Thrown to the Sharks: Comdex, Day 2

Comdex '99—Being in Las Vegas is like mainlining the American ID—it's pure camp, untouched by the merest taint of irony or self-consciousness. Where else can you visit New York City, Paris, Egypt, and Venice all in one afternoon? I love it. Visiting the Microsoft Partners Pavilion at Comdex is like being sucked into a black hole. The Pavilion is a tight little space packed with 63 booths, most of them small third-party independent software vendors (ISVs) with some level of Microsoft integration. Walking through this pavilion wearing a badge that reads “Media ­ Windows NT Magazine” is like smearing your naked body with fresh blood and throwing yourself to the sharks. Welcome to Day 2. Yesterday’s coverage had me exploring the Microsoft Pavilion and certain Windows 2000 (Win2K)-specific, third-party products. Today, I hit the rest of the Partners Pavilion. Most of what I found is sheer me-too technology—a lot like Comdex itself. Application service providers (ASPs), multimedia messaging, and mobile and wireless integration vendors maintained the biggest presence in the Partners Pavilion. I saw at least 10 ASP tools and services, tons of multimedia messaging (each with some subset of the same features), and several products that promised to suck in all your messaging needs and deliver it through Outlook and mobile phones. I couldn’t tell the difference between any of them. Several vendors displayed products dedicated to integrating mobile platforms into the corporate intranet—lots of software for synching devices such as cell phones and laptops with desktop and server applications. Only a few products integrated with Active Directory (AD). OTG Software, for example, displayed a product that exports data from AD and makes a program for automated tasking of employee management. When I asked the company representatives whether they liked AD, they said they didn’t really notice it. Because OTG's product deals with the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP), OTG doesn't care if it's dealing with Novell Directory Services (NDS) or AD. What did I think was really cool? Smart cards seem to be coming into their own. I mentioned the Windows Smart Card toolkit yesterday. Today I saw some of the applications that the Windows Smart Card partners have developed. TTI demonstrated my favorite application, something it called Pocket Server. You get to carry around a smart card with all your basics (e.g., a small address book, email addresses, favorite URLs, credit card information). Let’s say you’re at your friend’s house. You jam your card into your friend's card reader and enter your PIN. A little window pops up (provided your friend has installed the Pocket Server applet, which is available for free from TTI's Web site). From this window, you can call up a list of emails, click one, and the applet calls up the local copy of Outlook. The company also has an e-commerce integration tool that lets you use your smart card to make purchases when you visit Pocket Server-ready Web sites. You simply click Buy, and the tool sucks the credit card info off your smart card—sexy stuff. The application is great, but this technology won’t get going until TTI can get its applet on every desktop. On another front, was in the Partner Pavilion trying to create a permanent, global directory. This technology is dream white pages stuff, where you can dial one connection number for a person and connect to wherever they are. Visitalk already has this global directory up and running. You can call a console with a list of your friends, select a name, and the directory dials that person's number, sends an instant message to their laptop, or whatever. The Visitalk database knows where to contact that individual and knows how that person is connected; or, at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. The Knowledge Management section of the Partner Pavilion had some beautiful stuff. However, most of the booths displayed only standard accounting and HR software, hastily relabeled as Knowledge Management to catch a ride on the latest trend. I did notice one or two booths that had truly neat stuff. For example, a small Swedish company displayed a little product called Decision Support Panel that did neat data warehousing stuff through Outlook. But my favorite product, Zinnote, came from a little company called Positive Support Review. Zinnote isn't revolutionary, but it automatically translates between formats (e.g., HTML, SQL, MAPI, word processor formats). Sounds simple, right? But the company adds simple and elegant automation that gives you lots of flexibility. For example, say you have a database for your product that updates every 20 minutes. Zinnote can grab the SQL database, transform the data into a chart, transform the chart into a Web page, and post it to your site. Alternatively, the software can transform your data into a Word document and email it to you as an attachment. And you can set Zinnote to perform these tasks automatically at whatever time intervals you want. Great stuff. The CEO of Positive Support Review, who was manning the booth, claimed that similar software is on the market, but it costs about a quarter of a million dollars, while Zinnote costs less than $1000. As a final note, Intel won the chili cook-off by cheating. The company traded voting tokens for little flashing yo-yos, with the words "Intel Inside" printed on the outside, suckering in Windows NT Magazine's news editor among others. Sounds like the company's business plan. (Microsoft, it seems, lost only because the US Department of Justice forced it to serve its ingredients separately.)

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