From the January 2001 issue of Startups

It was that time of year again. All facets of the technology world descended on Las Vegas last November for their annual collective hug and show and tell: the Comdex 2000 trade show. Somewhere among the EDS cat-herding cowboys, Olympus product-wielding gymnasts and Sony robotic pets was a glimpse of some great new hardware for the home office. Even more exciting were the hints of what's to come. Digital paper, anyone?

This intrepid reporter braved the oversized hotel bathtub, the crowded shuttle buses, the excitable PR people and mazes of exhibition booths to squeeze some home office wonders out of the fray. I dove in Palm III-first. What follows is a parade of some of the most interesting hardware, gadgets and services-everything from the practical to the "ooh, neat." Then we'll open up the time portal and see what's coming down the line with a peek at the future of home office technology.

Handiest Hardware

Bill Gates extolled the virtues of Web tablets-a small, portable Internet-connected PC appliance-in his keynote address, but they weren't exactly running rampant around the showroom floor. Maybe next year. Meanwhile, I'll hand it to Imation for making tape storage interesting. As a homebased entrepreneur, you may have a Zip drive or a CD-RW, but you probably haven't ever considered laying hands on a tape storage device for your computer. As hard drive sizes creep into the stratosphere and graphics and video projects start gobbling the megabytes, backing up information gets to be a more difficult chore.

Imation's Travan FireWire 20GB tape backup drive costs less than $500. You'll need to make sure your computer is equipped with a Firewire port or card, but you'll get blazing fast transfer rates. Extra Travan 20GB cartridges cost about $34 each. The drive's iMac-inspired appearance takes a lot of the intimidation out of owning tape backup.

Coolest Gadgets

  • PCs are passe and wireless is wondrous, but gadgets make Comdex go round. The SimplePad from SimpleDevices is a good example of an upcoming wireless gadget. SimpleDevices describes the concept as turning your PDA into "a high-speed wireless home WebPad." Your PDA sits on the SimplePad and works in conjunction with your desktop, Internet connection and SimpleServe software to turn your PDA into a Web-wandering machine. This device is scheduled to be on the market early this year.
  • It looks like a keyboard. It types like a keyboard. But it rolls up like a crepe. Taiwanese company EzKey showed off a line of thin rubbery foldable (and rollable) keyboards. Theoretically you could roll it up and carry it around in your pocket from room to room or use it while traveling. Practical? Maybe not. Cool? Definitely.
  • We like cell phones. We like PDAs. Handspring, maker of the Palm OS Visor, has introduced a groovy twist to the idea of a hybrid PDA/phone. The $299 VisorPhone attaches as a Springboard module to the top of the Visor. Suddenly you're walking around holding your Visor up to your ear. Okay, it does look a little silly, but you won't have to carry around a separate phone and PDA anymore.

Snazziest Software

Tell it to the browser! That's the idea behind IVAN (Intelligent Voice Animated Navigator). One Voice Technologies was passing out copies of their first generation IVAN software at Comdex. IVAN is a voice-recognition system that allows you to make natural language queries to search and navigate the Web. Think of it as a sort of AskJeeves for your voice.

I installed IVAN on my own home computer after the show. A headset microphone and speaker is required for the best results. Running the installation and the tutorial took more than an hour, and the results were a bit slow on my slightly outdated system. But remember that IVAN is only in its first generation. IVAN actually shows up on your desktop as a little animated globe with arms, legs, big eyes and tube socks. The voice recognition is surprisingly accurate, and navigation takes some getting used to. You might want to wait for a later version of IVAN, but it's a fun twist on the way you surf with a lot of potential for the future.

When I got to Las Vegas, I was picked up in a big yellow Humvee at the airport. When I left, I got taken back in a big black Humvee. The company responsible for this unusual transportation was Sigaba. Humvees don't really have much to do with what Sigaba does, which is provide an e-mail security system, but the company should be of interest to you homebased folks because 1) You're probably concerned with your e-mail privacy and 2) Sigaba offers a free version of SigabaSecure for end users. SigabaSecure encrypts your e-mail whenever you choose "Send Secure." It works with Microsoft Outlook, Eudora, Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail; other programs are on the way.

Most Promising Wireless

My coolest wireless encounters at Comdex had nothing to do with cell phones. Instead I had run-ins with technologies sporting such odd names as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. We're talking wireless networks. Motorola's software division showed me a demonstration of Bluetooth, a soon-to-be-widespread short-range wireless networking protocol, in action. They had a high-speed landline network connection (like DSL or cable) hooked up to a desktop computer. Another desktop computer and a laptop, both equipped with Bluetooth cards, but not connected with wires, were also in the room.

All the machines wirelessly "saw" each other and shared the single Internet connection. I was able to watch high quality Web video of Faith Hill singing something on the laptop. Look, Ma, no wires! Bluetooth will be showing up this year in everything from PDAs to notebooks as a convenient way to exchange data and network on the go.

In the quickly-expanding-technology category, we find Wi-Fi. Promoted by an industry group called WECA (Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance), Wi-Fi is essentially the wireless version of the already familiar wired Ethernet. A complimentary, rather than competing, technology to Bluetooth, Wi-Fi can cover a much wider area and operates at up to 11 Mbps-taking the idea of a wireless home network and putting it on steroids. This is where you start conjuring images of yourself surfing the Internet from your porch swing or videoconferencing on your laptop from the comfort of your La-Z-Boy.

Outside of the home, WECA member company Wayport is busy expanding its Wi-Fi waystations in hotels and airports nationwide. For business travelers equipped with a Wi-Fi card and a Wayport membership, it means fast wireless Internet access while waiting in airport concourses and gates. This business model can easily be expanded to everything from grocery stores to coffeehouses.

Future Peek

Now we get to one of the really cool things: Digital paper. While people happily run around with their PDAs surgically attached, most of us still have a weakness for good old-fashioned paper, from legal pads to Dayrunner-style planners. I took all my Comdex notes on a little spiral-bound memo pad-it's just too cumbersome to quickly scratch notes into my Palm III.

Swedish company Anoto is looking to bring your basic piece of paper up to speed with the 21st century. The technology requires the use of a special Anoto pen and special paper. The paper is imprinted with a gazillion tiny dots that tell the pen where it is on the paper. It looks and feels like regular paper, but with a very slight gray tinge. The pen itself Bluetooth-enabled to wirelessly transmit the data.

One example of how it works: You could be sitting in your living room, writing appointments on your paper calendar and they would automatically show up in the calendar program on your desktop computer in your office. Look for Anoto technology to start showing up on shelves in late 2001 and early 2002.