The week in review: Slugfest at Comdex

PC manufacturers, software developers and consumer electronics companies gathered at the trade show to show off their new products, discuss the economic outlook for 2001, and pass out a lot of key chains.

Steven Musil Night Editor / News
Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
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Steven Musil
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Hardware hummed, business cards flew, and heady companies took healthy competitive jabs at each other during the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas this week.

The 20-year-old convention saw a return of the computing giants after an extended absence, as well as the usual posturing on the exhibition floor and keynote stages. This year, a familiar war of words developed early among some of technology's biggest and boldest.

Microsoft chief executive Steve Comdex 2000:
Back to the future Ballmer once again castigated archrival Larry Ellison, CEO of database giant Oracle, for his views on the future of computing technology. Ellison responded by deriding Microsoft's software as too complex and once again predicting the demise of PCs.

In arguing for simplicity in computing, Ellison announced that Oracle and Compaq Computer plan to release an appliance that companies can use to speed the delivery of Web sites. The product is part of a family of Oracle appliances that have built-in software, a processor and an operating system--basically an all-in-one product aimed at rendering the Windows 2000 business operating system unnecessary.

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, however, isn't convinced that the PC is on its last legs. The chief software architect started the show by outlining future hardware and software that take advantage of the full power of today's desktop computers. He argued that even sleek portables need the power of a desktop PC.

Dell Computer chief executive Michael Dell said that concentrating on its core business--selling PCs and laptops--has kept the company strong. Yet Dell acknowledged that the market's more pessimistic climate has affected his company.

Punches and products
The race between Palm and Microsoft's Pocket PC remains far from over, although both sides did their best to paint the other as ill-suited to direct the future of handheld computing. One panelist during the Comdex trade show called the Pocket PC a BMW, a luxury item, compared with Palm's economy Volkswagen.

Transmeta and Intel will slug it out next year with a slew of low-powered chips for notebooks. Transmeta plans to release version 4.2 of its code-morphing software that significantly reduces processor power consumption. Transmeta also will come out with an entirely new version of Crusoe in 2002.

Intel, meanwhile, showcased a prototype of an IBM ThinkPad notebook that uses an ultra-low-power Pentium III. The chip will come out in the middle of next year, although IBM has not committed to a notebook using this chip.

In related news, IBM explained that it suspended plans to use Transmeta's low-power chip in notebooks because the chip didn't provide real gains in battery performance. "We found that we didn't get a quantum leap in battery performance," a high-level executive said. "The (energy) savings at a system level were comparable" to a notebook containing a similar chip from Intel.

Can't we all get along?
The marriage of mobile phones and personal digital assistants will occur rapidly if manufacturers have anything to say about it. Hewlett-Packard, Ericsson, Motorola and others showed off upcoming products and prototypes of devices that will integrate cellular capabilities into handhelds or vice versa.

HP and Casio announced hardware designed to allow their respective Pocket PC handhelds to act as cellular phones.

Intel is negotiating to license elements of the technology for its new Pentium 4 processor to chipset manufacturers to ensure a smoother supply of the necessary parts. If such deals are struck, it would likely give PC makers an opportunity to build Pentium 4 PCs with Double Data Rate DRAM, rather than more expensive Rambus memory, in the first half of next year.

Compaq is creating hardware that will allow consumers to access the wireless Web more easily. In the second quarter of next year, Compaq will release notebooks with a feature called Multiport, which will let people slide integrated wireless modems or other devices onto the back of the screen.

It's a wireless world
One of the more ambitious wireless plans at Comdex came from an unlikely source: Boeing. The airplane manufacturer used the show to demonstrate its plans to bring high-speed Internet access to the skies. Boeing promises to deliver Internet access, along with live television, via satellite to commercial jets beginning next year.

Delivering on its promise to connect its older handhelds to the wireless Internet, Palm is shipping a $40 kit that allows Palm III, Palm V and m100 handhelds to connect to the Internet by using a cell phone as a wireless modem. Palm also showed off a revamped Palm.net portal, dubbed MyPalm, that will allow users of Palm VII and Palm VIIx wireless handhelds to surf the Web, schedule meetings and access standard POP3 email accounts, the kind used by most dial-up Internet service providers.

OmniSky unveiled new services and products for handhelds including Palm, Handspring Visor and Pocket PC personal digital assistants. The provider of wireless Internet access cut a deal putting its services for Palm and Handspring handhelds in 625 Staples stores. The deal extends OmniSky's reach into retail, where it also sells its service at CompUSA and Fry's Electronics, among others.

Checking out
Online grocer Streamline.com is phasing out its operations and will stop its service Nov. 22. The online grocer's management held some hope that the company could find investors or strategic partners to remain afloat or sell its remaining operations. The efforts, the company said, have fallen flat in light of current conditions on the financial markets for business-to-consumer Internet companies.

ShopLink.com, a regional online store that served New York and three New England states, posted a message on the site's front door notifying customers that the company had ceased operations.

Garden.com is closing its consumer business and will begin liquidating its assets. The company is considering "strategic alternatives" for its recently formed business division, Trellis, designed to showcase the company's software. The closure comes after Garden.com, which sells gardening products online, has searched for new investors, a possible merger partner or a buyer.

Also of note
The agency that controls the Internet address system, ICANN, carved out more real estate in cyberspace and adopted seven new domain name suffixes: ".biz," ".aero," ".name," ".coop," ".info," ".pro" and ".museum."...MP3.com agreed to pay $53.4 million to end its copyright infringement suit with Seagram's Universal Music Group...More than two and a half years after unveiling its source code to the world, Netscape Communications released its browser version 6.