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Industry woes dampen Comdex

Nov 25, 20027 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsMobileSmall and Medium Business

LAS VEGAS – The chill in the air last week here was not just from the desert’s cool autumn winds – it also came from the feeling that the once-red-hot technology industry continues to suffer through an ice age.

Complete Comdex 2002 roundup

All the news from the show, plus our exclusive Comdex Weblog.

Video: Cool Tools at Comdex

Network World Cool Tools columnist and Senior Reviews Editor Keith Shaw scoured the Comdex floor for the lastest and coolest products on display.

Specifically, Comdex 2002 saw about half the number of attendees and exhibitors, down to 1,100 vendors from more than 2,000 just two years ago. And while wireless network, Web services and mobile computing products, along with a new, unified Linux specification (see related story) all made news, there was no overriding buzz – save to talk about the poor tech economy and how far Comdex has fallen. It’s a far cry from the bombastic wackiness that used to pervade the show.

Still, executives repeatedly tried to put the best face on it all.

National Semiconductor Chief Executive Brian Halla said – with tongue in cheek – that the IT recovery will begin specifically in June 21, 2003. Halla added, “We’re already in an uptick.” He predicted a flurry of new electronics devices for consumers and businesses will be key drivers of that recovery.

Gates touts Tablet PCs, again

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates touted this year, as he did last year, the new Tablet PCs, with a version of Windows XP that saves what users write on the tablet screen with a special stylus. But he admitted later to reporters that the operating system might not win legions of adherents because the handwriting recognition software isn’t perfect (Read more on Gates’s speech).

Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina told attendees her company launched a new advertising campaign focusing on the breadth of HP’s activities. She promised her keynote audience that HP would be a market leader across much of the IT industry.

That rhetoric disappointed some observers: “I was hoping to hear more about the future, like specific products or strategies,” said Varun Joshi, a consultant from Los Angeles.

Two days later, it became clear why Fiorina had been light on details. HP posted revenue of $18 billion for the fourth quarter, which ended Oct. 31. This compares to the combined revenue of $18.2 billion from HP and Compaq in the same quarter last year. The company announced 1,100 more layoffs on top of the most recently announced 16,800 layoffs. What saved the company’s bacon: a sterling performance by its printing and imaging division.

Sun Chairman Scott McNealy also had his moment in the Comdex klieg lights. He was light on what Sun would do to restore growth, but did have specific advice for his customers. They should reduce the number of servers they use, consolidating on one, high-end platform such as Sun’s Sun Fire 15K line. And their software development efforts should abandon the operating system and instead target high-level, platform-independent environments such as Java, XML and the Sun Open Network Environment (Read more on McNealy’s speech).

Action with wireless, mobile computing

Wireless and mobile computing was one area that saw many Comdex product announcements.

As expected, Broadcom and Intersil unveiled a new generation of chips that will support the pending IEEE 802.11g wireless LAN standard, of up to 54M bit/sec in the same 2.4-GHz band as today’s 802.11b products. Wireless LAN product vendors Netgear and Linksys unveiled plans to introduce 802.11g products by year-end. These products will not be officially 802.11g-compliant, nor will the first chipsets, until final IEEE ratification.

The Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry trade group promoting wireless LAN interoperability, announced plans to introduce a testing program for 802.11g products next year, after the IEEE ratification. The group will introduce early in 2003 a testing program for wireless LAN products that combine 802.11b and 802.11a standards on a single adapter card or access point. The 802.11a standard supports up to 54M bit/sec in the 5-GHz band.

On the handheld front, several business users at the show said they’ve gravitated to Pocket PC devices based on Microsoft technology instead of the Palm OS devices from arch rival Palm.

“The iPaq just works out better in an IT setting than the Palm,” said Dan Pendergrass, Internet applications manager for the County of El Paso, Texas. Ten out of 30 county employees use iPaq handhelds, which are linked to the county’s computer system, he said.

The Pocket PC also edged out Palm OS devices for the Lenape Regional High School District in Burlington County, N.J. Application support for the Pocket PC was one main driver for the decision, said Michael Haas, a LAN technician for the district. “The application we need is only available for the iPaq,” he said. “Either it is easier to develop on or there are just more developers because it’s Windows.”

Deluge of new products

The deluge of new mobile products is good news and bad news for network decision-makers. Gary Dixon, a systems administrator for American Electric Power in Columbus, Ohio, looked for whatever new wireless clients were being unveiled. Dixon said he wanted to head back with at least one idea for standardizing on one or two devices, instead of the array, with different operating systems, that he now has to support.

Testing those options is exactly what Tim Stanley is doing. Stanley, a Comdex speaker, is the CIO for Harrah’s Entertainment, which owns a number of casino properties in Las Vegas and elsewhere. Harrah’s is running wireless pilot networks to speed hotel check-ins, among other things. “We’re looking at [handheld wireless technology] as a way to give the customer the ‘white-glove’ treatment,” he said.

But he still has concerns about wireless LAN reliability and security. “The fear is having technology get in the way of the customer experience and botch that up when it doesn’t have to,” Stanley said.

The reality of such concerns was vividly highlighted in the Comdex pressroom, where a few wireless LAN kinks needed to be straightened out (See Reporter’s Notebook).

Kinks also are still being worked out in Web services. At his opening keynote address, Gates once again trumpeted Microsoft .Net, a collection of software and Internet protocols such as XML, to create Web applications that easily can share data. He demonstrated a Web service that the nationwide copying and printing chain Kinko’s is creating: from a Microsoft Office application, users can print to a Kinko’s store over an Internet connection.

But the story was somewhat marred by several facts: Microsoft has something like a .Net SWAT Team working with Kinko’s on the project; and despite this help, the Web service won’t be ready until mid-2003. On the same day as Gates’ speech, the company made its only Web services product announcement: that the shipment date of Windows .Net Server 2003, which is the operating system for .Net, had slipped from December 2002 to April 2003.

For many attendees, such as Peter Watkins, CTO of publisher McGraw-Hill in Columbus, Ohio, Web services remain vague in the extreme. “There’s been a lack of clarity from Microsoft on how all the pieces [of .Net] will interface with each other and come together,” he says. “We’re looking at the application of .Net technology to our business, but we’re taking it one step at a time.” The caution is all the more striking because Watkins says about half of the 389 applications that the McGraw-Hill companies use have been recast as browser-accessible Web applications.

Additional reporting by the IDG News Service.