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Flashy Gizmos Replace Glitz of Las Vegas Strip for Visitors to Comdex

Technology: Exhibitors aim to draw attention to high-tech devices at the annual weeklong event.


Las Vegas has reinvented itself as a place for family entertainment, but that doesn't really change the fact that the city is normally populated with two types of people: suckers and people who make a living relieving suckers of their assets. Over the last two decades, however, for one week each November, "Sin City" turns into geekville during Comdex, the premiere high-tech trade show.

This year, more than 2,000 exhibitors will try to catch the fancy of more than 100,000 visitors with their shiny new gizmos, many of which actually may exist someday.

For instance, Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates kicked off the show Sunday night with a keynote address and a demonstration of the company's Tablet PC, a fully functional computer about as big as a legal pad. The system offers handwriting recognition and voice recognition for data input, along with a wireless connection to the Internet.

If a flat, light computer without a keyboard that can work anywhere sounds like a dream, don't expect to find it at your Radio Shack next week. Microsoft won't be producing this item until 2002 at the earliest.

Lots of the stuff at Comdex will be available soon, however. Intel Corp. is going to be talking about its soon-to-be unveiled Pentium 4 chips, faster--and more expensive--than its current top offering, the Pentium 3. Other chip makers, such as Advanced Micro Devices Inc., will be talking about making their high-end chips in such a way that they can easily be used in laptop computers.

The show floors will be crowded with demonstrations of pens that can transmit data to computers, extremely high-speed network access with no physical connection and a boatload of new devices to manipulate MP3, the digital music format.

Cell phone makers will be touting models with tons of features that let the devices act more like electronic date books. Not to be outdone, the makers of electronic date books are going to be demonstrating ways to let their wares act more like phones.

In fact, this show is going to be flooded with gizmos designed to make computing ubiquitous, allowing users to carry enormous amounts of data with them using unobtrusive devices that also can exchange information with other devices and the Internet wirelessly.

Most of those systems will be based on the design of the Palm computer, or its cousins, palmtops made by Handspring Inc. Developers will be showing the latest version of mapping devices, telephone adapters and MP3 players that plug into these pocket-size doodads.

But true ubiquitous computing won't really come until we have computers that are tiny, really fast, inexpensive and don't require a lot of power. When that happens, the universe will change. Computers will be built into things such as belt buckles and will always be available to help their wearer do things such as buy records at the best price or find out where the nearest pizza joint is.

Not that there won't be people at Comdex offering high-powered portable computers. For instance, a company called ViA Inc. has been making wearable computers for years, but their systems are designed for businesses. Folks who repair complex systems such as airplanes can't carry manuals; a computer that fits on a belt is the perfect solution for somebody who needs lots of data but can't afford to lug it around on paper.

Xybernaut Corp., which also makes wearable computers, has a new deal with IBM Corp. to develop wearable devices. But at $5,000 for the current model, this won't be on many Christmas lists this year.

In some ways, many of the displays at Comdex are more a reflection of marketing hype than of any version of reality likely to be seen any time soon.

In that sense, the year-round residents of Las Vegas probably feel pretty comfortable at Comdex. Get ready. The new suckers have arrived.


Las Vegas has matured as a convention host. A3

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