The whole world in your hand

Small was beautiful at the Comdex exhibition in Las Vegas, as hand-held pocket stuffers claimed centre stage - but there was plenty more on offer, with new-look LCD technology monitors, and voice-activated systems that actually work. By Ian Fried
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When the cats are away, the mice will play. With corporate IT giants, IBM and Compaq, taking a pass on the Comdex computer show in Las Vegas, last week, the floor was filled with handheld gadgets from tiny scanners and e-mail machines to voice recorders and palm-sized PCs. The annual Vegas classic may be designed as a show for corporate IT buyers, but this year it seemed more like a consumer electronics show.

"Pick any size, pick anything you want to know and you can carry it with you," said Texas-based analyst Cheryl Currid. Sadly, pockets will fill up fast as the convergence of all these devices seems a far-off goal. Still, many of the tiny tech toys have infra-red ports, meaning that at least the information can be shared without having to enter it twice.

Among the coolest of the pocket-stuffers was Sharp's TelMail, which allows road warriors to check their e-mail from most phones, without need for a modem. Users of the PocketMail service just hold the e-mail organiser up to a phone, call a special number, and then send and receive messages. In the US,a $9.95 (pounds 6.20) monthly fee gives unlimited e-mail access.

Comdex was also a battleground for the ultra-portable market. There, a more robust breed of devices, running Microsoft's slimmed-down Windows CE operating system, were pitted against a new class of ultra-thin laptops running the full Windows system. The WinCE devices had cost on their side. Some, like Vadem's Clio, were also quite creative. The $999 (pounds 620) machine has a movable screen that can be placed over the keyboard, making it act like a tablet. A quick swivel turns the screen alongside the keyboard and it is a more traditional portable.

But sex appeal and power were definitely on the side of the full-featured machines from Sony, Toshiba and others. At less than 3lbs, Toshiba's Portege 3010CT won't weigh you down, but the computer is no lightweight. A slick magnesium case covers a powerful 266MHz machine with a gorgeous 10.4in display and a keyboard built for touch-typing. Toshiba had plenty of space to show off its laptops, scooping up a prime spot in the Las Vegas Convention Center after IBM pulled out of the show.

Comdex was also filled with flat-panel Liquid Crystal Displays looking to use their crisp image and smaller footprint to take over the desktop spot from traditional tube-based monitors. The flat panels got an added boost from Microsoft, which introduced a technology called ClearType, which allows text to appear up to three times as sharp on a colour LCD.

ClearType took up a major part of Bill Gates, the Microsoft chairman's, keynote address, and nearly all of the billionaire's later chat session with reporters.

"Anyone who has an LCD and doesn't use this software is screwing themselves," Gates said. But today's LCD users will still have to wait for Microsoft to integrate the technology into Windows, slated for some time in 1999. Microsoft clearly wanted to be seen as capable of great technology advances, countering the US government's case that the software giant is more of an imperialist than an innovator.

But perhaps the biggest noise was coming from booths where demonstrators talked into a whole host of voice-activated systems. There were systems to surf the Web, systems to type a memo and systems to run your PC remotely. And while even some exhibitors of voice-activated systems were heard cursing the products, analysts agreed that things have improved. Even if 90 per cent of users eventually go back to typing, that's still better than a few years back, when nearly everyone gave up on voice-run products.

One of the more interesting applications of voice-activated technology came from Ericsson, the Swedish wireless communications firm. Its research team in Southern California is readying a voice-activated cordless phone system for small offices. The CyberGenie technology handles the basics such as answering and routing calls, harnessing the computing muscle of the PC to allow users to have their e-mail read to them, or remotely access their contact database.

A different view on technology came from the lesser exhibit hall where smaller vendors looked for their big break. There, one could pick up a single copy of a $7 (pounds 4.35) CD-Rom game, even as the publisher tried to sign new vendors.

Another CD-Rom publisher simply abandoned its booth for a while to launch a search for collaborators. "Sorry, we had to go," read a handwritten sign, perched above several CD-Roms. "We will return tomorrow. We are looking for publishers and distributors."

There were some interesting technologies there, like a Web surfing set- top box for from NetGem. The French company is interested in marketing its box throughout Europe, but didn't want to forego America's No. 1 Geekfest.

"We are here to take the temperature of the US market," said NetGem's David Ostroff.

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