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COMDEX Fall 2001 Reviewed

Fall Comdex is the largest computer trade show in North America and the seminal event in the industry, so naturally, I've just got to be there. This year, I traveled to Las Vegas with Keith Furman. Here are our observations, and news article submissions, from the trip.

Day one: Sunday, November 11, 2000
The first day of the Comdex Fall trade show officially began with Bill Gates' Digital Decade-themed keynote address, which he delivered to 15,000 people at the MGM Grand Garden arena last night. After his snoozer of a speech at the XP launch 2 weeks ago, we weren't sure what to expect for Comdex. But Gates was right on track, snoozing up the joint again. The sheer number of announcements Gates and others made (and, interestingly, didn't make) during the keynote made taking it all in--and staying awake--difficult. Nevertheless, some of the announced products are exciting.

Gates started with the official name of the Tablet PC OS--Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. He introduced six more companies that will make Tablet PC hardware, bringing the total number of OEMs working on these devices to 13. Tablet PCs will ship in two basic forms--the standard slab design and a cool new convertible laptop that Acer pioneered. The Acer device is a laptop with a flip-around screen that we think will be popular with customers. When the Tablet PC ships next year, Microsoft will release an Office XP update that will add "pen-and-ink" capabilities to the suite, along with other Tablet-specific features. Good stuff.

Speaking of XP, Gates announced that Windows XP has sold more than 7 million licenses in its first 2 weeks of availability--double that of Windows 98 in the same timeframe (Windows 98 was the previous best seller out of the gates--pardon the pun). In other statistical news, Group Vice President Jeff Raikes of the Business Productivity Group, on stage for the Tablet PC announcement, mentioned that Microsoft Office has roughly 300 million users.

Generally, Gates punctuates his keynotes with humorous, high-quality movies created inhouse at Microsoft. Last night, Gates treated us to only one such movie, a fairly lame piece starring Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer dressed up as Star Wars' Luke Skywalker and Gates as popular children's-book character Harry Potter. We won't bore you with the details, but Gates did mention that he pioneered the Harry Potter look of round glasses and a bowl hair cut long before Potter was born. The Microsoft movies are always goofy and self-deprecating, but over time they seem more and more phony, as if the company is trying to say, "Look, we're funny. We aren't just a dominant monopoly."

Gates mentioned that Microsoft will release Windows .NET Server Beta 3 "sometime this month" but didn't say much else about the subject. However, a later press release and an announcement lifting a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) embargo that was originally slated to end Thursday lets us mention a few pressing details today: Windows .NET Server Beta 3 will ship this week, probably Thursday, and will include a new low-end Web-server edition that supports two processors and 2GB of RAM. For more information about Windows .NET Server, refer to my Beta 3 overview, available today on the SuperSite for Windows.

In a distressing moment, a .NET product manager came on stage to present a Web-services demonstration, including a free Pocket PC tool for recording expenses (available today for free download) and an Office XP Web-services add-on that will ship in the spring. Unfortunately, bowed by stage fright, she had to leave early.

Gates wrapped up the keynote on a positive note with an Xbox demonstration by Shamus Blackley, who provided the only personable moments of the evening. Blackley came on stage bellowing, "Xbox," and then proceeded to demo a few games, including Microsoft's NFL Fever 2002, which frankly doesn't look much better than competing titles on the Sony PlayStation2 and Sega Dreamcast, and Dead or Alive 3, which features an amazing, photorealistic background. Blackley noted that the ball in NFL Fever and the heads of the characters in Dead or Alive have more RAM than the Nintendo Gamecube has video RAM. We get the message: Xbox is better. A short demo of a future title, Activision's Wreckless, was far more impressive. Wreckless features a realistic Hong Kong street with fast-paced racing and car crashes. Microsoft then gave out four Xbox units to people in the audience; the units weren't, contrary to reports, under the audience members' seats.

Day two: Monday, November 12, 2000
After Bill Gates' keynote address Sunday evening, we attended a post-keynote reception for the Tablet PC. Representatives from several of the companies that are supporting this new PC form factor were on hand, including Acer, ATI Compaq, FIC, Fujitsu, Groove, Tatung, and ViewSonic. The Tablet PC is going to be huge, especially the "convertible" models that doubles as normal laptops and slabs. At Comdex, Microsoft usually hosts a reception where attendees can mingle with Gates, Steve Ballmer, and other upper-level executives, but this year the executives were nowhere to be found.

Yesterday morning, we headed to the Las Vegas Convention Center, which the owners have expanded to a dizzying size. When we heard that this year's Comdex show wouldn't include space at the Sands Hotel as well as the Las Vegas Convention Center, we thought that the Comdex organizers were expecting attendance to be much lower than in previous years. But because of the extra floor space at the Las Vegas Convention Center, the show didn't seem smaller at all.

The heightened show security might have added to the illusion of a crowded show, however, because it led to some of the longest lines we've ever seen. Thankfully, show organizers let the press enter through a separate entrance (they also let us bring in bags and other paraphernalia), but bomb-sniffing dogs, hyper-sensitive metal detectors, and a little up-close-and-personal exchange with the local security officer made the entire process laborious. After we got inside, the situation wasn't much better: The typical Comdex throng was bursting through the main doors right into Microsoft's massive booth area.

As with past shows, calling Microsoft's area a booth is a bit of a misnomer because the company grabbed a massive slice of show floor near the entrance. Large as it is, however, Microsoft's booth seems a bit smaller than usual, although its partner pavilion area seems larger. Microsoft is pushing Windows XP, of course, but the exhibit also features displays for .NET My Services (formerly code-named Hailstorm), Pocket PC 2002, Visual Studio.NET, Great Plains, and the Tablet PC.

In the first of many vendor meetings scheduled for this week, we talked to Belkin about the company's excellent wireless products, nicely designed surge protectors, and PDA accessories. Belkin's designs will set them apart from the competition. Microsoft is pushing Office XP, despite not having any recent news, and we got to see some exciting new third-party Smart Tags, the new educational edition of Office XP, and other products. After lunch, we attended a reception for the Recordable DVD Forum, which is touting the benefits of DVD multidrives, which will work with the DVD-RAM, DVD-R, and DVD-RW formats (but not DVD+RW). Then it was back to the show floor.

We checked out the popular Xbox play area, where several of the new consoles are set up for hands-on examination. NFL Fever 2002 is decent, on par graphically with Sega's NFL 2K2, but moves a bit faster. Halo looks good, although the game was set up for multiple players, which, on a console, results in a bizarre, horizontally split screen. Dead or Alive 3, as we noted yesterday, looks beautiful and plays well, but the fighting games aren't as impressive. And we got a look at Project Gotham Racing and Amped: Freestyle Snowboarding. Both games looked fine, but again, weren't earth-shattering.

The press-only Showstoppers event, an opportunity to meet with hardware and software companies, was as good as ever. Roxio has DVD movie-maker software coming down the pike, although the OEM version will ship first in early 2002; a retail release will follow in late 2002. This product looks like a winner. But Roxio told us that today's XP-compatible version of Easy CD Creator already supports DVD packet writing through Direct CD. This means you can use Direct CD to back up to DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD-RAM, or DVD+RW disks; a more elegant version (a free update) is on the way. Compaq is showing off some amazing iPAQ Pocket PC hardware and a cool new EVO N200, a mini-notebook that weighs only 2.5 pounds that appears to give Toshiba's Japan-only Libretto a run for its money.

Intel is showing off prototype reference designs for future PCs and Tablet PCs. One design resembles the Apple 22" Cinema Display, except that the entire PC is built into the display, which results in a wonderful flat-panel design with major space savings. Other Intel designs included small, dockable tablets and some awe-inspiring handheld devices.

After Showstoppers, we headed over to the Bellagio to see Cirque du Soleil's O, a water-based acrobatic show that defies description.

Day three: Tuesday, November 13, 2000
We invested some time Tuesday on the Las Vegas Convention Center show floor at Comdex checking out some of the new products and technology. We weren't disappointed. From the new Archos hard-disk-based digital-music players to ArcSoft's amazing digital-media applications, Comdex Fall 2001 held many pleasant surprises.

Samsung displayed some impressive plasma screens for both home entertainment and PC use. These screens, along with the company's LCD displays, are among the best we've seen. Now if only the prices of plasma displays would come down.

Sony had an enormous, shiny booth where the company showed off its slimline Palm-based Clie handheld, new MX series PCs with DVD-writing capabilities (DVD+RW, unfortunately), Aibo dog robot, and imaging hardware. Sony's been successful at plying its "Sony lifestyle" marketing mantra, and it looks as if the company has taken it up a notch this year with these product introductions.

TechSmith touted its excellent SnagIt screen-capture software, which the company has bumped up to version 6 with new features such as Web capture, DirectX capture, and layered text capture for snagging icon images. The company has also updated Camtasia to version 3.0; this product captures screen motions as video so you can create training videos, demonstrations, or other types of documentation. Looks like good stuff.

We visited Archos, makers of the hard-disk-based Jukebox 6000 MP3 player. This industrious little company has many exciting new products on tap, including the Jukebox Multimedia, a new hard-disk-based digital-media player with 10GB capacity, support for MP3 and Windows Media Audio (WMA) audio formats and MPEG-4 video, and a small LCD screen; it connects to a PC or Macintosh through USB 1.1, USB 2, or PC Card interfaces. The company also has several miniature hard disks and CD-RW and DVD drives based on FireWire and USB 2.

We swung through the Palm booth and asked about Mac OS X support, the lack of which is holding up the works for the 18 Mac users who have moved to the new OS full time. Palm said a developer preview will be available in a month or so, with the final release due in early 2002.

Handspring sold its PDA products at the show at a decent discount (e.g., the $300 Handspring Visor Edge was selling for $220) and showed off its upcoming Treo, which combines a Palm-type PDA with a Blackberry-style keyboard and cellular-phone capabilities. The device looks pretty sweet; Handspring pre-announced it months ago, and it won't be ready until early next year.

Toshiba had an unbelievable 5GB hard disk that fits into a PC Card form factor. To us, it looked like an MP3 player waiting to happen, but the disk would also be an excellent solution for PC-to-PC file transfer and Pocket PC devices. The company also showed its newly redesigned Portege laptops, which are small but expandable. They also look a lot like the Japan-only Libretto. Toshiba now has no plans to bring the excellent half-height system to the United States. Too bad.

ArcSoft, a company that most people have probably never heard of (including, sadly, us) offered some amazing digital-media solutions for surprisingly low prices. Most exciting was its ShowBiz movie-maker software, which brings the full functionality of Apple's iMovie software--and then some--to the PC. ShowBiz includes amazing transitions, special effects, titling, and powerful features, and is, at $90, the company's most expensive product. We'll cover this software more extensively in Connected Home EXPRESS.

Iomega finally dispensed with the annoying Clik drive snappers the company handed out at previous shows--probably because the company renamed its products HipZIP. But Iomega has some compelling solutions for several scenarios, including a new-generation USB 2.0/FireWire Predator CD-RW, a removable Peerless drive system, and a new line of rack-mounted Network Attached Storage (NAS) products.

We checked out Microsoft Producer at Microsoft's press room atop the Marriott. This building was covered, top to bottom, in 16-story-tall Windows XP banners. Producer is an amazing tool for combining PowerPoint presentations with video, audio, and still images through a standard Web page.

This morning, we're headed back to the East Coast. This year's show, although clearly smaller than previous versions, was more manageable. The crowd, which show organizers said was about 150,000 strong, was probably closer to 80,000 attendees. But it's hard to complain about a show that was so easy to navigate.

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