Avi Greengart is an expert on the convergence of technology and entertainment: video, audio, computing, and wireless, how these are coming together, and what's likely to survive long enough to make a difference in your life.
Column #34 (07/5/02)
TechXNY/PCxpo Show Report
June 25-27, 2002 Jacob K. Javits Center, New York, New York
I have attended "PC Expo" nearly every year for the last 11 years. In the early 1990’s the show floor was full of hardware and software companies innovating around DOS and Windows. As PC's became commoditized and the productivity software market matured, the show expanded its name to “TechXNY” – eventually attracting telecoms, dotcoms, and digital gizmo manufacturers.
After the dotcom and telecom crash, much of the floor space is now empty. However, there were still several significant announcements and demonstrations. Microsoft showed a possible new direction for future PC design with its software for Tablet PCs. Microsoft also showed new Pocket PCs with wireless phones built in, while Kyocera showed a mobile flip phone with a Palm PDA built in. And two companies added fresh ideas to existing technology to create whole new categories:
In the past, Microsoft tried for radical jumps to hand-held devices, hoping that by freeing computers from keyboards, more people would buy them (and the Microsoft software that comes along for the ride). Having failed at these revolutionary jumps to handheld nirvana – due to immature design and the limited technology of the day – Microsoft is now promoting Tablet PCs as an evolutionary step, not a radical shift. And they may finally be getting somewhere.
Tablet PCs run on an extended version of Windows XP Pro, which, the Microsoft presenter repeatedly stressed, is reliable, powerful, and manageable by an IT department. In other words, it’s not a big leap to a wacky tablet-only universe. Extra software on top of XP Pro allows nearly any application to accept pen input, and you can be sure that Microsoft has battalions of programmers updating their developer tools to allow businesses to write custom applications. The pen and screen function much the same way a Wacom graphic arts tablet does – hover the “pen” over the surface, and your cursor follows. Put the pen down, and it “writes” on the screen. Press harder for thicker lines, turn the pen upside down to “erase.”
The extra hardware and software add about $150 to the cost of a notebook, and different manufacturers will be releasing Tablet PCs; some with keyboards, some with keyboards and swiveling screens, some without attached keyboards at all, and some ruggedized for industrial use. The keyboard models I saw were too big to take everywhere, and the keyboard-less models were too thick and heavy for daily use (they’d be good for industrial purposes, like an electronic patient clipboard in hospitals). If the thickness and weight of the devices can come down another 50%, they will be a great way to take and transcribe notes at meetings. And the software, while impressive, is still admittedly buggy. But hey, this is Microsoft. They’ll keep plowing resources into it until they get it right. At least it looks like it may be worth the wait.
Innovation from the Little Guys, Part I: Bluefish
Bluefish made a name for themselves at the show by providing infrared data beaming stations throughout the Javits Center for people using Palm PDAs. Expect to see more of this product as handhelds gain multimedia capabilities, and Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth networking take off. For the consumer and show attendee, it allows the convenient access of data with a rich media experience and without the weight – or clutter – of paper. For the provider, it eliminates printing and shipping costs and may even be more effective. Would you rather hand a potential customer a menu and have them lose it, or beam them your menu as an attachment to your phone number in their address book?
I can think of a million and one uses for this technology. At museums, for interactive exhibits. At trade shows, in lieu of printed datasheets and conference schedules. In malls, for interactive maps complete with advertising. Outside of restaurants, to provide menus to future customers. At point of sale, to provide assembly, use, or technical information. In houses of worship to provide hymns or announcements without wasting paper. In _________, to ________. You get the idea.
Innovation from the Little Guys, Part II: Serious Magic
Another new software company, Serious Magic, won the “Best of Show” award with their Visual Communicator package. This was unquestionably the most exciting PC software demonstration I’ve seen in years, enabling a whole new presentation format. If Microsoft Word lets you create documents, and PowerPoint lets you create static slideshows, Visual Communicator lets you create infomercials. No, really. For just $99 – or $149 for a version complete with a green-screen backdrop and lavaliere microphone – you get software that can make just about anyone appear to be on camera, in a studio somewhere, delivering a rehearsed presentation, with backing visuals, music, and graphics.
Libraries of the backdrops, sound clips, and effects are included, along with an adjustable teleprompter. Originally developed to make web-based video conferencing less “dorky,” Visual Communicator can be used for product demonstrations, business proposals, visual resumes, distance learning, conferencing, adding media content to web sites, or simply bringing out your inner Wayne’s World. Check them out at http://www.seriousmagic.com.
Digital Lifestyle Products? Digital Gizmos? Digital… Stuff
Sony, building on its brand strength in consumer electronics, is further carving a niche for itself in computing as the PC brand for digital lifestyle junkies. If you’re serious enough about digital photos and video (but not so serious that you choose a Mac or a custom system from AlienWare), you may be willing to pay the premium Sony asks for its boxes.
The convergence mantra was taken up by other manufacturers as well, and nowhere was it more obvious than in a new line of monitors from Samsung. The combination digital TV/computer monitor has been around for a while, but now Samsung is making it idiot-proof by producing a line of LCD flat panel monitors with one-button video adjustments for TV, computing, or gaming.
On the digital imaging front, Olympus showed an $800 dye sublimation printer that printed glossy, professional-looking photos at 2 minutes and $1.90 per 8 ½” x 11” page. They also had Mark Greenberg, a professional photographer, showing how good photos can look using off-the-shelf digital cameras and a lot of not-so-off-the-shelf professional expertise.
Casio showed their new Exilim line of impressively tiny and pricey digital camera-MP3 players, the only digital camera-MP3 players expressly designed for people who wear leather pants. Hey, it’s their marketing campaign…
Toshiba was showing the Magnia SG20, a “wireless media center.” It’s a nice looking box with a wireless router, a firewall, and a hard drive built in for storage. Starting at $1,440, I can’t figure out why anyone would need one of these. A Linksys BEFW11S4 (selling for less than $179) will give you all the networking capabilities, and the hard drives and software you already have in each of your computers can easily be used for file sharing. The Toshiba rep tried to sell me on the convenience of a single box solution, but I’m not buying it, and I suspect no one else will, either.
A much more intelligent approach to home media control (and home automation in general) was shown by Listman Home Technologies. They seemed to be at the show mostly because of the Pocket PC connection - you can use one as an interface for their HCPC products. ["HCPC" is a new acronym for me, too; according to Listman it stands for "Home Control PC." Good luck, guys.] The product uses a superset of X10 controls, a technology best known by association with pop-under Internet ads for tiny spy cameras. Notoriety aside, X10 is a robust, well established foundation. Combine X10 automation with broadband distributed networking capabilities and an attractive user interface, and you have Listman's UnitedHome.
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© 2001, 2002 Avi Greengart