I like to walk for exercise. The farther I walk, the better. Comdex, this past
November, provided me with an almost unlimited opportunity to get all the exercise
I wanted. Comdex just celebrated its twentieth anniversary, which makes it 80
years old in Internet time. But this quintessential PC event shows signs of aging
Comdex used to be the place where major PC hardware and software announcements
were made. This year's PC focus seemed to be on the proliferation of flat-screen
displays and multi-hued PC cases. There were still plenty of press releases
from Comdex, but the major excitement at the show had little to do with PCs.
The hottest themes were wireless connectivity and Internet appliances. Sixty-two
companies had products in the wireless area, 27 had information appliances and
68 had hand-held/wireless devices.
One phrase that kept popping up from wireless vendors was "IP everywhere."
Their goal is to use IP to connect everything from your computer and phone to
your toaster and TV. A key acronym for the wireless world is WAP or Wireless
Applications Protocol. This is the protocol used to display Web information
on small, hand-held wireless devices. Think of it as a way to program your Web
site for a third browser - the wireless device.
One pavilion focused on Bluetooth technology, an open specification for wireless
communication of voice and data. It comes from a consortium created by Ericsson,
Intel, IBM, Nokia and Toshiba. These companies have been joined by 3COM, Lucent,
Microsoft, Motorola and 1,200 other firms. Bluetooth aims to provide low-cost,
short-range radio connectivity between devices like PCs, phones, appliances
and other portable devices.
Connectivity was key for many companies. The SOHO market is about to be flooded
with wired and wireless boxes for building small networks. Acer was showing
its new Nextus line of switches, routers and hubs. There were also many vendors
of USB hubs. Clearly, there are going to be many ways to connect the devices
in your home or office.
Global Converging exhibited its wireless home information system. The CENDIS
system provides access to voice, data and audio through portable wireless information
appliances. Infinite Technologies had several interesting products. Infinite
Voice is a tool that lets you listen to your E-mail while traveling and reply
by recording a voice mail message. Replies are stored as .wav files and sent
to the recipient as an E-mail attachment.
Nokia announced that it would use the Palm OS to enable its wireless phones
for data access. And Sony announced it was working with Palm Computing to create
the next generation of hand-held consumer electronics products.
Internet appliances were a hot item. During his keynote, Bill Gates talked
about his vision of the personal Web and surrounded himself with new Internet
appliances. These machines are not PCs. They have displays, but they may or
may not have keyboards. Several had phones attached. Of course, the appliances
Gates showed were powered by Windows CE, but there are alternatives.
Vestel showed three products: the Internet.Terminal, Internet.TV and Internet.Phone.
Acer had a similar range of Internet appliances. Its iStation is designed for
Internet and E-mail access. It runs under Windows CE and uses a dedicated ISP.
Acer also has a Web phone with video-phone capabilities and announced iSet,
its set top box. Vadem presented its Clio C-1050 Internet appliance. It has
an interesting design with an integrated, but pivotal LCD display and keyboard.
Depending on how you fold the screen, it can be used in notebook, tablet and
There were other generally interesting items. Zkey.com was promoting its online
personal information site. When you register with Zkey.com, they give you a
zkey and some Web space. You can keep personal information about yourself online
and then control what gets displayed or shared.
Thoughtstar displayed its Quickteam online collaborative environment. This
is a Web-based team work site that provides threaded discussions, chat, paging,
whiteboard, events news, links, voting, surveys and project management tools.
If you were looking for Internet storefront software, there was plenty to
choose from. One product that caught my eye was www.shopfactory.com from 3D3.COM
Pty Ltd. You can exhibit your products as 3-D models or you can create a 3-D
store for your customers to wander through.
Conversa exhibited its voice-powered Web site and tools. They have an enhanced
voice-based browser called Conversa Web that lets you control navigation using
your voice. No voice training is required.
Security is always a concern of IT, and biometrics seemed to be the touted
technology for it. One company, Biometrix, displayed its BioNetrix Authentication
Suite. It is an infrastructure for multiple authentication technologies. It
supports a combination of non-biometric - passwords, smart cards, tokens - or
biometric - voice and fingerprint recognition - technologies.
Gizmos fascinate me, and this year, Virtual Ink's mimo caught my attention.
It is a set of hardware and software that takes work done on a real whiteboard
and automatically displays it on an online whiteboard by using a capture bar
mounted on a real whiteboard with suction cups. The dry markers are kept in
special holders that the capture board can track with an infrared signal. Using
different marker holders for different colors, you can turn any flat surface
into an electronic whiteboard.
A look at things to come
This year, the Linux Business Expo was held as part of Comdex. Despite what
some may think, I did spend a fair amount of time there and I didn't need to
go in disguise. There were two interesting trends at this show. Bob Young of
Red Hat talked about using Linux to leap around current operating systems and
become the force that drives Web appliances. The announcement of Red Hat's acquisition
of Cygnus in the same speech emphasized the importance they are giving to this
direction. Linus Torvalds expounded a similar message in his keynote. He doesn't
believe that Windows CE is up to the task.
The other trend I saw was a new emphasis on creating more productive development
environments for Linux. The GNU tools are fine for recompiling the kernel, but
developers who want to deploy applications on Linux are looking for more productive
tools. Both Inprise and IBM announced earlier this year that they are moving
their Java development environments to Linux. Inprise has taken this a step
further. Its Kylix project will move its C, C++ and Delphi environments to Linux.
This bodes well for IT development teams who would like to use their standard
development tools, but deploy on Linux. This environment should be available
I cannot end without mentioning one Linux site I discovered at Comdex: workspot.com.
They are working to put the Linux desktop on the Internet. Essentially, you
run your standard KDE desktop within your browser. Currently, they have a free
basic service in beta. There is a basic HTML interface for some functions and,
eventually, they will have Palm connectivity. Workspot is trying to make full
computer functionality available through the browser. This challenging task
hints at work IT groups may need to accomplish in the future.
How does their system perform? Over a 56K modem line, the Linux KDE desktop
is very slow. This should come as no surprise to those familiar with X terminals
and servers. A similar situation exists here. You have to send a lot of events
and information back and forth through the connection. Over a T1 connection,
the performance is much improved, but still slower than on a native desktop.
This may be an approach that will work best with broadband connectivity.
So, what did Comdex hint at for the future? We will live in a connected, often
wireless, non-PC world. This message has significant implications for the way
IT departments will build and deliver applications. IT will need to rethink
the way it does software. We will need new tools. Consider how you will support
WAP and wireless devices. An appliance approach means we will need to focus
on Web-based delivery because there is no place for client software. We can't
keep building systems that outgrow the "box." If we need to put software on
an appliance, then we have to learn a lot from those who currently do embedded
software. The challenges faced by Workspot in making full functionality available
through the Web browser hints at IT challenges to come.
John D. Williams is a contributor to Application Development Trends. He is president of Blue Mountain Commerce, a Cary, N.C.-based consulting firm specializing in enterprise, domain and application architectures. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.