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Device makers expand on wireless

After several years of promotion by hardware manufacturers, wireless computing appears to be heading for the watershed of mass acceptance.

LAS VEGAS--After several years of promotion by hardware manufacturers, wireless computing appears to be heading for the watershed of mass acceptance.

Consumer electronics manufacturers are increasingly incorporating one form or another of wireless networking--typically the systems known as 802.11b or Bluetooth--into notebooks and other devices, according to product managers at Mobile Focus, a product showcase that took place on the eve of the Comdex Fall 2001 trade show here. Last year, many manufacturers merely showed off products that eventually would include wireless capabilities. Now those products are starting to hit the market.

In many ways, these new devices can be considered full-fledged Internet appliances, as they connect directly to the Web, or through a cell phone bridge, rather than through a PC.

Sony, for instance, is unveiling a networked Handycam at Comdex this week that contains an integrated Bluetooth chip. With the camera and a cell phone, consumers will be able to send digital video clips or still shots from remote locations across the Internet. Conversely, users can download Internet data to the camera and then inspect the results through the camera's viewfinder, said Alan Jason, director of marketing at Sony?s digital imaging division.

"You can go to Mapquest for directions," he said. "You can download e-mail."

The camera, which will cost about $2,000 when it hits shelves in February, also comes with a Bluetooth module for cell phones, in case the phone lacks an internal chip. The lack of infrastructure has been cited as one of the reasons the technology has taken longer than expected to take off. Sony chose Bluetooth over other wireless standards because it uses less battery power than 802.11b, Jason added.

Ricoh, meanwhile, showed off the iMove, a networked video camera containing 802.11b wireless capabilities. The camera, and its wireless base station, is aimed at industrial customers, such as construction companies, that want to create ad hoc videoconferences. As with the Sony camera, PCs aren?t necessary.

The attraction for business users is easy to see for companies with a dispersed work force, manufacturers say. "There are a lot of instances where you need a supervisor who is across the country," said Jim Lengyel, a Ricoh representative.

Notebook manufacturers are increasingly proliferating wireless across their lines. All Dell Computer notebooks now ship with an integrated 802.11b antenna, said Anne Camden, a Dell spokeswoman, although the transmitter is still sold separately.

And customer acceptance is growing. Nearly 50 percent of all education customers buy wireless capabilities. Fujitsu and NEC are also increasingly emphasizing wireless capabilities, representatives from those companies said.

Blurring the product lines
The line between cell phones and handhelds also continues to blur. In part of a gradual rise from obscurity, the U.S. subsidiary of Korean phone maker LG Group showed its TM-910 smart phone, a "2.5G" phone that builds faster data-transfer speeds on top of current mobile phone technology. The TM-910 will ship in the first quarter of 2002 in conjunction with service from Verizon, and in a first for LG will sport the company's logo along with the Verizon name.

"It's a huge coup for LG," said spokeswoman Jennifer Laird, referring to the better prominence for the LG name.

The TM-910 is smaller than most U.S. cell phones and is more sophisticated than the current 3000 model that LG builds for Sprint, Laird said. A panel can flip open to reveal a larger screen with icons for editing contact lists, writing memos or playing games, and Bluetooth wireless capability will arrive later next year. It can sync contact lists with Outlook, Act and Lotus Notes.

Nokia showed its upcoming 9290 mobile communicator, a combination cell phone-handheld computer running the Symbian operating system and with the ability to run Java programs as well. It's expected to go on sale in the United States in the spring with a price of about $799, said spokesman Keith Nowak.

The company showed the system running the "Doom" video game on its 640-by-200-pixel color screen, but most customers are expected to be corporate types such as salespeople connecting to corporate databases. With client software from Citrix, the 9290 also can be used to control conventional Windows software that's running on a server. The system uses a 32-bit ARM9 processor.

Palm showed off some improvements from partners, including a Bluetooth module from TDK.

The $199 BlueM Bluetooth module lets a Palm connect to the Internet with the help of a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone nearby. With features in version 4 of Palm's operating system, it can send short messages to cell phones or send dial commands to cell phones, McDonell said. The BlueM is awaiting Federal Communications Commission approval and should be available soon, he said.

Many manufacturers are concentrating for the moment on Palm or PocketPC-based accessories. Hewlett-Packard and Northstar, for example, are showing off miniature snap-on keyboards for, respectively, HP's Jornada and the Palm. The keyboards resemble the chiclet keyboard found on the BlackBerry pager from Research In Motion and range in price from $49 to $59

Sony also showed off its first add-on for its Clie handheld, a mini-camera that plugs into the Memory Stick slot on the Clie. The module, which will sell for $150, will come out later this month, said Russell Paik, vice president and general manager of Sony's Clie division. Other add-ons are likely to follow, Paik added.

For the portable storage market, Sony on Monday will release the Microvolt, a flash memory card that plugs into the USB slot of a PC. The cards, which hold between 16MB and 128MB of data, are designed to give office users an easier way to transfer files. The device is similar to the company's Memory Stick product. Microvolt, however, can be used in many more PCs, as it fits into the USB slot and doesn't require the Memory Stick port.

SanDisk, meanwhile, is showing off 1GB CompactFlash cards this week, which the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company claims will be the densest portable flash cards on the market.

Toshiba will release a 2.2-megapixel digital camera and a $4,499 digital projector Monday, the company said. The $279 PDR-M25 digital camera has a 3X optical zoom lens with an effective focal length of 38mm-114mm and a 3x digital zoom. Sony will also announce a 5-megapixel camera.