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Gadgets on parade at CeBit

Covers come off Microsoft's much-teased Origami and other new devices at the giant German trade show this week. Photos: Electronics extravaganza

Culture
The technology industry will gather in the German city of Hannover this week to launch the very latest products, unveil corporate strategies and debate the future of technology at the giant CeBit trade show.

This year's CeBit comes at an important time for the tech sector. With corporate IT spending enjoying a modest rise, the future is bright for companies that survived the effects of the dot-com crash and can offer innovative hardware, software or services. But a range of factors--from the rise of Google and Web-based applications, to the broadband boom and the growing popularity of open source--mean even the largest companies can't be sure of the future. No one can afford to waste the opportunity to put their upcoming products in the spotlight.

CeBIT gallery

CeBit is huge, and thousands of technology companies will cram into almost 30 halls, bringing everything from fax machines and printers to smart phones and dual-core chip-based notebooks. We can't predict everything that will grab the headlines and get people talking at the show, but it's clear that there are some key themes and products to watch out for.

Unless something goes seriously wrong between now and then, you can guarantee that on Thursday morning Microsoft will reveal its Origami device. This "ultramobile PC" will use Intel chips and run Windows XP. It is probably a cut-down Tablet PC with a touch-sensitive screen with built-in Wi-Fi and possibly third-generation (3G) connectivity. Samsung is widely expected to have a model on display, and it won't be alone.

Can Origami succeed where the Tablet PC has largely failed? Find out on Thursday, when Microsoft plans to end the suspense and reveal what the project is really about.

Microsoft will also attempt to use the CeBit buzz to drive interest in Windows Vista and Office 12, so it could be a good opportunity to find out what approach companies and consumers should take with both products.

IBM is another company with a lot riding on CeBit. It will be demonstrating high-performance computing, including a project where 150 scientists share one supercomputer. It will also be showing off the Cell chip, which it co-designed; this will include a demonstration of some prototype Cell blade servers running visualization software on massive amounts of scientific and other data.

IBM is also expected to announce a partnership with delivery company DHL involving radio frequency identification tags. RFID, used for tracking inventory and other purposes, should be a big theme at the show.

Intel inside
CeBit clashes with Intel's Developer Forum in California, so the chipmaker might not deliver too many bombshells in Hannover. However, one of Intel's vice presidents, Anand Chandrasekher, is scheduled to deliver a keynote speech at CeBit on Wednesday morning, so he could reveal the direction of Intel's mobile strategy, among other developments.

At just under 100 square meters, Intel's stand at CeBit will be twice as big as in 2005. Business software and technologies designed for the health care business are tipped to be key themes, alongside digital entertainment, where media PCs based on Intel's Viiv chip will be prominent.

We expect that most of the major notebook vendors will be showing off laptops that use Intel's new dual-core mobile processor, the Core Duo.

Shuttle, a maker of small PCs, is planning to announce three new products, including a model that should be smaller and quieter than its previous pint-size computers. Rival AOpen is also expected to unveil a mini PC with a footprint of about 6 inches square that runs on a Core Duo chip and supports Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

If you're considering investing in new displays, then it may be worth listening for news from Sharp, which is expected to bring a wide range of new liquid-crystal display monitors to CeBit. But if money and size are no object, then check out a screen from Chi Mei Optoelectronics that has a resolution of 3,840 pixels by 2,160 pixels. At 56 inches diagonally, this could be an ideal unit for the next important company presentation (or football game).

In the storage sector, the Blu-Ray group will hold a press conference in which it will probably announce details of new drives, and possibly alliances with media companies too. You can count on seeing something similar from the HD-DVD camp, as well. At the high end, Hitachi Data Systems will be demonstrating storage virtualization, while Plasmon will have new archiving and RAID products on display.

Regular visitors to the Hannover show will tell you that prototype fuel cells have been a staple item on the CeBit menu for many, many years. The mantra is always the same: "Commercial deployment is about two years away." This year, though, may be different. The word from Hannover is that Antig Technology and AVC will be showing a "production-ready fuel-cell unit for notebooks." Exactly what counts as "production-ready" is open to question, but there are whispers that some Taiwanese manufacturers are planning to use this technology in commercial notebooks later this year. Again, we'll know more once we've had a chance to get our hands on the device.

Mobility is also generally a central theme at CeBit. The area devoted to the mobile industry has steadily grown over the last few years, and several big product launches are expected this year.

Fujitsi-Siemens should launch a 3G smart phone, the Pocket Loox T Pocket PC, which will run on Windows Mobile.

As well as Microsoft's Origami, Samsung is expected to have several mobile devices on display at CeBit. This will include the SGH-i310, which is a phone with an 8GB hard drive, and the SPH-B1300, a clamshell phone that can be flipped two different ways for portrait or landscape viewing.

Toshiba is expected to exhibit some new phones. At the moment, it only offers a small selection of low-spec phones in Europe, but some insiders have speculated that it could announce a move into high-end smart phones.

Radio-frequency tagging will also be featured at CeBit. The Metro Group Future Store Initiative will be demonstrating the use of RFID tags in commerce, logistics, the leisure industry and private households. But there are also privacy and civil liberty implications surrounding RFID tagging, which will be addressed by European Commission Commissioner Viviane Reding. Reding plans to hold a press conference on Thursday morning on "The revolution of RFID--challenges and options for action."

The automotive industry has a track record of using the CeBit show to show off its latest innovations. This year, BMW will be demonstrating a new in-car navigation system that transmits a map straight to a driver's phone, and TomTom is expected to launch an enterprise version of its GPS (Global Positioning System) product.

Lighter side of CeBit
CeBit also has its lighter side, and there should be an array of concept devices and gadgets on display. This will include a gold-plated, diamond-encrusted USB memory stick costing around $3,500. White Lake, the maker of the extravagant thumb drive, hasn't yet revealed the device's capacity, but we do know that the exterior will be made of 14-carat gold and have five polished diamonds.

With the World Cyber Games 2006 Euro Championship also kicking off in Hannover on Thursday, CeBit really will have something to offer everyone. It's still the world's largest IT show, and it's the place to watch this week if you want a good understanding of the direction the technology world will take in 2006 and beyond. Keep checking back this week to see all the top news and previews.

Graeme Wearden of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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