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IBM aims to put computers on the wrist

Big Blue displays some show-stopping devices, such as wireless handheld computers and wearable PCs, drawing large crowds at the PC Expo trade show.

NEW YORK--IBM today displayed some show-stopping devices, with wireless handheld computers and wearable PCs drawing large crowds at the PC Expo trade show.

But the coolest toys weren't on the show floor but reserved for a CNET News.com backroom briefing on emerging technologies.

Among the items unveiled was the IBM WatchPad. Still in prototype and not yet close to reaching the market, the watch is capable of synchronizing data and images with a portable computer or PC via wireless connections.

Sporting a surprisingly crisp VGA screen, the WatchPad is capable of handling text, photos and animation. An animated watch face, for example, is circled by clear bars that fill up when there is an appointment. A touch of the finger brings up the appointment details.

Because the WatchPad is coming out of the same division producing the IBM MicroDrive, storage is not expected to be an issue, even with such a tiny size. IBM last week unveiled a 1GB version of the MicroDrive.

While today's WatchPad prototype was connected to a computer by way of a cable, the next will use Bluetooth, a technology that enables small devices to communicate without cables or wires. Bluetooth is expected to make it easier for cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and similar devices to connect wirelessly to corporate networks or the Internet and with peripherals, such as modems and printers.

IBM and its competitors have been readying a host of Bluetooth-enabled products, such as Palm handhelds, wireless phone headsets and other devices used to exchange data with computers. But consumers will have to wait longer to get their hands on them.

Continuing delays bringing Bluetooth to market have pushed industry-wide delivery back this year, said Peter Hortensius, director of technology development for IBM's Personal Systems Group.

Besides the WatchPad, IBM also showed off a wireless handheld device for airline check-in. IBM recently field-tested about 30 of the devices with a European air carrier. About the size of a deck of cards, the handheld marries three different technologies: an IBM badge computer, an AiroNet IEEE 802.11 wireless LAN card, and an RF reader.

Rather than standing in long lines to get tickets, testers could do so as they entered the airport using the handheld. The airline strategically placed AiroNet base stations throughout its terminal area, allowing air travelers to remain wirelessly in contact with a mainframe computer.

Travelers do not need boarding passes. By swiping an RF reader, they are automatically cleared for boarding. A photo and other identifying data flash on the attendant's computer for verification.

Today's demonstrations represent an important technology shift as Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM looks beyond the PC. While Hortensius said he expects the PC's dominance to continue, its role will change.

"The number of non-PC devices will proliferate rapidly," he said. "The non-PC style of access will become the dominant means of accessing the Internet."

IBM is working on a number of hardware and software projects to enable Internet service providers and application service providers to deliver content suitable for any screen, from PCs to cell phones.

In the case of the airline check-in handheld, IBM used its WebSphere software to take information from a mainframe, convert it to XML, and then bring it to the device. Michael Wirth, manager of IBM's Software User Systems Ergonomics Research (USER) division, called the XML translation process "the duct tape for the Internet."

IBM isn't the only company looking closely at XML (Extensible Markup Language), a Web standard for exchanging data, which was the centerpiece of Microsoft's Next Generation Windows Services (NGWS) announcement last week.

"We feel the NGWS announcement is a strong validation of where we have been going," Hortensius said.

"But the devil is in the details," he added, referring to Microsoft's timetable and uncertainty about whether the software maker will support open standards or tie everything back to Windows.

For its part, like the revamped voice-recognition technology launched last week, IBM is providing software tools it hopes developers will adopt for writing applications for both big and small devices.

"Using our tools, it took just 5,000 lines of code to write the airline application," Wirth said.