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In Hanover, with a hi-tech hangover

Steve Homer reports from CeBIT, the mother of all IT trade shows
CeBIT, the world's largest communications and computing get-together, taking place in Hanover, Germany, is a monster. With attendance topping 110,000 on its busiest day, it can make a grown man fear for his sanity.

Perhaps it is the 24 halls, perhaps it is the fact that you have to walk over a mile to get from one side of the show to the other, or maybe it is the fact that you know somewhere, on one of those 6,855 stands, is the "thing" you have been searching for - if only you could find it.

But this year has proved to be a rather vintage CeBIT. Interesting products, entertaining fights and good ideas have abounded. Intel was a name that kept coming up. First, the company teamed us with Microsoft to announce that its efforts to kill off the Network Computer (NC) were hotting up. The NC is a very simplified PC that has to be attached to a server to store any real hard work. Microsoft and Intel hate the NC as it does not use their technology.

At CeBIT, they announced the final specification for their counter punch, the imaginatively named NetPC. Cynics with long memories remembered an IBM strategy of the Seventies called FUD - standing for fear, uncertainty and doubt. Many thought Intel/Microsoft were up to a little Fudding this CeBIT.

However, the NC camp, Sun, Oracle and the rest, have failed to make any significant splash at CeBIT. So maybe the NC will wither and die on its own. It is too early to say, but the lack of any coherent NC message should worry its backers.

The second place Intel popped up was in a potential new data service. You can already get Web pages delivered by satellite. It might sound weird, but it is a good idea. You can download Web pages into your PC up to 20 times normal speed.

Hughes Olivetti Telecom showed its DirecPC service at the show. This runs on a Eutelsat satellite. At CeBIT, Intel announced it was tying up with SES, the outrageously profitable Luxembourg owners of the Astra satellites. With Astra best known in this country for delivering BSkyB into our homes, it looked a somewhat weird outing for Intel.

"The biggest thing limiting the PC market today is the lack of bandwidth," said Avram Miller, Intel's director of corporate business development. He believes that with high-speed connections, more consumers will enjoy using the Internet, hence the leap to satellites.

The other place Intel cropped up was somewhere it might not have wanted to. Intel holds a hugely dominant share of the PC chip market. But companies like AMD, Digital Semiconductors and Cyrix have all had a good go at Intel during the show and launched several new chips - many including more capabilities than Intel's Pentium. The competitors do not believe Intel can have things its own way for ever. Nor do its customers. Big chip consumers like Compaq, are finally starting to use the better Pentium clones.

But as chips change so do the devices they are used in. Sharp showed a palmtop computer with a digital camera attachment (digital photography has finally taken off at this CeBIT). Sharp also has an Internet/GSM phone personal communicator, developed with Alcatel, that it will launch the autumn. This market was started last year by Nokia with its clever, but bulky, Communicator. The Sharp communicator is far more practical, the same size as a standard GSM phone. Look out for more of these pocket communication devices later this year.

In fact, the mobile telephone is beginning to become unrecognisable. There are phones that you can wear in your ear, solar-powered phones, phones that include Internet access on a tiny screen, phones that can be used anywhere in the world and even phones that can understand what you are saying. This last innovation, voice recognition, could be a life- saver for many a befuddled mobile user.

Also, DVD, the new disc format that will eventually replace videos and CD-Roms failed to arrive. New rewritable CD-Roms were launched. There were lots of different ways of delivering Internet to your TV, Panasonic launched a 24 speed CD-Rom and much more.

But probably the best news this year has been CeBIT itself. Though everyone moans about it being too big and the fact that the nearest available hotel room is often a 20-minute helicopter ride away, there is still a real sense of optimism. The computing and communications industries feel to be in good shape.

You could dash over this afternoon and enjoy the last day at CeBIT. The bad news is you might still have to look in Madrid for that elusive hotel roomn