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Tech conference highlights wireless mania

Europe's annual technology parade is ready to hit the streets of Germany, bringing with it further evidence that nothing is hotter than wireless gadgets.

Europe's annual technology parade is ready to hit the streets of Hannover, Germany, bringing with it further evidence that nothing is hotter than wireless gadgets.

One of the world's largest computer industry trade shows, CeBit, this year reflects a theme similar to many other computer trade shows: the growing importance of wireless Web access from portable devices and cell phones.

Officially launching tomorrow, this year's event will include a number of announcements regarding wireless services and devices. Companies involved in the space are looking to tap the growing desire of consumers or business travelers to surf while on the go.

Although centered in a slightly less glamorous locale than other technology shows--like Comdex in Las Vegas or PC Expo in New York--CeBit provides an international forum for companies to unveil new technologies. The overwhelming number of wireless announcements also underlines Europe's current lead in worldwide wireless technology and standards.

"Mobile is becoming so hot and is a mainstream part of the industry," Mobile Insights president Gerry Purdy said. He also noted that although the show's focus is not specifically on wireless technology, many companies use the theme as an opportunity to unveil new products.

"CeBit is probably the largest trade show in the world because it combines multiple industries: the computer and telecom industries. It's also the only public event in the wintertime to allow the sector to have an audience of vendors and press to see things in that part of the world," Purdy said.

This week, companies like Microsoft, Nokia, Palm, British Communications, Symbian and Siemens will present their latest wireless offerings.

Symbian, an alliance that includes Psion, Motorola, Sweden's Ericsson, Finland's Nokia and Japan's Matsushita, today unveiled the reference design for its wireless information device, code-named Quartz. The reference design details a pen-based device with a VGA display, but potential licensees will have the option to modify the design.

The design will support typical features like email, messaging, address book and a calendar, as well as Web browsing. Symbian executives added that the device will support the Bluetooth standard for wireless communications in addition to the Java programming language.

"Symbian's goal is to set standards and create a mass market for wireless information devices. We fundamentally believe, however, that one size does not fit all--hence our range of reference designs," Symbian chief executive Colly Myers said in a statement.

Psion and Motorola plan to develop products based on Symbian's design, the companies said.

British Telecommunications and Panasonic today announced plans to develop technology which would download digital music to cell phones--a combination of the two hottest consumer technologies today. An added feature includes the ability to buy music over the telephone and transfer the tunes to a home stereo, the companies added. Service trials will begin in the U.K. this year.

The companies are also working to develop handheld computers with color displays featuring email, Web browsing, options for a digital camera, and personal organizer capabilities, the companies said.

Yesterday, IBM, Lotus, Motorola, Nokia, Palm, Psion and Starfish Software announced that they have formed an initiative to ease communications between Net devices, cell phones and PCs.

The SyncML Initiative, as the group is called, is working on an XML-based technology designed to allow cell phone and PDA users to synch up their email, calendar, contact management information, and corporate information. Microsoft, a major player in the handheld space, did not join the group.

"Content is now richly available on the Internet, but how can you automate the process of getting it on the handset? All of these announcements are trying to facilitate that," Purdy said.

Yet the software giant has a few tricks up its own sleeve ready for the show. Tomorrow Microsoft plans to showcase a series of improvements to its Windows CE interface for its next product release, called the Pocket PC.

On the heels of Palm's release of new PalmPilots with color displays earlier this week, Microsoft's announcement is designed to generate momentum for its own Windows CE devices.

Microsoft, along with see related story: Microsoft's call for wirelesspartners Siemens and Casio, will be demonstrating a wireless device based on its Windows CE software at the show, as expected. The device, which was announced last year, is expected to offer digital music and video on a color display, as well as wireless email, Net access and cell phone capabilities.

Conference attendees won't find many distractions from this week's events on the streets of Hannover, much unlike the noisy, event-filled days at Comdex in Las Vegas.

Hannover, at a sunny 37 degrees today, is a somewhat unlikely site for such an important show, former attendees say. The city encourages visitors to book rooms with private residences--or hostels or campgrounds--when hotels book up.

And unlike the adult entertainment or big name acts technology companies routinely bring in for large shows, Hannover cultural events this week include the "Circus Flic Flac" and the opera Don Quixote.