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Handhelds grab spotlight at PC Expo

The four-day trade show opens today in New York, and one of the toughest things to find will be a personal computer.

PC Expo opens today in New York, and one of the toughest things to find at the show will be a personal computer.

Handheld computers, Internet appliances and other gadgets will be the central focus of the four-day trade show, which begins with a series of seminars. A total of 85,000 visitors are expected to attend PC Expo, said a spokesman for CMP Media, the show's sponsor.

Sony, for instance, will offer the first glimpse of its highly anticipated Palm-powered handheld. Chip start-up Transmeta will display future notebooks, a PC Expo staple, but with a twist; the portables will contain the company's Crusoe processor.

Keynote speakers include Handspring CEO Jeff Hawkins and Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, but executives from the traditional PC makers are not set to make an appearance.

Meanwhile, Dell Computer and Intel will show off, respectively, a home MP3 player and a Linux-based Internet terminal at technology events going on elsewhere in New York.

Some major PC companies technically won't even be at the show. Dell, Micron Electronics and Compaq Computer have decided to forgo renting booth space or meeting rooms at the trade show because of the cost, said various sources. Instead, those companies will hold meetings in hotels. Dell, for instance, is conducting meetings and hosting cocktail parties at the Four Seasons.

The shift in focus at the conference, one of the major annual hardware shows, reflects the evolution of the technology industry toward a panoply of devices. Two years ago, when Compaq's then-CEO Eckhard Pfeiffer opened the show, PCs served as the primary conduit to the Internet.

PCs still reign as the chief way to get onto the Net, but a host of new devices, animated by non-Microsoft operating systems, are gaining momentum in the marketplace. Manufacturers and software developers, accordingly, are turning their focus to Web-enabled cell phones or e-commerce sites that can send information formatted for handhelds.

"The largest category of new purchases will be devices," said Richard Doherty, principal analyst at The Envisioneering Group.

Handhelds are likely to play a central role in the proceedings. Sony's handheld based on the Palm operating system has been anticipated for months. Alan Kessler, Palm's president, also will speak at the event.

Palm is scheduled to make a series of announcements at the show, including the news that it is readying an add-on device that will allow existing Palms to access the Internet wirelessly. The handheld maker had said earlier this year that this type of ubiquitious wireless connectivity is a major goal for the year. Executives have said future products will include built-in wireless access, while existing products will be outfitted with add-on cradles and antennas.

Transmeta will be a major focus of the show. Earlier this month, executives from the company revealed that major notebook manufacturers would exhibit Windows-based notebooks for the business market incorporating the company's Crusoe 5400 chip. The company's booth will sport a Jimmy Buffett-style tropical theme.

Success for Transmeta in this market would represent a milestone, as no company has effectively challenged Intel in the business computer market. Transmeta's Crusoe chip, however, has been garnering interest from manufacturers because it uses less power than many Intel chips.

IBM will show off a prototype of a ThinkPad 240 containing Crusoe.

"If customer response is favorable, we will introduce a model with the Transmeta processor sometime in the second half," said Leo Suarez, IBM's mobile systems worldwide product manager.

"Customers have been asking for an ultraportable with a full day's charge," Suarez said. Compaq and Gateway, two Transmeta investors, are also expected to demonstrate Crusoe concept devices.

Some of the notebooks will be prototypes, but others will be preproduction models that could hit the market later this year, James Chapman, Transmeta's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in an interview earlier this month. "You have to have the strong brand names behind you to show quality and compatibility."

In addition, Transmeta may fill in the details on its plans to diversify its Crusoe processor family. The company markets two different Crusoe chips--the 3200 (formerly the 3120) for Web pads and other Internet appliances, and the 5400 processor for notebooks.

In the near future, the company will release two additional processors, the 3300 and the 3400 for the appliance market and a 5600 for notebooks, said Brian Hurst, director of worldwide sales for Transmeta.

Traditional PCs won't be completely forgotten at the show, however. Hewlett-Packard plans to make a big splash with a large booth, technology demos and the unveiling of new products tomorrow. Among other things, HP is expected to show its new line of Pavilion PCs and notebooks set to go on sale July 6.

The new models will feature swappable color panels similar to those unveiled last week by Compaq.

Microsoft will show off computers containing Windows Me, its upcoming consumer operating system.

Although PC Expo will be the main event, many manufacturers will show products at Mobile Focus and Show Stoppers, two smaller events for analysts and the media. Intel, for instance, will show off its Net.Station Internet terminal at Show Stoppers. Compaq will show off existing handheld and wireless products, as well as demos of emerging technologies, such as Bluetooth, at both of these events.

One of the reasons some of these companies will not technically be at the show is cost. Booths at major trade shows can cost $1 million or more, according to sources, and they deliver little in terms of marketing value. Comdex, still the world's largest trade show, began to see a decline in major exhibitors two years ago.

Nonetheless, numerous companies will exhibit on the floor, according to a CMP spokesman. Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, IBM, Gateway, Cisco Systems and others will display products on the floor. Some will also seep in through other booths. Compaq won't have a booth, for instance, but the company's products will appear in the booths of exhibiting companies, a Compaq spokesman said.

News.com's Stephanie Miles and Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.