Silicon Insights: The Newest Tech Toys

Although the computer industry is suffering from its worst downturn in a decade, and has been hurt as well by the events of Sept. 11, the mood at the largest U.S. computer show was surprisingly upbeat.

Now that the dot-com bubble has burst, the industry is back to focusing on what it does best and is again creating products and technology that are innovative and unique.

Not surprisingly, most people I talked with there were still very concerned about the industry slowdown and unsure when things will turn around. As of now, they see sales of PCs and technology products in general being slow even through the holiday season and not picking up again until mid-2002 at best. Many think we will not see a real turnaround until early 2003.

But, it was quite encouraging to see most of the companies at Comdex turning back to their roots and working on products that are once again innovative and highly creative. Perhaps that will start turning buyers' heads again soon and, if so, we could see our industry moving forward again relatively soon.

The Highlight of the Show

Perhaps the most significant new product introduced at Comdex was the first generation of commercial tablet PCs. At last year's Comdex, Bill Gates introduced the concept and urged vendors to back his vision for a new mobile computing platform.

Most portable computers today use what is called a clamshell format, that is, a keyboard with a hinged screen that lifts up when in use. By comparison, a tablet PC is exactly what it sounds like, a tablet or slate with input from a stylus or pen instead of a mouse or touchpad.

Although various tablets were introduced by Fujitsu and others, the one that got the most attention was Acer's modular tablet PC. Its clever design allows it to function as a tablet, yet its screen flips up to reveal a full keyboard and in this mode, it works just like a normal laptop computer.

While many analysts questioned the original tablet PC concept, most were pleased to see that when a keyboard is added to the design, the tablet PC takes on a more versatile dimension.

‘Information Appliances’

Another interesting product category is the information appliance. In the past, National Semiconductor had partnered on various designs, such as 3Com's Audrey and Sony's eVilla. But their somewhat plain vanilla nature led them to fail.

Now, National Semiconductor is showing off its Origami prototype, a cross between a Web pad, PDA and a digital camera. Origami is a unique multi-function mobile conceptual design that combines some of today 's most popular electronic products in one package.

The Origami folds and pivots into a digital camera, video camcorder, smart phone, MP3 audio player, Internet access device, Internet picture frame, e-mail device and video conferencing terminal. Think Swiss Army knife approach to an information appliance.

Fancy Cameras and Souped-Up Laptops

Digital cameras were also hot, and Ricoh introduced two models that got a lot of attention. One camera has 802.11 wireless connections built in and another has an MP3 player as one of the camera's features.

New laptops were in abundance as well. The one that really caught my eye was Fujitsu's Lifebook C series that sports a Transmetta processor and has a 9.6-inch sharp-looking LCD screen.

But the $1,499 unit's most striking feature is its inclusion of a DVD and CD read and write drive inside. Compare that to Panasonic's 9" screen stand-alone DVD player selling for $1,495. This is quite a bargain, as you get a DVD player and a full portable PC for the same price.

The folks from Zoran, another Silicon Valley-based semiconductor company, showed some innovative products as well. The new Sharp DVD player has a Zoran processor and a slot which accepts Secure Digital memory cards. This allows the DVD player to display still images that may be stored on these postage stamp-sized memory chips. The Zoran processor is also in the Ricoh camera with the MP3 player inside.

Sony Dominates

Sony had a big presence at the show, with its MiniDisc optical media as a key storage media for digital audio. Its newest MD player is about the size of the MD media itself and now connects directly to a PC via a USB cable. This allows a user to download MP3 files as well as rip CDs directly onto any disk that can store up to 650 megs of data.

Most MP3 players use flash media that costs $1-$2 per megabyte. But Sony's MD costs only 1 to 2 cents per megabyte, since a single MD disk sells for under $5.

Sony also showed off a prototype of a wristwatch videophone that was the big hit of Sony's keynote address, where Kunitake Ando, Sony's president and COO, showed off a whole host of gadgets that he says are part of its vision for many devices connected to a ubiquitous network.

The other hot product at Comdex was the new Treo from Handspring. Introduced last month, the Treo is the newest entry in the PDA field that has a built-in cell phone and pager that can also access the Internet and e-mail. It uses the Global System for Mobile communication, or GSM, a digital cell phone network standard (widely used in Europe) that allows a cell phone to work internationally. The phone should be out later this year.

Tim Bajarin is a consultant and leading computer industry analyst and futurist, covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. He's based in Campbell, Calif.