Don't Trash Your Computer Just Yet . . . ; Our Intrepid Reporter Attends the Computer Industry's Largest Trade

Article excerpt

Going to Comdex, the annual convention geared to the computer industry, is like stepping through a tear in the time-space continuum and visiting another reality (never mind that the convention is always held in Las Vegas, a city that is itself a surreal experience).

At Comdex, companies and individuals are always talking about the future in terms of today, trying to convince attendees - particularly the media and corporate buyers - that the dazzling technologies on display in aisle after aisle are not just toys, but necessities for the way that we will live in the 21st century.

This year, that vision of tomorrow, in the shape of Internet devices or appliances, came into direct conflict with the current dominant technology, the personal computer. Keynote speakers either painted a picture of a world where PCs had vanished and been replaced by smaller, simpler Internet devices that performed tasks in the house and at the office, or they spoke of a world where the PC remained the hub of the technology universe, but worked hand in hand with these Internet devices.

Often the conflict was not friendly. Often the target was Microsoft, the master of the PC universe.

Representatives from companies like Sun Microsystems and Novell Networks, and followers of the open-source movement, who make operating specifications open to all (represented in technologies like Linux and Bluetooth), took every possible opportunity to attack Microsoft.

Meanwhile, executives from Microsoft continued to defend their company, insisting that they would ultimately triumph in their legal battle with the Department of Justice. They even brought their own team of lobbyists, who set up a booth in the enormous Microsoft pavilion, passing out information on why Microsoft should be free to do what it wants to with its software.

In other words, hype and bombast were in great supply at Comdex. And one of the tasks of anyone who attended was to separate the wheat from the chaff - the also-rans from the next "new new" thing.

A world without cables

For all their disagreements, one thing both camps agreed on was that the new world of technology will be wireless. Wireless technology will be found everywhere, from the new digital phones that surf the Web created by companies like Ericsson and Nokia, to the DSL (digital subscriber line) house envisioned by the engineers at 3Com, where a DSL transmitter will sit in the attic of every household and turn the entire living space into an Internet-ready area. DSL relies on the regular copper wiring that most phone companies use. Only DSL uses a higher frequency on the copper wire than regular phone calls use. That's why you can get both Internet and regular phone service out of one line.

One of the more interesting new technologies that could be used to create this wireless world is Bluetooth. Named for a warrior who united the clans in ancient Denmark, Bluetooth is the code name for a technology specification for low-cost, short-range radio links between mobile PCs, mobile phones, and other portable devices. With a broadcast range of 8 to 10 feet, Bluetooth will enable users of portable and desktop computers and communication devices to share information without using cables.

For example, imagine you're reading your e-mail on your new digital cell phone. You find one particularly important message, and using Bluetooth, transfer it to your Palm Pilot. Once you're home, you want to keep a more permanent record of the e-mail, so you beam it into your desktop. And not a connecting cord in sight.

Bluetooth wants to create a world where all computing and Internet devices merrily chat back and forth. But like all utopias there is a potential flaw. Actually, two flaws.

One problem is the familiar open source versus Microsoft rift. Developed originally by Intel, IBM, Nokia, Toshiba, and Ericsson, Bluetooth is an open-source technology. …