Don't trash your computer just yet . . .

Our intrepid reporter attends the computer industry's largest trade

Going to Comdex, the annual convention geared to the computer industry, is like stepping through a tear in the time-space continuum and visiting another reality (never mind that the convention is always held in Las Vegas, a city that is itself a surreal experience).

At Comdex, companies and individuals are always talking about the future in terms of today, trying to convince attendees - particularly the media and corporate buyers - that the dazzling technologies on display in aisle after aisle are not just toys, but necessities for the way that we will live in the 21st century.

This year, that vision of tomorrow, in the shape of Internet devices or appliances, came into direct conflict with the current dominant technology, the personal computer. Keynote speakers either painted a picture of a world where PCs had vanished and been replaced by smaller, simpler Internet devices that performed tasks in the house and at the office, or they spoke of a world where the PC remained the hub of the technology universe, but worked hand in hand with these Internet devices.

Often the conflict was not friendly. Often the target was Microsoft, the master of the PC universe.

Representatives from companies like Sun Microsystems and Novell Networks, and followers of the open-source movement, who make operating specifications open to all (represented in technologies like Linux and Bluetooth), took every possible opportunity to attack Microsoft.

Meanwhile, executives from Microsoft continued to defend their company, insisting that they would ultimately triumph in their legal battle with the Department of Justice. They even brought their own team of lobbyists, who set up a booth in the enormous Microsoft pavilion, passing out information on why Microsoft should be free to do what it wants to with its software.

In other words, hype and bombast were in great supply at Comdex. And one of the tasks of anyone who attended was to separate the wheat from the chaff - the also-rans from the next "new new" thing.

A world without cables

For all their disagreements, one thing both camps agreed on was that the new world of technology will be wireless. Wireless technology will be found everywhere, from the new digital phones that surf the Web created by companies like Ericsson and Nokia, to the DSL (digital subscriber line) house envisioned by the engineers at 3Com, where a DSL transmitter will sit in the attic of every household and turn the entire living space into an Internet-ready area. DSL relies on the regular copper wiring that most phone companies use. Only DSL uses a higher frequency on the copper wire than regular phone calls use. That's why you can get both Internet and regular phone service out of one line.

One of the more interesting new technologies that could be used to create this wireless world is Bluetooth. Named for a warrior who united the clans in ancient Denmark, Bluetooth is the code name for a technology specification for low-cost, short-range radio links between mobile PCs, mobile phones, and other portable devices. With a broadcast range of 8 to 10 feet, Bluetooth will enable users of portable and desktop computers and communication devices to share information without using cables.

For example, imagine you're reading your e-mail on your new digital cell phone. You find one particularly important message, and using Bluetooth, transfer it to your Palm Pilot. Once you're home, you want to keep a more permanent record of the e-mail, so you beam it into your desktop. And not a connecting cord in sight.

Bluetooth wants to create a world where all computing and Internet devices merrily chat back and forth. But like all utopias there is a potential flaw. Actually, two flaws.

One problem is the familiar open source versus Microsoft rift. Developed originally by Intel, IBM, Nokia, Toshiba, and Ericsson, Bluetooth is an open-source technology. But Microsoft has been wishy-washy about supporting Bluetooth, and since much of the world runs on Microsoft products, it could seriously hamper the usefulness of any product built to use Bluetooth.

The second problem is more esoteric. The Federal Communications Commission is evaluating a proposal to expand a range of frequency-hopping channels. If the FCC expands these channels too much, it could interfere with networks built using Bluetooth technology.

So while Bluetooth looks promising, it might not be ready for prime time anytime soon. But if these two problems are solved, count on Bluetooth becoming a household word in a few years.

Gadgets and stuff

While e-commerce remains the reason most people say they attend Comdex, getting a glimpse of the future is a close second. And this year, the future is definitely the Internet device.

So just what is an Internet device?

Take the Aplio phone, a device that allows individuals to use the Internet to make long-distance phone calls. The Aplio phone is actually a small box that connects to a standard phone. You program it with information about your Internet account, and then you're ready to call a friend or family member who also has an Aplio phone. But you don't need to connect Aplio to your computer. It accesses the Internet on its own.

Broadcast your own TV

ZuluTV is the idea of Joe Smith of Portsmouth, N.H. Using a small Internet device called a Vamoose Video box (about the size of a child's school lunchbox), you can broadcast live video to the Internet. And since anyone who wants to watch the broadcast only needs a RealNetworks G-2 player to view it (G-2 players are free to download), ZuluTV turns anyone into a broadcaster.

You simply visit the ZuluTV site, schedule an event, and when the time comes, plug a camcorder into the Video Vamoose box, then upload the video to the ZuluTV site over the Internet. For about $2,000 a year, users receive the Vamoose Video box, and can broadcast as many events as they like. Once again, no PC is used during the creation of the live broadcast, although one is needed to view it - at least until we all wear wristwatches that can receive Internet broadcast.

Companies like Sun Microsystems are counting on this movement away from PCs to small devices to become, well, the Microsofts of the 21st century.

During his keynote speech, Sun president Scott McNealy outlined a vision of the world where "everything with a digital or electric heartbeat is going to be connected to the Internet."

He talked of a future where light bulbs will warn you when they are about to expire, vending machines will bill you automatically when you order a soft drink with your cell phone, where your set-top TV box will control almost everything in your home, including when to do the laundry, and how dark you like your toast in the morning.

Of course, Sun Microsystems sees this world running on its Java and Jini software.

Nor is Microsoft, the champion of the PC, ignoring this movement away from the desktop. During his keynote address, Bill Gates unveiled the MSV Web Companion, a larger Internet device with a screen that connects to the Internet via Microsoft's MSN service. But it's not a computer - it's only for those people interested in getting online and the price (around $500) reflects that more simple desire.

So which way is the future?

Should you toss your PC out? Or not bother to buy one?

Not at all. In fact, for all the talk of Internet devices, the reality is that this future is still many years away for most people.

And predictions of the PC's demise appear to have been greatly exaggerated, if you look at how well companies like Dell or Compaq (or even Apple) - which only sell computers - are doing.

Perhaps the world will be one more like that envisioned by Microsoft of "PC plus" rather than no PCs at all, where these Internet devices will work with the desktop, which will act as a sort of mission-control center. The wireless world envisioned by many still needs the wide application and availability of broadband services before we can talk of Internet-ready homes.

Whether it's PCs or Internet devices, too many of them are just too hard for many people to use. As Walter Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal, a longtime champion of the movement toward simplicity in computing, said during a lively panel discussion, many people are just going to ignore all this stuff until ease-of-use and simplicity replace hype.

For many of us, the reality of this new world will be based not on the availability of these devices, but on how much we think they are really worth to us in the long run.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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