'Gee Whiz!' Wireless Hits Comdex

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Technology stocks may be languishing near their annual lows, but you'd never know it here at Comdex 2000 - the annual trade show that attracts a quarter of a million IT professionals and tech fans from around the world each year.

All week in Las Vegas, the ballyhoo, parties and free logo T-shirts give geeks a happy break from their nosediving portfolios.

Instead of looking at red numbers on a computer screen, the 250,000 nerds who came for the show are far more interested in the latest products being offered by the world's leading technology companies - not to mention the small chance of rubbing elbows with their brand of rock star, the keynote speakers, such as Oracle's Larry Ellison, Microsoft's Steve Ballmer and Hewlett Packard's Carly Fiorina.

Comdex divides the products on display into five different categories - office products, consumer products, wireless/mobile products, software/service products and enterprise products. But each year certain themes evolve.

Two years ago everyone was nuts about flat panel monitors, which were too pricey for most folks, and Web enabled consumer appliances, which were also too pricey and unavailable. Last year, the theme was "beyond the PC" - more handhelds, more little gadgets and interactive TV.

This year the focus is wireless, wireless, wireless. And by wireless, I mean a lot more than cell phones, which these days look old fashioned compared to the other wireless thingies out there.

Bluetooth, for example - a wireless standard that promises to connect our refrigerators with our toasters with our VCRs with our phones, once it becomes available - garnered its own pavilion, even though it for the most part it does not exist yet.

And, it was hard to visit any booth in the one million square feet of rented show space that didn't have at least one wireless angle, be it SMS - a way that mobile phones communicate with each other, WAP - a way to make Web applications like e-mail available by mobile phone - or IrDA - the way that Palms and other handhelds beam information to each other.

All wireless devices had one thing in common - they did not work perfectly. But unlike previous years, many wireless products did at least work some of the time.

My favorite product on the Comdex floor wasn't a phone or personal digital assistant. Rather, it was a robot - a dog robot, to be precise. This robot dog, named Aibo - or ERS 210 - by the Sony developers who designed it, is the kind of thing that must be seen to be believed.

It looks like a small dog, fetches like a small dog and even understands voice commands such as "Sit" and "Stay." It is also, of course, wireless with the ability to communicate both by voice command and via a wireless home network. Aibo, which stands for Artificial Intelligence roBOt, is more than a toy, say Sony marketers. It is a lifelike companion - with a unique personality - that is raised by its master and learns from its environment. It is also extremely cte.

Cuteness comes at a price, however. With orders being taken on Nov. 16 at Sony Style stores, the Sharper Image and the Aibo.com Web site, at $1,500 Aibo is no cheap date.

Some people believe that a company's presence at Comdex is a logical way to gauge the health of the business, or at least for small-business and consumer-oriented companies.

If you buy into that theory, this list is for you: the companies with the biggest, best Comdex presence - as calculated by the size and visibility of signs, the crowds around booths and the buzz around reporters - include: Handspring, Palm Computing, Microsoft, Sony, Intel and, probably, Cisco.

My favorite products, however, seem to have little in common with those of the experts. According to CNet and ZDNet, the best products at Comdex this year are:

  • Best new office product: a Compaq portable projector
  • Best consumer product: the AOL Gateway countertop appliance
  • Best wireless mobile product: NVidia GeForce2 Go
  • Best software/service product: Ricochet wireless service
  • Best enterprise product: Virtual Access Networks
  • Best vision of the future: tablet PCs, in general.

    Of those, I can only vouch for one company - Ricochet. What does it do? Wireless networks, of course.

    But unlike Bluetooth and other wireless networks-to-be, Ricochet's network is actually up and running. In the San Francisco Bay area, the company has deployed a 128k wireless network - twice as fast as most phone modems. It's a great thing.

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