Gadgets coming soon to a pocket and desktop near you

At electronics show, vendors show cellphones used as tiny cameras and digital microscopes.

Bored while sitting in another business meeting? Whip out your cellphone and peek at animated greetings. Tired of resetting alarm clocks while traveling? Try a travel clock that automatically adjusts to time zones - and gathers weather, sports, and news reports in the cities you're visiting. Reluctant to tote around a bulky camera? Tuck a new digital cam in your chest pocket: it's no bigger than a deck of cards.

These are just some of the gadgets emerging from the nation's high-tech haberdashers - and, if industry executives have their way, those gizmos will be ringing, beeping, and clicking their way into your life over the next months and years. They are not the expensive, "revolutionary" contraptions of the late 1990s. "Big" is no longer the buzzword here at Comdex, the high-tech industry's annual convention. In lean times, gadgets are all about useability - and portability.

The crowds are thinner, more subdued; the exhibitors have dwindled from booming hordes to a hardy few; and their mantra, suddenly, is "small." The emphasis is less on hype and techno bluster, more on lassoing the punch of wireless communications in tiny devices. And as high-tech hyperbole fades, industry leaders have a new zeitgeist: Get real.

It was a theme echoed by Carly Fiorina, CEO of Hewlett-Packard. "The last things business customers need today are time machines or binoculars or more breathless hype about billion-dollar bets on the next big thing," she said. Sun Systems CEO Scott McNealy looked, improbably, to Thoreau in his speech, advising companies to "Simplify, simplify, simplify."

These days, small is beautiful. After two years of taking more blows than a punch-drunk club fighter, the tech industry is wary of promising the moon. Instead, everyone talks about practical steps - products that people can use now, not showy gizmos that are cool but relatively useless.

At Comdex this year, computer software called 3D-Album allows people to take digital photos and create TV-quality shows with music, text, and voice-overs. It goes for under $40 on

Also on the tail of the digital comet, Olympus is offering a microscope for around $1,000 that can be used with a desktop or laptop, and will have science teachers around the world dancing with joy - if their schools can afford them.

One company with a showroom presence straight from the days of the dotcom boom is mobile-phone giant Nokia. On Monday, the company introduced ArtsSoft MMS Composer. Aimed at young people and new parents, users create animated greetings, announcements, or even minifilms on a desktop, then send them to people who have mobile phones that can receive photos. (These phones are currently among the mobile industry's most popular products.)

Even Bill Gates caught diminutive fever this year, touting the importance of "small devices" and launching a new product category called SPOT - Smart Personal Object Technology. Gates demonstrated the travel clock that connects to the Internet without wires.

Still, not everything has changed, and tech is not entirely humble. The two items arguably drawing the most attention at Comdex have both been hyped as "the next big thing" - the Segway Scooter (long known only as "Ginger") and Bill Gates's tablet PC. People waited 45 minutes to test drive the scooters, and lined up four deep to see the tablet PC.

But for all the excitement of new products, Comdex seems much more subdued. There has also been a note of defensiveness in many of the keynotes.

Sun CEO Mr. McNealy recalled "a lot of attacks from the press" for pursuing ways to "reduce complexity." And Ms. Fiorina, who's had a tough year at HP, noted that progress is all about process. "The path to the future is about taking one step at a time," she cautioned. "It's a continuum, not a crossroads."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.