Powerful portables

A report from inside the consumer-electronics pipeline

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Is the era of the personal computer over?

That was the pivotal question at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, a glittery Las Vegas event that has become something of an industrial summit among the digitally informed. It's also an opportunity to speculate about which products will become the technological "necessities" of the next decade.

Different theories abound, but two key statistics are particularly revealing: PC sales dropped last year for the first time in history, while sales of semiconductors, the building blocks of computers, grew 37 percent.

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Together, the data form a telling portrait of an industry moving ahead full steam while its most-lauded member, the PC, seems to have sputtered.

The high profile given personal digital assistants (PDAs), wireless phones, MP3 players, pagers, and other portable devices at the show illustrates today's top electronics trend: PC functions are dispersing into smaller, wireless gadgets.

And that trend is only likely to accelerate. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, sales of mobile electronics from manufacturers to dealers are expected to reach 10.5 billion in 2001 - an 8 percent increase. And the New York research firm

Yankee Group predicts American shoppers will spend as much as $50 billion a year using portable Internet-access devices by 2005, up from $100 million in 2000.

That portables are robbing desktop PCs of market share is indisputable. Still, even makers of wireless devices hesitate to predict the end of personal computing.

"PC sales have slowed not because [PCs are] useless, but because they work so well," says Jed Kolko, an analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. "People are satisfied with what they have and aren't looking for upgrades."

Mr. Kolko and others prefer the term "PC-plus" to describe the current state of technology. It's a scenario where personal computers still store and move massive amounts of data, but outsource many of their old tasks to other tools.

Exuberant after a year of high sales, portables manufacturers still face significant hurdles. Wireless phone networks in the US, for example, rarely offer national coverage, and navigating the Web on portable screens is a bit like touring Paris on a tricycle.

Portable computing's greatest challenge: building one device that easily serves as an address book and phone, while providing e-mail and full Internet access. Without it, early adopters will remain weighed down by several rectangular tech toys hanging from their belts.

Early efforts at convergence include a dual phone and MP3 player from Sprint, and Ericsson's R380 phone, which flips open to reveal a horizontal display screen that serves as a PDA.

But such products are a long way from going mainstream.

Living digitally on portable devices alone may not be possible in the next few years. So companies have begun to scale back their expectations. This year's best-selling phones and PDAs will not likely offer additional perks other than e-mail and basic Internet.

"We need to take baby steps and educate the customer on what these things can do," says Randy Roberts, director of emerging technology for Nokia.

Even if one ultimate device is built, the design is not likely to please everybody. "There are people who don't like styluses, some don't like keyboards," says Joe McGuire with Go America, a wireless Internet service provider. "We'll have multiple devices to suit … people who look for different functions."

All of these separate devices will cloud the mobile-electronics picture for consumers in the short term. But manufacturers have a strategy in mind. A consortium of companies is developing a service called Bluetooth, designed to send information between different devices without using cables. The short-range radio communication would do much to shrink the hand-held universe.

So what should consumers do as all this convergence shakes out? The following is a summary of the main gadgets available to tide over the would-be user of untethered tech:

Personal digital assistants The Palm operating system, featured on the Palm Pilot, Handspring's Visor, and other PDAs, is the hottest tool in consumer electronics for one key reason: It's simple to use. An accessible organizer, it's also a provider of basic information like driving directions, news headlines, and weather reports.

The Palm's other top asset is its partnership with hundreds of companies that have yielded free downloadable applications not included in its original software. Owners also have the option of adding scores of attachments - like an 8-ounce collapsible keyboard.

Microsoft is Palm's main competitor in powering PDAs. Its Pocket PC operating system - available on PDAs made by Compaq, among others - offers more of a PC experience, with trimmed down versions of Microsoft software. But it doesn't have as many additional programs and add-ons. The new Palm VIIx costs about $400. Visors generally run a little less, and Pocket PCs a little more.

Wireless phones Compared with Europe and Japan, wireless-phone systems in the US are a mess. No carrier has total coverage of the country, and billing is arcane. Nevertheless, their service has become indispensable.

The best phones are lightweight and offer fairly comprehensive services at low rates. Quality models include Nokia's 8200 and 8800 series, priced between $200 and $450.

But e-mail and Web surfing are problematic, as most cellphones just aren't suited for text-based communication and Internet navigation.

Instant messaging might be the best users can hope to do given the limitations of tiny number pads.

MP3 players Their market will grow from 1.3 million units in the US now to 6.7 million by 2003, predicts International Data Corp. Intel's latest contribution to the field is one indication why: The chipmaker's Pocket Concert stores four hours of downloaded music - twice the amount offered by its competitors. It comes out next month at $300, about $150 more than the standard MP3 player.

This and other players will probably add e-mail. Time will tell if that's going a step too far.

Pagers They've received less attention than the jazzier-looking PDAs and cellphones, but if you're just looking for remote e-mail quick and easy, keep them in mind. You can send and receive e-mail with two-way pagers, which usually cost about $350, and $30 in monthly fees.

Pagers have better battery life than cellphones and PDAs, but also lack total service coverage.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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