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Personal Devices Touted at Comdex

Gates showcases a new software platform with wireless connectivity that he hopes will help end the tech slump.

November 18, 2002|Joseph Menn | Times Staff Writer

Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates kicked off the annual Comdex computer show Sunday with a prediction that the same high-volume, low-cost economics that put a PC in most U.S. homes will soon give consumers new varieties of inexpensive and useful gadgets.

In a keynote speech dedicated to debunking gloomy expectations for the beleaguered technology industry, Gates demonstrated a new category of Microsoft software for what he called "smart personal object technology," or SPOT.

The software platform can be used for applications that provide information to timepieces, pens and key chains, Microsoft said. Gates showed a travel clock that connects wirelessly to the Internet, returning with traffic updates, weather reports and other data relevant to where the traveler has landed.

Microsoft said the software had been under development for two years and that the clock will be available sometime in the next year from an unnamed manufacturer. The programs don't rely on the global positioning system, so presumably they base location information on where the Internet connection is made.

"People are dramatically underestimating all the innovation going on in our industry, all the great products that are on the way, and the positive contribution that technology is making to our economy," Gates said. "New devices and technologies will help bring about the next computing revolution: the shift from personal computers to truly personal computing that's available anywhere people need it."

Previous Internet-connected watches, refrigerators and the like, touted by the software arms of Hewlett-Packard Co., Sun Microsystems Inc. and others, haven't taken the world by storm, and some of Gates' previous Comdex predictions have yet to appear in the real world.

One major hurdle for SPOT is that the percentage of people within range of a wireless connection to the Net is as low as 7%. SPOT products "assume a wireless connection, and they assume a low-cost chip set," a Microsoft official said. The chips are from National Semiconductor Corp., which focuses on specialty, low-cost silicon instead of the more powerful, multipurpose chips from Intel Corp.

Even Web-enabled "smart phones," which start with everyone connected to a network, are years behind where industry mavens thought they would be, giving rise to some skepticism about the future of smart pens and smart toasters.

Still, the speech showed Microsoft's commitment to a new area beyond operating systems for personal computers, the larger computer servers that control functions on multiple machines, and such hand-held devices as the Pocket PC, which runs a smaller version of Windows. The SPOT operating system is a new architecture and not based on Windows at all, making it the first new system from Microsoft in a decade.

Gates used the demonstration to argue that the $5 billion Microsoft spends yearly on research and development, and lesser amounts spent by its less successful rivals, will pull the industry out of its slump. The remarks had special resonance at Comdex in Las Vegas, where attendance was expected to be down dramatically for the second year in a row.

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