The whole world is in your hand

Steve Homer braves the crowds at the mammoth CeBIT trade show and discovers small is big this year
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CeBIT is a huge, unwieldy beast of a show. The sign above the Microsoft stand asks the teasing question: "Where Do You Want to Go Today?" For many visitors still struggling to get around the mammoth computer and communications trade show in Hanover, Germany, the answer is probably: "Anywhere away from here!"

CeBIT, which ends tomorrow, claims to be the world's largest trade show. With more than 100,000 visitors on some days, it can be a little fraught. It runs for six days and it is hard work. But if you fight your way through the heaving masses you do get something in return - a glimpse into the future.

Small is big at CeBIT 98, with the launch of a huge range of devices that can fit in your pocket. There are phones that think they are computers, computers that think they are phones and hand-held devices that are happy to stay simple. But the big story has been Microsoft's wimpishness.

Many at CeBIT were wondering what on earth Microsoft was up to. It has given only token support for its new Windows CE platform, and its support for the recently announced PalmPC is non-existent. Windows CE is a simplified version of the Windows 95 operating system, designed mainly for hand-held devices. In January, Microsoft announced a new addition to its Windows CE family, the cheekily named PalmPC. Microsoft has put this design spec up against the hugely successful Palm Pilot from 3Com. Palm Pilot is small and light, uses simple handwriting recognition and works brilliantly in cooperation with PCs. Users love its simplicity, and depending which analyst's figures you believe, the Pilot has between 30 and 60 per cent of the worldwide market.

Just before CeBIT, 3Com launched the third version of Palm Pilot and said it was suing Microsoft for trying to steal the name of its product. But instead of using CeBIT - far and away the largest computer show in Europe - as a forum for a counterpunch, Microsoft did nothing. There was no mention of the device on the stand and no support was given to licensees. When asked on the fourth day of the show which companies were showing their versions of the PalmPC, Microsoft's official CE spokesperson said they thought there were none at CeBIT. In fact, Everex, Samsung and Philips were all showing the devices. The suspicion is that the PalmPC technology is simply not ready. Windows CE is notorious for gobbling up battery power, and there were rumours at the show that PalmPCs look set to face similar problems.

But the battle for our palms was certainly not just about Windows CE. There were a whole raft of so-called smart phones launched at CeBIT. Nokia unveiled the second version of its popular Communicator at the show. The Communicator is a computer - complete with Internet browser, e-mail and fax - built into a phone. The original Communicator was too chunky to sit comfortably in your inside pocket and was extremely ugly. The new version, Communicator 9110, due out in August, is attractively restyled and its software has been updated, but it seems to have changed little overall.

The one big selling point the company is pushing at CeBIT is that you can now take a picture on an electronic camera, beam it over by infrared to the phone, and then send the picture out by e-mail over the GSM mobile phone network. This was about as daft as you can get and can only have been thought up by one of the mobile networks to increase their revenues. Data can only be sent at 9,600 bits per second over GSM, so sending a decent quality photo would take a while.

There were at least four other so-called smart phones on offer at CeBIT. Samsung showed a device very similar to Nokia's (but running Windows CE). Alcatel were displaying a very tidy device, due to go on sale in June, that looks like a somewhat chunky phone with a built-in screen. It has a good telephone book and great calender (which can be updated remotely). Somewhat bizarrely, this phone can neither send and receive faxes nor browse the Web. While no one in their right mind would want to download images over GSM (see above), a quick visit to a Web site using a text- only browser to find a specific piece of information is invaluable, and it was hard to see Alcatel succeeding until it manages to build a Web browser into its phone.

Sharp's offering was similar to Alcatel's, but Philips' approached the smart phone from a different angle. Its Synergy, due on sale in a few months time, is a clip-on device that will be sold with a perfectly standard- looking phone. Clip the two together and the Synergy springs to life. With a calender and all the other functions you would expect, it is fine, if a little chunky. It has an excellent Web browser that lets you navigate around pages on its 1in by 3in screen.

But it wasn't just smart phones that were shaking up the mobile phone sector. Ericsson showed a tiny infrared modem that clips on to the bottom of a mobile phone. Instead of fiddling with cables and a plug-in datacard, you point the little device at the computer to exchange data. Ericsson also showed a rather clever way to get extra value out of your mobile phone - a GSM "home base station". This uses a technology called Cordless Telephony System to allow GSM phones to work as a conventional cordless phone. The software in the GSM phone needs to be slightly different to use CTS, but this is likely to become a standard in mobile phones. Given the rate at which GSM phones are selling, this could soon be a very useful added bonus in many homes.

The system is intelligent so, if you are near your home and want to make a call, the phone detects the base station and routes the call via the cheaper, ordinary hardwired phone system. If, however, when you get home someone is using the phone, the system detects this and makes a GSM call. This means the system can operate like an extra line for when you need it. Sadly, we will have to wait until next year before CTS systems become available.