Comdex 2000 in Las Vegas

November 13 to 17, 2001

Comdex 2000 halted the downward trend witnessed during the last two or three years. The modd was upbeat and everything seemed to be better organized and handled. I am not sure if that is because Comdex is now produced by Key3Media instead of Softbank, or if it reflects a generally upbeat mod in the industry. In any case, this 20th installment of the leading computer/electronics show (at least in the US) will go down in history as one of, or perhaps the best. Again held in no less than three different convention areas--the expanded Las Vegas Convention Center, the Sands, and the Hilton Convention Center areas--there was as much walking and waiting for transportation involved as ever, but it was fun. The weather cooperated with a full week of sun, yet nicely cool temperatures. At our Aeon Publishing booth in the LVCC about 10,000 copies of the latest issue of Pen Computing were snapped up in a hurry, plus another 8,000 or so of our sister publication, Digital Camera Magazine.

As a veteran of many Comdex shows, I tried to pace myself and not make too many commitments that would be hard to keep. I did make it to Andrew Seybold's 10th annual Wireless Dinner at the Top of the Riviera, an elegant affair attended by perhaps 400. Andy bestowed a number of awards and it speaks to the unwavering integrity of the man that the majority of the awards went to companies that were not also sponsors of the event--this much in contrast to some similar events. No one from Handspring was present, for example, when their award was announced, but that was only because palm and Handspring founder Jeff Hawkins was given a lifetime achievement award by PC Magazine elsewhere. It's nice to see that now that Jeff and Handspring are big, the mainstream computer press finally discovers him. The only other large event I went to was the Pocket PC Fan Fest at the Bally. You had to have a Pocket PC to get in, so I brought all three of mine. When I got there and whipped open my bag I discovered to my dismay that it was the wrong bag, the one with my Coolpix 990 digicam. Thye let me in anyway. A good thing as Microsoft's Pocket PC team put on quite a show. The atmosphere was almost like at the early Newton gatherings. It's good t see excitement again.

I also moderated a well-attended panel where we discussed whether cellphones and PDAs will eventually merge. I had illustrious panelists such as Psion's CEO George Gray, Handspring's Joe Sipher, Nokia's Randy Roberts, and HP's Kevin Havre. I also sat in on a couple of panels where our longstanding wireless editor and contributor Tammy Parker participated. I was reminded of how lucky we are to have her.

After that I had time to roam the showfloors to get a feel for what's going on. It's impossibe to take everything in--the show is just too big--so I usually try to get the overall flavor and ferret out as much as I can on the latest pen and mobile technologies. Just like PC Expo 2000 and other major shows during the last year, Comdex 2000 was not about PCs. It was all about the emerging convergence of all sorts of electronic communication and entertainment devices, e-commerce, the web and the Internet.

Asian connection
As usual, there were a number of Asian companies displaying their latest PDA technology in the hope of finding US partners who would market the products in the US. It is always exciting to see those often stunning gadgets, but knowing that the majority will never make it over here is sort of a downer. Among the current crop were:

MPLUS Technologies, Inc., a Korean company that showed a whole line of interesting devices in the Microsoft Partners area. The ZeSS line includes the ZeSS Note, a Windows CE 3.0-based wireless web pad with a 7.4-inch VGA DSTN screen, and a slew of multimedia capabilities: There's MPEG4 video playback, MP3 music, an E-Book reader, and an optional digital camera. The Note has a footprint of 230 x 190 x 25 mm, weighs 720g and is powered by a 206MHz Intel SA-1110 processor. The modem is CDMA/GSM/IMT2000 capable, the camera that plugs into the upper right hand side of the Note, has a 1/3-inch 300k pixel CMOS, and rotates 180 degrees. There is fast IrDA, USB, a SmartCard reader, microphone and speakerphone, and an unbeliavbly powerful 5,100mAh Li-Ion battery. Next is the ZeSS Pocket, which is basically a StrongARM-powered plain-vanilla product with a monochrome screen. Variations of the Pocket are more interesting. There is the Phone, a Windows 2.1 version of the Pocket that snaps into a sleek phone sled that supports IS-95B (64kbps) and IS-05C/GSM/IMT 2000 in the near future. The Phone 2000 is a more advanced version that totally combines the PDA and phone functionality in a sleek, futuristic design. This one is also powered by an Intel SA-1110 poricessor and is supposed to run 14 hours cntinuously. MPLUS also offers the ZeSS GPS, once again the familiar monochrome base Pocket, but with a GBS module that snaps onto the back. Battery life is cut down to five hurs, but presumably there will be car power adapters. MPLUS Technologies' website is www.mplustech.com

Taiwanese CMC Magnetics Corporation (cmc.taiwanet.com) showed the somewhat oddly named CyberBoy. Dubbed a smart multi-media assistant, the Cyberboy has a dual personality. Look at it from one side and it's a PDA that looks just about like a Cassiopeia E series Pocket PC. Turn it around and it's a digital camera. The 133 x 80 x 35 mm CyberBoy uses its own operating system running on a 33MHz ARM7 processor, has a 240x320 4-gray screen, 8MB RAM and 8MB flash. The CMOS camera can produce full 640 x 480 VGA pictures. The CyberBoy also has an FM receiver, an MP3 decoder, voice recording and the usual complement of PIM software. It uses just two AA batteries or a 1550 Li-Ion power pack.

Another handsome Asian PDA design is the PPC2000 (www.ppc21.com). Since none of the documentation was in English, all we could do is admire the sleek design, the silkscreened apps area that included and numeric keypad, and the fact that the Asian market seems serious about PDAs.

Our old friends at Palmax, a company that was among the originally announced palm-size PC licensees and has had a product for each successive generation of the palm-zise platform but never acually brought them to the US market, sort of showed two versions of its new Pocket PC. The 137x86x16mm amigo runs on a 206 MHz StrongARM and has a full PC Card slot. Its TFT screen can be viewed both in portrait and landscape mode. The PD-131 other uses a slower 131MHz VR-4121 processor, also has a 64k clor TFT, and has a CompactFlash Type II card slot. That one also comes with a Casio-style digital camera attachment. U R There, Inc. insists that they will market the two Palmax Pocket PCs in the US, and we hope they will. The two models, incidentally, feature a different design

The giant Samsung group also displayed some interesting Windows CE-based technology. The "izzi" line includes a CE-based izzi Palm-size PC and very attractively styled 800x600 Web PAD that includes bluetooth and a 2.4gig wireless. Being somewhat of a crossover between a traditional CE device and one of those National Semi-sponsored Web pads, the izzi tablet runs on a National Semi Geode 200 Mhz CPU. The whole thing is part of an overall home, office, entertainment system that also includes notebooks and speakerphones. The Palm-size device itself was not very advanced and did not run the Pocket PC software. The System could also be used as a remote control and to surf the web at great speed via settop box. The izzi System is supposed to come to the US next year. Samsung, of course, has teased the US market with various CE devices before.

Acer showed an interesting PDA device that didn't have an official name yet, though the backside said "MP-100". The "Complete Dynamic Accessory" runs on a 33MHz MC68VZ328 Motorola Dragonball processor and runs Linux. The device measures 115 x 75 x 12mm, weighs 110g, is housed in an aluminum-alloy chassis, and uses the Sony Memory Stick. The 160 x 240 display is monochrome. The OS provides handwriting recognition and sketching, and there is also voice recording and playback. Acer says there wll be attachment modules, including a 900/1800MHz dual band GSM module with a telephony application.

Cybertree Corp. (www.cyber-tree.com) showed the Go-Get 7 "Citygear", another very intriguing PDA design. Technologically, the 130x75x18mm Citygear is somewhere inbetween a Pocket PC and a Palm with its 206MHz StrongARM processor on the one hand, but a more Palm-like monochrome 160 x 160 pixel display on the other. Though the Citygear runs a Linux variant, the company claims it is Palm OS compatible and can run Palm OS applications. The Citygear has one or two way paging expansion modules and a special Go.Be paging service. The service is free but you have to put up with commercial messages.

Taiwanese TelePaq (www.telepaq.com) showed an intrigueing line of Motorola DragonBall 68EZ based PDAs. The TelePDA series uses integrated Flex 6400bps decoders to receive wireless information tailored to a user's needs. The devices also have full function PIMs and razor-sharp monochrome 240 x 320 displays. The smaller TelePDA II, housed in clear plastic, measures 81x117x19mm and has a rechargeable 600mAH Ni-MH battery. The larger (160x250x23mm) TelePDA II DX has almost 20MB of RAM memory and was designed for easy reading of electronic books. TelePaq also offers the Me PHONE, another of the growing number of cell phone/PDA hybrids. This one looks like a cooler Palm VII. The Me PHONE operates on Dual-Band GSM or Flex.

We also once again saw Penbex (www.penbex.com), the Taiwanese company that rattled Palm when it displayed at several trade shows in 98 and 99 a mini-version of a Palm device with a user interface that closely mimicked the Palm OS. Penbex has since reworked its OS and is attempting to position itself as the PDA OS standard for the potentially huge Chinese market. To foster that, Penbex is making the Penbex OS software development kit available for free. All you need is Visual C and you, too, can develop applications for Chinese market Penbex OS devices. The Penbex OS features an open API architecture, 4-gray level support (with clor expected in 2001), dBase III database format, and up to 160x240 pixels. Topson Technology (www.topson.com.tw) displayed an example of a Penbex OS device, the handsome e-Mate (sorry, Apple, you blew it. The device uses a Dragonball processor, has 2 to 8MB of RAM, uses a 650mAH Li-Ion battery, has a CF card slot, and an MP3 decoder for its audio subsystem.

The big guns

Sony showed a Vaio concept PC that uses a pen tablet with a Wacom digitizer as its screen. The 800MHz Pentium III PC has a Memory Stick bay, Firewire, and is already available on the Japanese market.

Toshiba showed a number of future concepts. Among them was stunning tablet PC with a touch screen and a slide-out keyboard. It was designed by Toshiba's Keith Comer, a pen computing veteran who was there when Toshiba sold its T100 and T200 pen tablets. Comer pointed out that the current concept was just that, a concept, but that it did include two currently available technologies: Toshiba's latest and thinnest hard drive, and a new generation of advanced lithium-ion battery that can be as flat as Lithium Polymer "sheets." No plans to resurrect the Dynabook name in the US, though.

LG Electronics showed the 1.9GHz CDMA TP-3000 "joy phone" that looked like a cross between a PDA and a standard cell phone. The device has a Palm-like screen, navigation disk, and a flipcover with a window that allows you to see whatever is necessary to use the TP-3000 as a phone. The outside of the flipcover contains the phone keypad. The device contains full PIM functionality and syncs with Microsoft Outlook. www.lgjoyphone.com

Of the major Pocket PC manufacturers, Casio was most visible with a large display area dedicated to its various handhelds, the consumer-oriented E-125 and EM-500, the more rugged EG-80/800, the industrial IT-70/700, and its FIVA pen tablets and notebooks. Casio also had a dedicated partners section which was almost as large, and more focused, than that at Microsoft itself. Hewlett Packard's Jornadas--mainly the 540 Pocket PC models--almost disappeared in the large HP display area. Interesting: a three tall by seven wide array of Jornadas that acted as one combined viewing screen. Other than that, HP's major news in the Pocket PC arena was the availability of different colored lids and the new Novatel wireless sled for the Jornada 540 series. Compaq doesn't display at Comdex, so the hot iPAQ made its appearance at various partner and solutions booths and areas. Intermec and Symbol showed their CE offerings at the Microsoft Partner's pavilion, as did Two Technologies and MPLUS Technologies.

Internet appliances/web pads

Like last year, National Semiconductor (www.nsc.com) made a big push for its Internet Appliance initiative. The company showed the WebPAD ("Personal Access Device") Metro for "true On the Go Web browsing, email and information access capabilities." The elegant WebPAD uses the company's Geode GX1 processor, has a 8.4-inch SVGA TFT touchscreen, measures 7.8 x 9.6 x 1.1 inches and weighs 2.5 pounds. The WebPAD currently runs WinCE 3.0, but will be Linux and BeIA compatible in the first quarter of 2001. Featuring a 128kbps Ricochet wireless modem, the WebPAD is designed to get you online wherever you are--provided that where you are has Metricom coverage.

Another GX1 processor design shown was Embedded Laboratories' (www.elabco.com) P-40. The voluptuously curved P-40 measures 7.9 x 6.3 inches and weighs just under two pounds. Its 1024 x 768 pixel 6.3-inch display is perhaps a bit small and it also differes from other Internet Appliances in that it is designed to run "grown-up" operating systems such as Wndows 98/2000/ME/embedded NT, QNX, Linux, and Solaris. The P-40 system consists of the handheld tablet and a base station. The two communicate wirelessly. The P-40 system is very expandable and can accommodate as much as 512MB of system memory.

Sweden's RSC also displayed a GX1-based product, the RSC WebPAD. Sporting a larger 10.4-inch SVGA TFT and measuring 205x120x30mm, the 1.3kg WebPAD wirelessly communicates to its access point. The access point itself connects to the Internet either via ISDN or 802.11 or 11b to Ethernet networks. The WebPAD has a Smart Card reader, a CF card slot, a USB port, and 32MB of internal RAM. RSC uses the QNX Neutrino Real Time OS and the Opera browser.

First International Computer, one of the world's largest motherboard manufacturers which has an office in Fremont, California, showed the Transmeta-based Aqua 3400 Internet Appliance pen tablet. The Aqua has a 8.4-inch SVGA touchscreen, measures 9.3 x 6.6 x 1 inch, weighs 1.5 pounds, and has Linux embedded in its 16/32MB of Compact Flash. System memory is either 32 or 64MB. www.fica.com

Another thin-client Internet Appliance product was displayed by Korean View Tech (www.view-tech.co.kr). The Web-pad VT-3000 seems like a reincarnation of the old CruisePad, designed to operate as a wireless client to server. The National Semi-pwoered VT-3000 measures 242x86x25mm, weighs 2.5kg, has a 10.4-inch TFT SVGA touch screen and runs Windows CE, embedded NT, or Linux. Wireless connectivity is via a Proxim 2.4GHz RF module.

Hitachi Data System's (www.hds.com) also showed an Internet Appliance pen tablet. Like most of this breed of new pen tablets, the handsome Hitachi tablet runs embedded Linux and doesn't have a hard disk at all. The device measures 11 x 9 x 1 inch and weighs 2.6 pounds. It features two USB ports and two PC Card slots. There is also an integrated 48MB CF card.

Not all Internet Appliance products use Windows CE or Linux. Be Inc. showed off its BeIA Management And Administration Platform (MAP) that's based on BE's speedy, multimedia-optimized BeOS core operating system. Be showed the technology on a number of elegant reference pen tablets, all sporting the Be logo. www.be.com

Linux on the move

VTECH showed its standard Helio, but also a stylishly redesigned version with a more modern look, but still cming in a variety of colors. There were also a couple of Helios running Transvirtual's PocketLinux Platform, but they didn't seem to be quite finished yet. The new Helios are named Helio Plus and Helio Prime. The Prime features more built-in applications whereas the Plus (finally) has IR and comes with a rechargeable battery pack/AC adapter and additional synchronization programs. Both new models are designed with swappable front covers in many colors. www.vtechinfo.com

Speaking of Transvirtual, their booth was in the separate Linux section in the Sands Convention Center. You had to swipe your badge and get another badgeholder to gain entrance to a completely Microsoft-free world. No booth babes here, just a bunch of tech nerds of the highest caliber, most of which could have probably duked it out with Bill G. in his prime hacker days. Anyway, TransVirtual was showing its PocketLinux running on Compaq iPAQs, Vtech Helios, and also Cassiopeia Pocket PCs as Pocket Linux supports both the StrongARM and the MIPS architecture. On the iPAQ, Pocket Linux, running either in portrait or landscape mode, looked sleek and polished. The speed was definitely there, but some important components, such as handwriting recognition, are still nder development.

Agenda Computing (www.agendacomputing.com) did manage to show a number of almost complete Agenda VR3 Linux PDAs, all with milky-translucent bodies and colorful translucent lids. A "developer release" I about ready for purchase and the only fly in the ointment is that the handsome little device really deserves a StrongARM instead of the relatively dated 75MHz Mips chipset.

Linux seems to be making serious inroads in the mobile computing market. A good number of the many Internet Appliances use Linux, as do Transmeta based systems, and several of the new PDA designs. We also saw a Linux version of one of our favorite industrial market devices, the DataMyte 4000 IDA (Industrial Digital Assistant). When we reviewed the DataMyte at its launch, we were impressed with its combination of ruggedness and speedy performance under Wndows CE. The version we saw at Comdex ran the LeOS Linux Embedded Operating System. A number of the people who worked on the DataMyte ware now with LeOS, Inc. www.leospowered.com.

Some Drama

Comdex would be nothing if it weren't for some drama and hot competition. In years past we saw the knock-down, dragout fights of Windows vs OS/2 Warp, Windows CE vs Palm, and Intel vs Power PC. This year's featured fight was not between Microsoft and Palm, as one might have expected, but between Palm and Handspring. Despite Handspring being a licensee of the Palm OS which, ironically, Handspring founder Jeff Hawkins created in the first place, it was abundantly clear that there is no love lost between Palm and Handspring. Just as huge IBM and Microsoft displays dominated Comdex in years past, alm and Handspring were everywhere at Comdex 2k. Handspring, in particular, went all out, with huge displays everywhere, a grand show floor presence with lots and lots of hardware and software partners, and also grabbing the honor (or was it) to be the first ever hardware vendor to be allowed to sell its products right in the Comdex main concourse. In my book, Handspring won the contest hands down. Though the Visor is a rather basic design, its translucent color cases, myriad of interesting Springboard modules, and the somehow ever-present knowledge that Handspring is run by the "real" Palm inventors sinply gave Handspring an edge that made Palm look stodgy and its products dated. To be honest, I couldn't even make it through the entirety of another one of Palm's pompous press announcements of not much at all (a new palm portal). The whole thing had all the excitement of, say, the announcement of the latest lineup of athletes to show their mugs on a Wheaties box. Palm's increasing struggle against corporate stodginess and arrogance was evident again the next day when Pen Computing's Palm platform editor Shaw Barnett, invited to a meeting with one of Palm's growing gaggle of Chief Officers, was so offended by the individual's arrogant, condescending attitude that he almost left in anger halfway through the "audience." Is Palm becoming nothing more than a bunch of suits profiting from Jeff Hawkins' work? Growth, of course, presents a challenge even for the most enthusiastic startup. Imagine our surprise, for example, when Handspring's stern and grumpy Booth Queen flat-out refused our offer to bring a few boxes of the latest issue of Pen Computing Magazine (with the Handspring Prism dominating the cover) to the Handspring section. Sigh.

Another fight, albeit on a much lesser scale, took place between last year's winner of the coveted PC Week "Best of Show" award, Aqcess Technology, and a Taiwanese company named InnoLabs Corporation. Aqcess, of course, introduced the flashy, feature-laden QBE pen tablets that were supposed to be a modern day re-invention of the original dream of the pen pioneers of the late 1980s. After lenghty startup delays, Aqcess eventually succeeded in offering virtually final production models (reviewed in the June 2000 issue of Pen Computing). However, though the QBE packed remarkable power into a stunningly elegant tablet, the device was simply too big and too costly for most mobile applications. Aqcess reacted by dramaticaly lowerng the price of the QBE and by announcing the new Vivo tablet which is essentially a 70%-scale version of the original QBE, one that is both less expensive and more powerful. Can't argue with that. I met with Aqcess founder Jon-Erik Pritchard and VP Lisa Pia Byers who demonstrated the impressive mini QBE. What I didn't notice until later was the much smaller InnoLabs Corporation display within vowing distance of the big Aqcess area. They showed the QBE, identical in all respects to Aqcess' version expect for the "Evita 3200P" name. The display also showed a smaller Transmeta TM5400 750MHz-based Evita 2000 model with an 11.3-inch screen. The Evita 2000 seemed an evolved rather than just shrunken version of the Evita 3200/Aqcess QBE. InnoLabs officials indicated that the relationship with Aqcess had been severed. While admitting that the idea for the QBE came from Aqcess, InnoLabs claims it designed and developed the Wireless Computing Tablet.

Among all the flash and future technology, it was nice to see a few tried and true work horses of the industry, products so good that there was little need to change or replace them. One such product was Pacific Star's PST 4612 line of pen-based mobile computers. The 4612 line was originally designed by IBM as part of its POS systems and later sold to Pacific Star (www.pacstar-tech.com) which updated the products without changing their very flexible and expandable basic design.

Also present from the lineup of familiar faces were Xplore Technologies with its line of rugged industrial computers that now includes the former Ramline offerings; TouchStar with its cool new industrial handheld and a snap-on phone module for the Casio EG-80/800; GETAC with its rugged pen notebooks and the CA-35 tablet; Fujitsu PC with its three pen tablets, some new Lifebooks, and two currently Japanese-only "Loox" Transmeta compact notebooks; and Panasonic which has added some exceedingly elegant models to its ever-growing line of Toughbooks.

But Comdex is not just about devices, but also enabling technologies. This year again saw a slew of the latest printers, scanners, screens, and other peripherals. Digital storage in various forms is a big issue as well. All the big storage players were there, displaying their latest. Sony got a lot of attention for a spectacular display of peripherals using a Memory Stick format adapter. Among them were a digital camera, a GPS module, a fingerprint recognition device, a speaker, a TV tuner, a picture index viewer, and an FM radio module. While Memory Stick based peripherals appear to be more difficult to manufacture due to the small form factor, Sony seems intent on giving Handspring's Spingboard standard a run for the money. See more at www.memorystick.org. In addition to all those Memory Stick modules, there was a concept clamshell device that could accommodate up to three modules in its bottom and display their contents. Sony also showed some concept products like the PDE (Personal Digital Entertainer), a landscape-oriented Bluetooth-enabled PDA with digital camera. Not to be outdone, Sanyo showed the truly wild MC-2000 (Multi Communicator). Its peripherals (like a digital camera) fold out like blades from a Swiss Army knife and it has not one but two Organic Electronic Luminesce displays, one for video and the other for navigation.

Techno Global (www.technoglobal.co.kr) proposed yet another memory card standard. LMC stands for Linkable Media Card. The cards measure 32 x 24 x 2 mm--similar to MMC cards. However, individual cards can be snapped together, up to a maximum of 16. Connected cards can be used as a single larger capacity card. Cards can be read by Techno Global's USB card reader. The company is trying to create applications and OEM interest in the standard which does have some significant advantages.

A company named U R There caused quite a stir with its LISTOOL technology that includes Pocket 360 and Pocket Twirl. Pocket 360 brings panoramic 360 degree images to the Pocket PC. Pocket Twirl introduces VR object viewing. While all of this is available via QuickTime and other tools on the PC, taking it with you in a Pocket PC is novel and has huge potential. LISTOOL adds database and search capabilities so that you can create any number of vertical and business solutions.

Also interesting was the CYPAQ by CYNET Wireless, combining a PC Card Type III expansion sleeve for the iPAQ with a voice/data modem. While the Type III sleeve is relatively thick, it is very well designed and made.

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer


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