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NEW YORK (IDG) -- Showgoers wondering what PC Expo was going to be about this year didn't even need to enter the halls of the Jacob Javits Center in New York to see the writing on the wall -- literally. Most of the giant banners and billboards affixed to buildings facing the conference center were not from traditional PC companies but from handheld device makers and dot-com companies.
While a number of new PCs did debut at PC Expo, which ended Thursday, handhelds and wireless Internet technology -- whatever it takes to let people pull a device out of their pocket, turn it on, and connect to the Web -- took center stage. Even pre-show rumors centered around handhelds; for example, word that Sony Electronics would unveil a prototype personal digital assistant using Palm's operating system made headlines even before the show began.
To be sure, industry giants like IBM and Microsoft made the show, Hewlett-Packard debuted a range of new PCs, and Transmeta attracted some mainstay PC manufacturers to its stand to show off notebooks using its Crusoe chip.
But handhelds and wireless connectivity were the talk of the week, among the more than 80,000 people inspecting wares from 600 companies. If anything the show was proof that no one type of device will dominate computing technology.
"There's not going to be an all-singing, all-dancing device that does everything," said Alan Kessler, president of Palm, at one panel session. "At the end of the day it's all about what you want to do."
Jostling the competition to maintain dominance in the handheld market, Palm introduced expanded functionality of its Palm personal digital assistant (PDA), including an add-on that gives the device wireless Internet connectivity by using cell phones. Palm's Mobile Internet Kit is a $50 software upgrade that lets the Palm use a cell phone via an infrared link to link to the Internet.
The company also announced that future versions of the Palm operating system will support multiple expansion standards covering memory, application, and external expansion. The expansion architecture will support Secure Digital (SD) Card, Sony's MemoryStick storage technology, Compact Flash, Handspring's Springboard modules, and external expansion options for existing Palm handheld devices. The new expansion cards will provide data storage and I/O access and will be available early next year.
Handspring's Visor PDA also got an Internet connectivity boost from OmniSky, which announced that it will extend its wireless data network service to Visor via a wireless modem created for the Visor's Springboard expansion slot. The data network service from OmniSky will be available this fall for a $39.95 flat rate for U.S. nationwide coverage.
Other small devices launched this week included Casio Computer's Cassiopeia IT-70 and IT-700, sporting 32M bytes of RAM, a common key encryption system and a Compact Flash card slot, and due out by October.
Small devices launched for the entertainment market included the $169 Rio 600 from S3's Rio division. The device will replace the low-end Rio 300. The 600 plays Windows Media Audio files in addition to MP3 files, and includes a Universal Serial Bus port for uploading tunes from PCs.
Wireless connectivity for Pocket PCs -- handheld devices based around Microsoft technology -- was also a theme at the show. HP's Jornada and Compaq's IPaq, for example, both can be connected wirelessly to the Web with new add-ons. Novatel announced a wireless CDPD (Cellular Digital Packet Data) modem card for the Jornada 540, available in the third quarter. Meanwhile, the IPaq Pocket PC can connect to the Web by using its PC Card slot to add Sierra Wireless or Novatel Wireless PC Card modems.
The news from the show wasn't all about wireless and handheld devices, however. IBM made what was most likely the biggest non-handheld announcement at the show, unveiling plans to expand its WebSphere application server into a piece of middleware infrastructure technology on top of which a range of Java-based applications will run.
The company is increasing its investment in WebSphere-related product development, marketing and sales activities by more than $1 billion this year. WebSphere is being transformed into a Java-based middleware layer on top of which developers will be able to integrate services built using Enterprise Java Bean components. WebSphere Application Server 3.5, a new release that will be available in standard, advanced and enterprise editions, and new server components including WebSphere Portal Server and WebSphere Personalization are part of the road map for the product line.
Microsoft also offered up Web server technology, introducing Commerce Server 2000, aimed at giving users the ability to quickly and easily build Web sites with business-to-business and business-to-customer functionality. Formerly called Site Server Commerce Edition, Commerce Server 2000 is expected to ship by the end of the year.
Despite the avalanche of handheld and Internet services technology, PC Expo was not entirely PC-free.
Hewlett-Packard added color and power to its Pavilion retail desktop series, five out of seven of which offer optional color replacement parts. Aimed at home users and students, the new PCs feature both Pentium III and Celeron processors from Intel and Athlon processors from Advanced Micro Devices. The top models are three Athlon-powered Pavilions.
At the top of the line, the Pavilion 9790C, with a 1GHz Athlon chip, 128M bytes of memory, a 60G-byte hard drive, an 8X/4X/32X CD-RW drive, a 12X DVD-ROM drive, a 10/100 network card, a 1.5M bits per second DSL modem, a V.90 modem, and 32M bytes of video memory is available for an estimated retail price of $2399. HP sells monitors separately.
Attracting a larger crowd, though, was the first set of laptops powered by Transmeta's low power consumption Crusoe processor. Transmeta demonstrated ultra-thin laptops from Fujitsu, NEC, and Hitachi. In addition, IBM showed a Crusoe-powered ThinkPad 240.
In the peripherals area, DVD-RAM made perhaps the biggest splash, with new drives capable of handling higher-capacity 4.7GB media being demonstrated by Hitachi, Panasonic, and Toshiba. Drives should be available this summer; Panasonic and Toshiba say they'll begin volume shipments in July.
If it proved anything, the dizzying variety of computing appliances, devices and add-ons at the show underscored the prevailing sentiment among industry insiders that there is now available a wide range of machines that can fit users' more specific requirements than the traditional general-purpose PC.
"I think the key is that people won't use a single device, but a series of more specialized devices tailored to specific needs," said Dave Murphy, senior vice president at Tivoli Systems.
Bowing to the inevitable, show organizers said that next year, the name PC Expo will become part of a broader show, to be named Technology Exchange.
PC Expo: Handhelds grab show spotlight
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