers are expected to show off upcoming models and prototypes at the show.

Gates is expected to talk about the various tablets, as well as a new concept called smart objects. That's Microsoft's term for a new generation of Web-enabled household appliances. Unlike the first incarnation of the Internet appliance, which was largely a no-frills rival to the PC for Web access, these new devices perform a more specific task, using the Internet to soup up day-to-day gadgets with more information. One use could be an alarm clock that provides weather and traffic information along with a wake-up call. Such devices are unlikely to hit the market for close to a year at least.

More news
Other significant announcements expected next week include the following.

• Advanced Micro Devices plans to use the show to tout a large corporate contract with a Fortune 500 customer. AMD CEO Hector Ruiz is expected to announce in a Tuesday morning keynote that the company will use Hewlett-Packard's new Compaq D315 business desktop, which is powered by AMD's Athlon XP processor.

• Microsoft is expected to announce more manufacturers for its Windows XP Media Center Edition, currently found in the United States only on one line of PCs, from HP. Additionally, Microsoft will show off a new application that will become part of the Office bundle, according to sources.

• On the handheld front, Dell Computer will launch its Axim x5 line, while HP will unveil two new iPaqs. With Dell's entry into the handheld market, Microsoft has 30 licensees of its Pocket PC OS. But rival PalmSource, a separate subsidiary of Palm, which oversees the Palm operating system, will be announcing a new licensee of its OS at the show.

• Dell may also clarify whether it will use Intel's Itanium 2 chip or AMD's Hammer chip in high-end servers. The company has said it is evaluating both chips and will make its path more clear by the end of the year. Despite their earlier criticism of Itanium, Dell executives have recently voiced a softening attitude toward the chip.

• The debate over standards in the DVD burning market will continue as consumer-electronics maker Samsung joins the battle with its first DVD-RW drive. For the most part, which formats a company supports generally depends on whether the company is in the consumer-electronics or the PC market.

Those in the consumer-electronics market, such as Panasonic and Pioneer (the exception being Apple), tend to side with the DVD Forum and its DVD-R, DVD-RW and DVD-RAM formats. The major members of the DVD+RW Alliance tend to be PC companies, such as Dell and HP. Both sides are trying to establish their respective formats as the dominant ones in the industry. The rival trade groups for the two main formats will have separate press events touting new specifications and advancements in drive speeds.

• Graphics chipmaker Nvidia will announce when its NV30 processor, which will be sold as the GeForce 5, will hit the market. Nvidia was expected to have the chip available in October, but problems having to do with shifting to a new chipmaking process bumped it back.

•  In the area of high-end computers, NEC will show off its TX7 server, a machine with 32 Itanium 2 processors. Broadcom, whose ServerWorks subsidiary makes the crucial chipsets that join server processors to the rest of a computer, will tout its latest products for thin "blade" servers. And Intel will describe new server chipsets of its own that boost the "system bus" that speeds the processor connection to the chipset from 400MHz to 533MHz.

News.com's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.

 

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