What do the Spice Girls, digital cameras, green plastic maracas, LCD monitors and a trampoline have in common? All were present, in some form or another, at the Fall 1999 Comdex in Las Vegas, the annual computer industry schmooze-fest showcasing all the latest gadgets and Web sites. Entering the exhibit floor is like wandering into the Mall of America the day after Thanksgiving. Scared? Don't worry. I dug through the piles of exhibitors and press kits to find out exactly what it all means for your home office.
Where do the Spice Girls come in? National Semiconductor, manufacturer of computer chips, wins the most obnoxious entertainment award for their booth's "Device Girls" stage show presentation. It's hard to separate the Comdex sideshow tendencies from the real information. When a leotard-wearing dancer hauls an LCD screen around while bouncing on a trampoline, it doesn't say much about the actual product.
This year's overwhelming theme turned out to be gadgets. Desktop systems stood on the sidelines as companies whipped out neat little thingamajigs and multifunction whatnots. Click on the "Best Gadgets" section for the ones that really matter.
On the Web side, there are tons of sites vying for your undivided attention when you're online. And a few of them are even worth stopping by. Click on "Best Web Sites" for the picks from Comdex.
Since Comdex is also supposed to be a sneak peek at the future of computing, plenty of prototypes were on hand. Some of them may even make it to your desktop (or kitchen, car or living room) within the next couple of years. Click on "The Future Computer" for a look ahead.
Gadgets, gadgets everywhere. It seems like the computer industry wants to live in the land of James Bond, where a pen is never just a pen and a camera is never just a camera.
- Best Not-A-Pen: The $200 C-Pen 200 by C Technologies (http://www.cpen.com) has already made its way into Office Depots everywhere. This five-ounce pen-shaped device is described by the company as a "handheld data collector." Passing the C-Pen's tip over printed materials (between seven and 20 points in size) captures the information like a handheld scanner. A 100-page storage capacity, built-in optical character recognition software and infrared for transferring data to a PC add to the convenience. The nearest competitor is Hewlett-Packard's (http://www.hp.com) HP Capshare 920, a more versatile, but much more cumbersome and expensive ($500) device.
- Best Not-A-Camera: Sanyo (http://www.sanyodigital.com) takes the I-Spy-With-My-Little-Eye award for the tiny VPC-SX500. It's a digital camera-but not just a camera. It can also capture and play back Quicktime-compatible video clips that can be edited on a Mac or Windows machine. Still pictures can be stored at 1.5 megapixel resolution. It can accept IBM's whopping 340MB microdrive in the Compact Flash slot to hold up to 50 minutes of video with sound (look for the new microdrives to hold even more data within the year). A built-in speaker lets you listen to what you've just recorded. It can also hold 12 hours of sound recordings. This little device emphasizes the "multi" in "multifunction."
- Best Eye For An Eye: Biometrics is just starting to cross over from spy novels to small offices' identity verification through finger scans, voice patterns, signature checks and iris scanning. IriScan Inc. is ready to move into your home office with the PC Iris. The small, handheld PC Iris plugs into your computer through an included ISA card and records and authenticates irises when held in front of the eye (no two irises are alike). You can assign what privileges a person can access on the computer. Having my eye scanned at the IrisScan booth was fast and painless (no contact). While computer security might not be your highest priority for your home office, you might want to subscribe to IriScan's vision of the future-they see iris scanning as the ultimate e-commerce tool for identification in transactions. If you want to get on the boat early, try out http://www.iriscan.com
What's Hiding In The Web?
Large sites like Buy.com and Onsale.com were well-represented on the exhibit floor, but I stumbled across a couple lesser-knowns that are on their way up and could prove helpful to your business.
- Highest Bidder: If you're tired of getting outbid at the last minute on eBay and other retail auction sites, eWanted.com (http://www.ewanted.com) is turning the tables. Buyers post what they want and sellers then bid on providing the product, sending the price down. The categories cover everything from computer hardware and software to books and travel. You set the time limit and price limit for bids. A recent posting requesting bids for a Palm V had already garnered two offers from sellers: One for $315 and one for $305. EWanted has the potential to be a major money-saving tool as more people become aware of it.
- New In Town: Yawning at Yahoo!? Had it with Hotbot? Laughing at Lycos? Now there's another contender that wants to handle all your Web searching, news and start-page needs. You have to register to really take advantage of some of Cosmoz.com's (http://www.cosmoz.com) little features. But once you do, you can even change the color of the interface. Choose between red, blue, green, purple and orange. I went with purple. You can also view the page in Spanish, German, French, Italian and Portuguese. I stayed with English. All-in-all, it's a smartly designed, user-friendly and (dare I say?) fun page.
You Are Now Entering The Computer Zone--Be Prepared For The Unexpected
Xybernaut, a maker of wearable computers, had cyborg-like staffers wandering around with vests and belts and headsets full of machines. It's a bit much for a home office, but take it as a sign of things to come. IBM is also hard at work on a more discreet wearable computer complete with Web-surfing and voice-navigation capabilities. (You may have seen the commercial.) Expect this to be an on-the-market reality soon. Just imagine taking your home office along with you for a walk in the park.
Not quite ready to give up your desktop computer? That's okay. Just don't expect it to ever look the same again. Processor-maker AMD is kicking off a craze for legacy-free machines by licensing a compact design that looks like an eye standing on end. Legacy-free means goodbye floppy, hello USB-no more pesky parallel and serial ports. And an "Instant On" capability bypasses those lengthy Windows start-up screens. Look for them to be available from retailers early this year. Also on exhibit was a slew of unusual computer prototypes. The biggest buzz belonged to the "Ottoman PC," so named for its round ottoman appearance when the built-in screen is closed. But when the screen is open, it looks like something from a restroom instead of a living room.
In the soon-to-be-present tech section, we'll be getting 1 gigahertz computers this year. Overclocked examples are already available. The technology forecast from Comdex looks like this: PCs in your living room, PCs on your refrigerator door, PCs on your belt, PCs in your cell phone. For your home office, this means more flexibility. You'll be able to work and stay connected whether you're at your desk at home, at a client's location or on vacation. But, as we await this moveable feast of technology, you might want to hang on to that old desktop . . . for now.