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Microsoft, AOL to demo dueling devices at Comdex

The eternal feud between the two companies will flare up again next week in Las Vegas when the companies show off their upcoming Internet devices.

The eternal feud between America Online and Microsoft will flare up again at the Comdex trade show next week in Las Vegas when the two companies show off Internet devices that deliver content and services to the home.

While Gateway and America Online are planning to demonstrate a kitchen-countertop Internet appliance, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates plans to show off his version of a Web pad--a device that looks like an Etch A Sketch and connects to the Web. At least some of the prototypes that Microsoft is working on use chips from Transmeta, sources said.

Gateway and AOL have also said they are developing a wireless Web-surfing tablet, which will be powered by Transmeta's Crusoe chip and be introduced in the first quarter of next year.

Other companies will also join the device parade. Metricom, for instance, plans to offer a Web pad of its own designed to connect to its own Internet service, while other companies plan devices that will allow connections via a number of service providers.

However, visions of a tablet takeover or device revolution may be premature.

A little history serves as a reminder that Gates often uses his speeches to push technologies that may not be ready for prime time. Two years ago at Comdex, Gates focused on ClearType, a display technology to make letters more readable on an LCD screen. ClearType has yet to find a mainstream audience, although Microsoft is pitching it in the fledgling electronic-book market--another of Gates' pet projects.

At Comdex last year, Gates was big on MSN Companions, which are desktop Web browsers just now hitting the market.

Part of the challenge with tablet-shaped devices, particularly those that are wireless, is the cost. Such machines often end up costing more than a PC because of the expensive screen, flash memory and other components.

Sonicblue, formerly known as S3, has said it is sampling a Transmeta-based Web pad that will cost between $1,200 and $1,500--more than most home PCs. As a result of the hefty tag, Sonicblue chief executive Ken Potashner said the company will target doctors and other mobile professionals before going after the broad consumer market. Honeywell also recently announced a Web pad.

Many companies have seemingly mis-marketed their relatively expensive appliances. Rather than being tailored to gadget maniacs with broadband-wired homes, these devices deliver a stripped-down Web experience to appeal to first-time buyers.

"The likely buyer of a Web tablet is someone with one or more PCs," Michael Slater, president of Phototablet and a noted technology columnist, wrote recently. "Unfortunately, none of the early Web appliances is well-suited to the Web aficionado. All sacrifice compatibility with significant portions of Web content because of the difficulty of providing plug-ins for popular formats."

Nonetheless, the idea of a Web pad has been a hit ever since National Semiconductor showed off a prototype at Comdex two years ago. And while Transmeta is getting much of the buzz these days, National Semi says it continues to get designed into most of the Internet appliances on the drawing board.

National Semi plans to show off more than two dozen gadgets running its Geode chips at its Comdex booth, with scores more in a related information appliance pavilion. One of them, the Metricom design, promises to be among the sexiest, combining a Web pad with a wireless modem that creates a tablet that can surf the Web beyond the confines of the house in any city where Metricom offers service.