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More PC makers bypass main Comdex events

The largest computer industry trade show kicks off next week in Las Vegas, but actual computers might be somewhat hard to find.

The largest computer industry trade show kicks off next week in Las Vegas, but actual computers might be somewhat hard to find.

At this year's Comdex, the show floor Comdex: Closing the millennium will be crammed with companies and industry groups talking about the post-PC era, laying out a vision of TV set-top boxes, smart cell phones, handheld devices and palm-size computers, all connected to the Internet and each other without the help of wires. Even the new computers set to be unveiled next week will be dressed up to resemble so-called Internet appliances.

Tech companies are betting big on gadgets and devices, but despite the hype, it's an untested market, and it remains to be seen which of the "next big thing" gizmos being shown this year will make it into stores next year.

Comdex is traditionally the largest computer industry trade show of the year, but its draw as the biggest of the big is losing some luster as attendance declines, big PC companies stay away and technology and company-specific trade shows proliferate. Rather than announce new products and services at Comdex, many large companies now stage their own events.

The focus of the huge trade show has noticeably shifted, say long-time attendees, not only reflecting the industry's new interest in single-purpose devices, but also the traditional PC companies' growing lack of interest in blowing their marketing budget on the event.

For the second year in a row, IBM, Dell Computer, Intel and AMD will be absent from the show floor, while relative newcomers to the PC world, such as Emachines, will also eschew the crowded main showroom and have made alternate arrangements in nearby hotels.

"Everything's becoming a consumer appliance, so what's the point of a computer show?" said Will Nelson, editor of Smaller.com, an online resource for gadget and device news, adding that this year's show will highlight home networks, cell phones and products geared at individual, rather than corporate buyers.

In what's becoming a Comdex tradition, Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates will kick off the show Sunday night with a highly anticipated keynote address. It will be the highest-profile stage for Gates since U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson issued his scathing findings of fact last week in the landmark antitrust trial.

The show revs up in earnest Monday, where PC booths will compete with traditional consumer electronics companies for the attention of an expected 200,000 attendees. Sony, for example, is expected to show off its upcoming portable MP3 player, along with other devices using the consumer electronics giant's Memory Stick data storage technology.

In addition to MP3, Sony chairman Nobuyuki Idei, accompanied by an unknown rock star, will demonstrate the PlayStation II game console during his keynote address. Offering Internet connectivity, in addition to high-quality graphics, the next-generation gaming console is widely considered the centerpiece of Sony's home networking strategy.

PC companies Gateway, Compaq Computer and HP will all be showing off their recently announced scaled-down PCs, featuring sleeker designs with closed-cases. Other non-traditional computers, such as those featuring Barbie and Hot Wheels logos for kids, are also expected to garner attention.

Wireless services start-up OpenSky will relaunch as OmniSky and unveil a new wireless service for users of Palm Computing's Palm V handheld device, sources say. Palm offers a similar service of its own for its Palm VII device. The service will eventually be expanded to work with Microsoft's Windows operating systems as well.

Microsoft emphasizing devices
Even Microsoft, which achieved its apparent monopoly by dominating the software market, is jumping on the device bandwagon. Although the company will be hyping Windows 2000, its upcoming corporate operating system, the company will spend equal time promoting its gadget-centric products.

"At the high level, I think this is really the first Comdex that ushers in the start of the 'PC plus' era in a big way," Brian Shafer, a product manager at Microsoft, said in an email, predicting that wireless and home networking products and services will take center stage.

Dell will not have a booth, but it will be demonstrating PCs in the Rambus booth. Rambus is the much-anticipated, much-delayed, next-generation memory that is just now beginning to emerge in PCs.

Intel products and advertising will also likely be everywhere, although there will again not be a booth full of Intel representatives talking to bystanders.

On Monday, Microsoft is expected to unveil its recently-announced MSN Web Companion, a reference design for a scaled-down Internet appliance running on its Windows CE operating system. The software giant will also be hyping palm-size and handheld computers running on Windows CE.

"The standard PC business is healthy," Shafer continued. One positive sign for PCs: Intel is releasing its much-awaited 820 chipset, which comes with a larger 133-MHz bus.

But like last year, the show will be as much about what happens off the show floor as what occurs inside the convention center.

Comdex not for everybody
Many major PC companies will not have booths at the show. Rather, these companies are renting conference rooms and hotel suites where they will ply computer analysts and press with deli sandwiches and visions of the future.

It's not only the PC companies that are sitting on the sidelines this year: even hot gadget maker Handspring is forgoing the traditional booth to show off its popular Visor device at an event on Sunday night.

The floor has become increasingly unpopular, say show veterans, because of the minimal return on the huge costs of investing in the floor displays, booths and entertainment. "It's a whole hell of a lot of money," said one source, explaining that a large staffed booth with live entertainment can easily cost a company over $1 million by the end of the week.

"Return on investment," is why Compaq will not be a presence on the show floor. Instead, Compaq will hold separate events to show off its mobile technology and new iPaq computer and an upcoming Internet appliance.

Although companies have been pulling back on their presence on the show floor for the past few years, the movement accelerated last year with the withdrawal of IBM, Intel, and AMD.

Star power at Comdex
But some companies will still go all out to make a splash. In addition to the unnamed big act accompanying Sony's CEO in his keynote, Xerox's CEO G. Richard Thoman will feature the J. Peterman character from Seinfeld in his keynote, while stand-up comedians Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon are scheduled to make cameos in Novell chairman Eric Schmidt's speech.

After hours, the B-52's will once again entertain party-goers, while trade show entertainment circuit regulars The Commodores will play at the Micrografx chili cook-off. And Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft will be showing a sneak preview of the new James Bond movie, which features HP's Jornada palm-size PC running on Windows CE.

Separate pavilions have been set up on the show floor to promote Linux, information and digital appliances, USB, and Bluetooth, a wireless connectivity standard.

News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.