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PC Expo 1999 Reviewed

Monday night, Keith, Daniel Reznick and I attended an all-digital screening of STAR WARS Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, which is being shown for only a month in four select theaters around the New York area and Los Angeles. The digital format means no scratches, skips, or dirty film, but it really goes beyond that with a visual quality that is hard to describe. Projected digitally off a massive hard drive with Texas Instruments' DLP Cinema technology, STAR WARS took on whole new levels of sharpness, depth, and image quality. Digital sequences such as the pod race and droid/Gungan battle scenes were even more realistic. And digital characters such as Watoo and Jar Jar Binks were virtually perfect.

Indeed, ILM, the special effects arm of LucasFilm, says that the new image quality is as problematic as it is exciting.

"This much clarity will give our production team brain damage!" says Episode 1 Producer Rick McCallum. "The set designers, the make-up artists, the hairdressers, everybody knows what they can get away with in terms of visual economy. They know that something doesn't necessarily have to look good on the set in order to look good on film. But with digital projection, these visual tricks won't work anymore, and new techniques will arise."

In the future, movies will be deployed via satellite to theaters and projected digitally this way, and our glimpse at this future was reassuring and exciting: We're right at the beginning of an age of degradation-free movie making and STAR WARS Episode 1, digital edition is just the start.

PC Expo 99, Day One: Tuesday, June 22
Though I was excited to see STAR WARS digitally, I spent most of Monday fighting the need to sleep, and Tuesday morning arrived rather unpleasantly. Keith and I headed into New York for the opening of the show earlier than we had anticipated, arriving around ten. This year's PC Expo lacks any blockbuster announcements, but as always, it's the show to see on the East Coast.

The Jacob Javitz Convention Center is the home of PC Expo,
held every year in New York City.

As usual, Microsoft's presence is obvious all around the Javitz Center, where PC Expo is held. Outside, a massive inflatable SQL Server 7.0 box greets attendees, while product billboards hang everywhere in the entryway. Microsoft's gigantic booth includes a Partner Pavilion where allies and other smaller companies can show their wares under the Microsoft umbrella. Executive Software recently released Diskeeper 4.5, their excellent disk defragmenter for Windows NT. A lite version of Diskeeper 5.0 is included in Windows 2000; Executive says the full version, which will ship late this year, will allow for more advanced functionality. They're currently reviewing whether it makes sense to release this product during the Windows 2000 beta cycle. IBM was showing off its sleek black IntelliStations and flat-panel screens running Windows NT. And Windows CE partners such as AvantGo and Casio displayed their portable solutions.

As usual, Microsoft's booth saw the most foot traffic with three theatres running constantly.

Microsoft has three theaters running constantly, with demos of Windows 2000, Office 2000, and SQL Server 7.0. The most exciting announcement so far, however, has to be Microsoft's new line of keyboards, which include the Natural Keyboard Pro, the Internet Keyboard Pro, and the Internet Keyboard. The Natural Keyboard Pro is a full-sized ergonomic keyboard that answers user complaints about the smaller Natural Keyboard Elite with its odd key placement and miniscule arrow key layout. But the Natural Keyboard Pro also adds a bunch of new features, including two USB ports and Internet and multimedia hot buttons (which are small blue buttons arrayed along the top of the keyboard). The other two keyboards are normal "straight" keyboards with similar features. They'll all be available in October and trust me: I'll be first in line.

Where do I sign up? I'll be buying one of these beauties as soon as I can.

Microsoft was also pushing its new Terminal Services, which is now bundled with Windows 2000 Server. This cool feature lets you run applications remotely off a server using Windows clients, dumb terminals, managed PCs, and the like. One of the demo machines was an Apple iMac; there was something serendipitous about seeing the iMac running Windows 2000.

An iMac running Windows 2000?  At least it's finally compatible: Windows Terminal Services
makes it all possible.

One of the unexpected highlights of the show is Corel, which recently released its WordPerfect Office 2000 suite, featuring WordPerfect 9. We're going to be reviewing the suite soon, so I don't want to give it all away here, but the short story goes like this: Don't count these guys out yet. In a world where Microsoft Office has been able to steal marketshare through ma chine bundling, it's easy to write off WordPerfect. But this product offers features Microsoft Office can't touch, such as real-time preview, at a price that blows away the competition. Corel understands the market in a way that I never thought was possible and there's even the possibility that Microsoft's antitrust trial could have a positive effect on this company's ability to get their product into more people's hands. The crowds at the product demos were certainly enthusiastic.

Corel was showing off WordPerfect Office 2000 and CorelDraw 9.

America Online, which included Netscape Communications, CompuServe, and ICQ in its booth, was showing off its latest online clients. But they got a small black mark for handing out Communicator 4.51 on CD when 4.61 has been available for a while now.

Creative Labs was demonstrating its new Nomad portable MP3 player, which features a beautiful small form factor, 64MB of RAM, PC connectivity and a nice suite of software. This is another thing I'll be buying as soon as I can. They say it will be out "later this year" and I can't wait: It looks fantastic.

Be was on hand with a curious new logo that is reminiscent of Newton's old logo and a new version of its namesake OS, Be OS 4.5. The company and its partners were showing off audio, video and other multimedia software that play to the OS' strengths. Though Be just keeps getting better, it's hard to understand why they bother in a market dominated by Microsoft. Alternative OS fans are turning to Linux in droves, but the Be OS is smaller, quicker, easier to use, and far more elegant. Do they have a chance? I don't think so.

Be Inc was showing off its cool Be OS and a host of Be-based
Web terminals.

Adobe surprised people with a new version of Photoshop, 5.5. I wasn't able to figure out what any of the new features are, but I'll look into it. They were also demonstrating their other products, such as Illustrator 8.0.

Downstairs in the low-rent district, the pathetic small "Linux Pavilion" was manned by exactly six companies in an area smaller than my bedroom. I fully expect to read on Linux news sites that "Linux conquered PC Expo," but don't be misled: The Linux presence here was a joke. Newcomer Linux Magazine, which joins Linux Journal on newsstands, joined Caldera, Red Hat and SendMail (oddly enough) in the Linux Pavilion. All in all, however, the Linux Pavilion was a non-event as usual. In fact, there were more iMacs at the show than Linux PCs from what I can tell.

One sad note: The once mighty Borland was represented by a pathetically small Inprise/Borland booth in the back of the cellar at PC Expo, shilling JBuilder 3 and Delphi 4. Only a few shows ago, these guys had a massive presence with constant product demos, but those days are clearly over.

Tuesday night
Tuesday night ended up on a calm note, rather than with me in a drunken stupor, which is probably for the best anyway. Keith and I joined Howard, Joel, and Larry from WUGNET at the Sony party, which was held at 5:00 p.m., right after the show closed. As the convention center cleared out--literally in minutes, incidentally--Sony broke out the food and drinks and we checked out some of their latest hardware, including a cool pair of full cover eyeglasses that can project PC or DVD-based images for private viewing. I watched part of "Air Force One" through these cool lenses and came away impressed. Apparently, airlines will soon begin adding these devices to new planes as well.

WUGNET's Howard and George at PC Expo.

The Sony event got old pretty quickly, so we headed over to the PCxPress event in a Humvee limousine, which is one of those iMacian concessions of style over substance. Offering virtually no legroom (heck, it had less than three feet of space, vertically, at the most), the limo is probably more interesting from the outside than it is from the inside. I've seen one of these things driving around in Phoenix anyway; you gotta wonder. PCxPress, which has historically given a group of smaller companies good access to the press and other types of networking, was a little less interesting than usual this year for some reason. The food was good, as usual, but it seemed to suffer from the overall problem of this year's PC Expo, with little in the way of exciting new product announcements.

WUGNET does dinner: Larry, Joel, Paul, Keith "Hasselhoff" Furman, and Howard

After PCxPress, it was decision time. Some of us wanted to head to the somewhat exclusive Spencer the Katt party, but we ended up eating dinner in a small Italian restaurant instead. This won't make for good reading per se, so I'll spare you the details, but I don't travel as much as I used to and it was good to just spend time with the WUGNET folks again.

Boring, eh?

PC Expo 99, Day Two: Wednesday, June 23
After a breakfast meeting with Larry, Howard, and Joel from WUGNET, Keith and I headed back to the show. We checked out the upcoming Microsoft IntelliMouse Explorer, which uses a set of lasers rather than a mouse ball, and some of the other stuff we missed in the Microsoft booth the first day.

The show floor was crammed with attendees both days I was there.

Proxim was showing off their excellent wireless networking solution for Windows 9x and NT, called Symphony. Though its not yet Windows 2000 compatible, Symphony looks like a winner: I'm already imagining bringing my laptop out on the deck on those cool summer nights.

The iToaster is based on Be OS, which is a small, fast, and
elegant OS from Be, Inc.

Before leaving, we also checked out Be Inc. again. It seems that Be is behind a number of new Windows-less terminals that will be selling in the $200-400 range, offering users a way to get online without a PC. Because the Be OS is small, fast, and elegant, it's perfect for these devices. I sat through a demo of the new Be OS 4.5 and came away impressed: It's everything an OS should be, really, except compatible with the applications I use every day. When this final black mark is removed, this could be the perfect OS. It's certainly a lot nicer than any variant of Linux I've ever seen. I'll be reviewing Be OS 4.5 on the SuperSite sometime this summer.

Escape from New York: Return to Phoenix

Paul in the press room at PC Expo sporting his new summer 'do
and his new Toshiba laptop.

Traveling cross country hasn't gotten any easier: After experiencing the wonders of New York City rush hour, my flight was delayed over half an hour as a long line of planes waited in position for take-off. Thankfully (I suppose), my connecting flight in St. Louis was also delayed--this time because of weather--but this left me stranded for an hour and a half in an airport with nothing to do. And this I don't understand: All of the bookstores and restaurants in the airport close early, despite the fact that St. Louis is TWA's hub.  I had finished my book during the first leg of the flight (Thomas Harris' "Hannibal"; it was atrocious, unlike his earlier books) and would have gladly stocked up on several magazines to pass the time. No dice. Instead, I recharged the laptop, just in case, on one of the terminal's power outlets. I figured they owed me.

After all the delays, the final flight to Phoenix was pretty non-eventful. Oddly enough, I had my worst cab ride of the trip on my way home from the airport: I guess the cabbies in Phoenix have few fares to choose from and he was hoping to get back to the airport as quickly as possible. I was just happy to be home by that point.

PC Expo doesn't have the cachet of Fall Comdex, but it's a huge show with over 100,000 attendees and all the heavy hitters in the industry. With recent high-profile releases such as Office 2000 and Windows 98 SE taking some of the intrigue away from the show, however, there just wasn't a lot of new stuff going on this time around. Still, PC Expo is an excellent trade show and well worth attending: It's a lot better than Spring Comdex, for example.

Here are the products and events that stood out in my mind.

Best of  PC Expo
Corel. Why? Because it's finally a legitimate threat to Microsoft. Think about it: Microsoft loses the antitrust trial and can't shovel products down our throats with every PC we buy. This gives competitors, such as the excellent WordPerfect Office 2000, inroads they never had before. With a level playing field, WordPerfect is looking good. And the company is poised for an upswing with its first quarter in the black in almost two years. I expect great things from Corel. Don't count them out.

Oh, and they make a Linux box called Netwinder that was conspicuously tucked into a corner of their booth. Telling. They also make a Linux version of their trademark suite which is just as good as the Windows version. Corel has all the bases covered. 

Worst of  PC Expo
The keynote addresses stand out. What were they thinking?  Marc "no, really, I invented the browser" Andreessen discusses eCommerce and Microsoft's Bob "who?" Herbold talks up Internet privacy. No one cares. No one.

And then there was the Linux "Pavilion," which should have been called the "Linux closet." I had a bigger presence at PC Expo than Linux did.

It's a tie!

Best software
Corel WordPerfect Office 2000. This full-featured suite of Office applications has been written off but the new version is incredible, much cheaper than Office 2000, and easier to use. We'll be reviewing WordPerfect Office 2000 on the SuperSite in the coming weeks. It's a winner.

Best hardware
Creative Labs Nomad. This MP3 player rises above the crowd with 64 MB of RAM, a small form factor, and the best bundle of software I've seen. Retailing for about $150, you should see these wonders of simplicity in stores by the end of the summer. I want one, oh yes.

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