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3Com's Benhamou: Devices' focus will narrow

The firm's chief executive demonstrates products that he expects will stimulate demand for the company's networking gear during a speech at the Consumer Electronics Show.

LAS VEGAS--3Com chief executive Eric Benhamou joined the stable of high-tech executives here that are sharing their views on how consumers will be increasingly connected to each other via an ever-expanding array of gadgets.

At the Consumer Electronics Show, Benhamou promoted his company's vision of a "more-connected lifestyle," as he called it, a trend that is on the rise. A recent Yankee Group study suggests that the number of networked homes in the United States will mushroom from 650,000 in 1999 to 10 million by 2003.

What still isn't entirely clear after Benhamou's speech is how 3Com is See related newsmaker: Eric Benhamou going to prosper in this environment. To be sure, 3Com does supply a great deal of networking equipment that forms the infrastructure of a connected world, but that core business has been faltering of late.

Analysts say the success of its Palm Computing subsidiary has obscured problems at the networking firm. Once Palm is spun off as a separate company this year, 3Com will be left with a stagnating networking business that is growing at a much slower pace than the competition.

The answer to this problem from today's keynote would seem to be that 3Com wants to branch out more into the consumer electronics market.

Among the newfangled devices presented, Benhamou showed a new "intelligent" phone that makes calls via the Internet. A user of this phone could beam information from a Palm handheld to the phone that lets it know a user's preferences and frequently dialed numbers, among other uses.

For the most part, 3Com's ideas aren't different from other Jetson-like visions about the family of the future that are being demonstrated at CES this week.

Examples of the networked home include: Family members will be able to share schedules and communicate via a variety of wireless handheld and information appliances. Family members could videoconference with doctors to get diagnosis of health problems without leaving the home.

But unlike most other families touted in technology demos, Benhamou saddled his with some pathos, including the working mom who feels guilty about being on a business trip when she reads a message on her Palm Pilot about how her son is sick.

The smart phones are expected to go into field trials this spring, with the product available sometime after that. Benhamou suggested that the phones would likely be available from Internet service providers (ISPs) as well as application service providers (ASPs).

Also, another 3Com executive said that the company would come out with some sort of Internet appliance that would "represent a breakthrough in simplicity as it applies to the consumer market" when released later this year, though he offered no further details.

In terms of how the markets will develop, Benhamou said the good news is that for the most part there aren't any fundamental technological breakthroughs needed to enable an era where the majority of people are connected to a network of some kind.

"In just a few years, we are dealing in terms of billions and billions of connected consumers," said Benhamou. Connecting the next frontier--the home--is an integral part of 3Com's vision, he said.

There are a few matters that throw a wrinkle into the development of pervasive networking, Benhamou said. He said that more thought needs to be put into how the spread of technology will impact people's lives, and what changes it will have on society, statements not usually characteristic of most technology executives.

Being continuously connected to information will likely cause the human mind to function in ways fundamentally different from that of our forebears, Benhamou mused. With so much information at our fingertips, the ability to filter and synthesize information will be more important than analyzing data for patterns. This in turn will require that the nation teach its children differently so they can function well in a networked society.

Also, he warned that technology isn't a substitute for human relationships.

"It is tempting to believe that just because you are connected that you have good relationships," he said. Relationships need to be in place first before technology can help people live more efficiently. Also, he said, there is still a social responsibility to build a sense of community based on where we live, as well as to help bridge a growing "digital divide" between technology haves and have-nots.