Hand-held computers grabbed the spotlight at the vast Comdex computer show in Las Vegas last week. Steve Homer reports
There was one sure bet in Las Vegas last week - if you wanted to go anywhere it would take you for ever. The reason, Las Vegas was once again playing host to what can rightly claim to be the world's premier computer show. Sadly, Comdex, as the bloated monster is known, can also lay claim to being the developed world's worst-organised computer show.

Despite two-hour waits for taxis and inadequate facilities, Comdex is still the computer show with all the buzz. And this year there was plenty to buzz about. The hand-held computer finally looks like it might take off; the eagerly awaited DVD-Rom drive, which can store up to 13 times as much as a CD-Rom, is about to hit the market; Bill Gates finally admitted that he really is about to take over your PC, if you will let him, and so on and so on.

The biggest news of this Comdex was undoubtedly the impending revolution in hand-held PCs. To date anyone who has wanted to take computer power with them has had to either risk permanent injury by carrying a heavy laptop or make do with hand-held products from companies such as Psion, Sharp or Hewlett Packard. These tiny machines have proved difficult to integrate with the desktop PC, with the users needing a degree in computer science to integrate market leader Psion with applications running on the PC.

Microsoft garnered some impressive support for a new portable operating system called Windows CE (even Gates did not know what CE stands for). Casio, NEC and Compaq all launched hand-held PCs at Comdex, and Philips, Hitachi, LG Electronics and Hewlett Packard showed products that would be on sale in the next month or two.

What makes the CE approach so enticing is that it looks at the way people really work. Windows CE is based on the idea that when you are out and about you normally only need a cut-down version of your word processor, spreadsheet or whatever. Perhaps more importantly, the software is designed to allow you to synchronise work done on either the PC or hand-held PC when the two are brought together. And you don't even need to plug them in. Most of the data transfers that take place will be done via infrared connectors. Point your HPC at your desktop and data will pass effortlessly between the two.

Windows CE looks set to produce a lot of different solutions. Even in its first incarnation it managed to provide a little variety. Philips's hand-held unit, called the Velo, includes a memo-taking facility so that users can speak into it and leave messages or record conversations.

Windows CE is slated to be used in everything from intelligent washing machines to digital television set-top boxes and may well turn out to be as important for the computing community as was the launch of Windows 3.1. But Windows CE was not Microsoft's only big noise at Comdex. Bill Gates's keynote speech attracted a lot of attention.

His vision focused on the Internet allowing personal computers to get more personal. Microsoft has moved fast to try to catch up with smaller, more active Internet companies such as Netscape, which 12 months ago had the march on the software giant. Microsoft has now incorporated the Internet into almost all its products. Gates promised that the Internet would allow Microsoft to "tighten the feedback loop". He envisaged users clicking on help when they got stuck. If they could not solve the problem, then their PC would connect to the Net and download what the user had been trying to do. Then either an automated or human expert would try to work out the problem and offer advice.

From this type of feedback, Microsoft would improve its products and, this is where many people found Gates's image a little scary: software upgrades could be uploaded function by function so it would become a continuously improving entity inside your machine.

But while Microsoft is moving to take over the Internet, Netscape is not sitting back. In his keynote address, the CEO, Jim Barksdale, showed how Netscape can be used on almost any platform and, as such, forms an ideal way of a company communicating internally. With new productivity tools unveiled, including an e-mail system that allows people to send what looks like Web pages to each other, it looks like it will be a long time before Microsoft pushes Netscape off its number one position in the browser market.

One of the other big stories of the show was the long-awaited arrival of DVD (digital video disc). There have been huge rows over DVD between the consumer electronics industry and the Hollywood studios. These now look to be over and companies such as Toshiba, Panasonic, Philips and many others showed the computer version of the technology called DVD-Rom.

The problem for the industry is what to put on these huge discs. So far there are hardly any titles. These include a game with wonderful full- motion video, an encyclopedia and not a lot more.

Digital cameras are another technology that seems to be poised for take- off. Sony, almost inevitably, produced the smallest and cutest. However, image quality on the consumer-priced models continues to disappoint.

Where these cameras may one day prove invaluable was shown by Kodak, which bundles a copy of Netscape Navigator Gold with each camera to allow pictures to be incorporated in Web pages designed by ordinary camera users.

There were new ways of communicating with the Internet aplenty, with one of the most intriguing being a desktop phone from Philips that incorporated a tiny Web browser.

Comdex is ghastly to attend, but it does provide a useful glimpse into where computing is taking us. Our destination still looks as exciting and open-ended as ever with more and more benefit coming from advances that only a few years ago looked impossible

Comments