Network: All-singing, all-dancing hardware

UK Technology week was meant to highlight convergence in the industry. Stephen Pritchard sensed there was something missing
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THE BUZZ-WORD at UK Technology Week was convergence. Three trade shows ran over as many days at London's Earls Court, featuring computing, networking and telecoms.

The organisers described the show and parallel conference as the "UK's first end-to-end technology showcase". The idea was to bring together the UK version of the massive Comdex show, with the networking exhibition Networld+Interop, and Expo Comm, a communications show making its first appearance in the UK.

The list of exhibitors - including BT, Microsoft, Philips, Sony and Xerox - supported this goal. Timing did not. UK Technology Week clashed with TMA, the well established communications forum, which was being held in Brighton. This clash goes some way to explaining the low attendance, especially on the show's opening day.

Exhibitors, too, seemed a little confused by UK Technology Week's one- size-fits-all approach. The show succeeded in bringing firms from the different sectors together under one roof; it worked less well as a showcase for cutting-edge, converging technologies. Most exhibitors concentrated on demonstrating their large-scale business products, but some of the most innovative ideas for bringing together computers, networking and telecoms are in the small business and SoHo markets, a field that UK Technology Week largely passed by.

There were some other strange omissions. BT had a large stand, yet the company had no phones, faxes or ISDN equipment on display, even though it has some highly innovative new products in its range, such as the OnePhone, a combined digital cordless and GSM mobile handset. BT did demonstrate its new high-speed Internet service, Highway. Highway is a simpler, lower- cost version of ISDN, and it is being marketed as a high-speed way for businesses and home users to access the Internet.

Perhaps as a result, UK Technology Week had a strong showing of ISDN- compatible equipment. In Germany, ISDN is far better established than in the UK, and German companies dominated the displays. AVM had low-cost ISDN cards on its stand, while Tiptel showed its plug-and-play ISDN phones and phone systems, and Hagenuk ISDN terminal adapters. ISDN equipment is much more affordable in Germany than it is here, and the presence of German manufacturers in the UK can only bring prices down.

Convergence saves space as well as costs, and integrated equipment was another feature of the show. Canon and Xerox demonstrated their range of all-in-one devices. Fax machines that also print, copy and scan now cost little more than a stand-alone fax, but do more. They also take up far less of the desk than four separate bits of kit.

Screens, too, are shrinking. Flat-panel displays were everywhere, and not just on manufacturers' stands. Flat-panel screens are becoming cheaper as their popularity grows, and they rival the quality of conventional monitors - 18in and 20in flat-panel screens should be on sale in the New Year. For now, Sanyo is selling its 15in TFT flat panel for a recommended price of pounds 999. A few years ago, an equivalent 17-inch conventional monitor cost only slightly less.

The ultimate in integration came from that master of the miniature, Sony. The Japanese company is relatively new to the PC market, but its VAIO range of portables are some of the most advanced available. VAIO stands for Video Audio Integrated operation, and they do just that.

The VAIO 505 comes with a combined network, modem, GSM and ISDN card in the box, MPEG digital video and 16-bit sound, as well as an iLINK input for Sony digital video cameras. Despite this, the machine weighs only 1.35kg. VAIO desktops are on the way and, given Sony's strength in digital video, they will be serious contenders for multimedia work.