Can it be that the name Comdex has begun to lose some of its computer industry magic? As variants seem to be springing up almost as fast as Planet Hollywood restaurants, it would be easy to dismiss last week?s Comdex Pacific Rim in Vancouver as another pale imitation of the massive annual Comdex Fall in Las Vegas.
But that would be to miss the point of the event. Primarily it is held to let the computer industry from around the Pacific Rim ? including firms from Japan, Korea, California, Taiwan, Washington, Oregon and British Columbia ? show what it has developed and where it plans to grow in the near future. And that?s worth knowing, as many of the developments in this region are soon likely to be mirrored around the world.
One interesting consequence of such ?second-tier? shows is that many of the main players send their second-string team to deliver keynote speeches. The result is that visitors are more likely to get something out of what is being said rather than being dazzled by who is saying it.
That was certainly the case on the opening day of the show when Ilene Lang, president and CEO of Alta Vista, Digital?s internet software company, revealed just how heavily used its Web site is and how vital it has become for Digital?s Net efforts. She also unveiled ambitious plans that the Alta Vista group has for its search engine and associated services.
Lang treated visitors to the show to a rare glimpse behind the workings of this fascinating organisation in her keynote speech. She explained how the site had grown from an initial hit rate of less than 500,000 visitors a day in its first few weeks to 24 million hits a day by the beginning of 1997.
This popularity led Digital to spin Alta Vista out as a distinct and separate company, with Lang at its head. She is trying to garner enthusiasm for a concept called on-site computing, which aims to allow anyone to get at the data they want to work with from any terminal connected to the Web.
Lang believes it will not be long before business travellers are able to move around the world without requiring notebook computers. Instead, they will be secure in the knowledge that they can stay in hotels and work from airport executive lounges equipped with network computers giving them access to their data and applications.
Some hotels are already starting to offer devices that allow business guests to browse the Web, as well as send and read email, using specially configured TV sets in their rooms, says Land. She predicts this type of access will become common over the next few years.
In the second day?s keynote speech, Microsoft Canada general manager Jeff Dossett put a number of the software giant?s internet initiatives into perspective. While there was a lot of talk about what the company had done over the past year with Internet Explorer and Active X, there was also detailed discussion of the recently announced Microsoft Home Entertainment for Windows.
This under-hyped development, originally announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, is aimed at finding ways of bringing together the Web and Windows using a domestic TV.
According to Microsoft, nearly 40 per cent of US households have a PC. But the PC is not nearly as prevalent as other home appliances such as telephones (present in 95 per cent of households), televisions (98 per cent), or VCRs (98 per cent). Microsoft suggests that paradoxically, the PC?s biggest advantage ? its flexible, multipurpose nature ? has worked against it in an environment where low cost and simplicity are key requirements.
It says turning that flexibility towards solving consumer problems will be the key to making the PC a success in the home ? which is where Home Entertainment for Windows is aimed.
Dossett says the PC will have to evolve again to meet the needs of the home market. He suggests that the synergy between PCs and consumer electronics devices like TVs and home audio systems will be a key driver in this evolution.
As part of this initiative, the firm announced several technologies to allow Windows- based PCs to receive broadcast programming and data, as well as improve Windows for use in the family TV room.
To succeed, MS says it will first need to transform the PC into an open entertainment platform by providing ?a common open platform for content creation, display and viewing, data services, network integration, and interoperability? between consumer electronics devices.
Second, the firm will need to create ?new ways to experience television? by integrating the PC and TV. Microsoft hopes that by bringing the PC and TV together, it will allow broadcasters to create ?compelling, interactive TV programming, leveraging the power and flexibility of PCs and the Windows operating system platform?.
Third, Dossett pointed out that Microsoft will have to find new ways for people to use the PC together. In the past, the PC has been a single person device. If PCs are going to start providing more entertainment-oriented content, people will want to place PCs in the family room. So new user interface components that are optimised for distance viewing and can be controlled by handheld remotes will be needed if multi-player games and interactive movies are to become reality.
The biggest news from Taiwanese computer giant Acer came from outside the show ? it is to acquire the mobile computing business of Texas Instruments (TI). The company says the agreement includes the purchase of TI?s Travelmate and Extensa ranges.
Acer says it expects a substantial number of TI?s worldwide employees to transfer to Acer on the closure of the mobile computing business, which is expected on or before 31 March.
Ironically, the move comes just as Acer?s own new line of long-life notebook computers ? sold under the brand name Nuovo ? had just started to win some notice and praise in US computer magazines.
In an interview at Comdex Pacific Rim, Acer America director of product market for commercial systems Norman Choy explained that a lot of the company?s strategy will focus on branding its server and notebook computer lines. The company enjoyed some success last year by pushing its Aspire desktop systems: it wants to repeat the exercise in its other two main product categories.
That will come in the form of a worldwide branding campaign for its servers and notebooks. Acer has seen the benefits that such branding can bring, not only through its own Acer Aspire campaign, but also through those of Compaq with its Presario consumer range and Toshiba with its Tecra and Satellite Pro notebooks. But Choy says all of Acer?s plans have to take into account what the retailer market will bear.
As for Acer?s plans for the NC, Choy says his firm?s effort, Acer Basic, started life very differently from Oracle CEO Larry Ellison?s vision of a $500 NC on every desk in the US. ?Acer Basic is more of a factor outside of the North American market,? says Choy. ?It was designed for third-world countries where price was the criterion. The idea was to offer a stripped-down computer with a TV as the display mechanism. But we have now had interest from corporates who want to replace dumb terminals with it.?
Sony took the opportunity to unveil its new mid-range digital camera at this show. Known simply as the Sony Digital Still Camera DSC-F1, it offers some good specifications and a few great gimmicks, such as the option to send pictures to a PC over a wireless infra-red link.
With an estimated US selling price of $849.99, it is by no means the cheapest on offer. But it has 4Mb of internal flash memory, which will store up to 108 pictures at 640 x 480 resolution, and a built-in 1.8in colour LCD screen ? which some vendors still charge extra for.
Sony appears to have put the camera into the hands of a few real photographers, rather than just computer hardware boffins, when designing it. There is an electronic simulation of a professional motor drive, allowing the camera to take several frames a second.
Multiscreen mode divides the picture into nine sections recorded in 1/15 second increments. And there is a self-timer, a feature that is curiously missing from many digital cameras.
The wireless infra-red connection allows pictures to be sent between the camera and Windows 95. And the optional Sony DPP-M55 digital colour photo printer provides wireless infra-red support, so pictures can be printed out without having to use a computer.
One crowd-puller was the Wyse Technology booth, where the firm had its Winterm line of NCs on show. Wyse recently announced a partnership with Sun that has seen it license the Java OS from Javasoft to expand the Wyse Winterm 4000 series of enhanced network computers.
Wyse moved into the NC market early: the first Winterm systems appeared in late 1995 using a combination of internet technology and Windows. Roy Graham, senior VP of sales and marketing at Wyse, says the deal announced late last year with Sun should help Wyse continue its push into the corporate market for NC systems.
?Wyse?s line of NCs has been widely adopted by customers in a multitude of market segments such as call centres, healthcare, banking, telecoms, education and manufacturing.
?The integration of Java into our new line of enhanced NCs will allow further penetration of Winterm into new environments. The rapid worldwide implementation of intranets has changed the way corporate America conducts business, and as NCs continue to emerge, Java will play a central role in their technical development.?
It appears that asynchronous digital subscriber line (ADSL) technology is beginning to take off as a way of offering high-speed, low-cost internet access ? and it turns out that Canada is one of the pioneers in implementing it. Over the past six months, service providers in two Canadian prairie provinces (Saskatchewan and Alberta) have begun offering ADSL internet access over standard local telephone lines at rates of 1.5Mbps or more. And now British Columbia Telecom (BC Tel) is getting in on the act.
BC Tel plans to offer its customers ADSL-based internet access later this year at speeds from 1.4Mbps to 7Mbps, depending on the equipment used and the location of users, for about Can$70 a month. This price is likely to include the cost of internet access service as well as ADSL line rental ? offering an attractive alternative to ISDN, which only runs at about 128Kbps, less than a tenth of the speed. ISDN is currently sold in Canada for about $50 a month without internet access, which costs an extra $20 or so a month.
Comdex Pacific Rim clearly highlighted a number of key industry directions that will be vital to the future of dealers and resellers.
The first is obvious: the internet will continue to become more important to everyone in the industry, despite the artificially high prices currently suffered by many European users. There seems to be a consensus that low-cost Net access will end up being universal, or Europe runs the risk of being left behind as more products, services and commerce move to the Web.
Second, the convergence between consumer electronics firms and computer companies is no longer the coming thing ? it is here. Home Entertainment for Windows and Sony?s moves into digital photography show that convergence is everywhere and it will create a fundamental difference in the way that people look at these markets.
For instance, where do you sell a digital camera? Is it sold at a computer dealer, at a photography shop, in combination with a printer as an instant photo solution or a mix of the above? The answers to these kinds of questions will determine how much money is made or lost as convergence takes hold. The best bet appears for companies to be part of the answer, rather than holding on to the question for too long.
Infrastructure provider says international sales now make up 51 per cent of its revenue
Suzanne Chappell of TMS plans sailing venture after selling Oxfordshire-based TMS to acquisitive Chess
Withdrawal of credit insurance by some providers a 'reflection' of current challenge facing IT sector, according to MD Steve Soper
SMART's UK managing director joins Lenovo to boost SMB business