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Walking Comdex

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 and changing.

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 presentation modes.

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 in 2000.

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.

About the Author

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 jwilliams@bluemountaincommerce.com.

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