Over 200 years ago, Samuel Johnson was asked his opinion of the Irish tourist attraction that they call the Giant's Causeway. Johnson opined that it was "worth seeing, but not worth going to see". That approximates my attitude to huge trade shows and expos, and in particular, Comdex in Las Vegas.
Who needs the stress of elbowing a path through thousands of people? There is no way in the world you could discover what you need to know in that ruck. To save you the attempt, I decided to try to identify the main trends from all the product introductions at this year's Comdex, and estimate how they will affect our corporate readers.
To start with, thin is definitely in. Prospective buyers of so-called thin clients were faced with numerous offerings at Comdex, ranging from Java stations and NetPCs to network computers and Windows-based terminals. Despite the "I love my PC" mantra chanted by Microsoft's Gates and Compaq's Pfeiffer, corporate buyers would welcome a cheaper alternative to full-blown PCs, because it would lower their total cost of ownership. The options seem plentiful yet it's a bit early to say which road is best. Microsoft demonstrated its "Hydra" software, which will let Windows NT Server 4.0 handle multiple users at the same time. But since it won't even ship until at least the middle of next year, I wouldn't get too excited about that particular route yet.
Handheld computers from vendors like HP, Compaq, NEC and Philips, based on Microsoft's Windows CE 2.0 operating system, were big at Comdex. These devices aim to steal the budding market that the popular PalmPilot from 3Com and IBM has created. Watch out for these handhelds. They are starting to find their way in the back door of many US companies. In addition to obvious security concerns, the immediate difficulty for CIOs and IT managers will be to keep track of them and get a grip on handheld purchasing before these things spread throughout the enterprise.
Voice and data integration was a hot topic at Comdex. Many people talked about how combining voice and data traffic over IP, Frame Relay or ATM networks can cut corporate telecommunications costs. One consultant calculated that a company with 10 sites and 30 to 40 users per site could recoup the cost of moving voice and fax transmission over to a data network within 12 months.
We're at the early stages here of a real trend. IDC tips that 11 per cent of voice calls will travel over packet-based networks by 2002, and medium to large companies will generate half that traffic. It's an option worth investigating for midsize companies with a handful of locations around the country or with international sites, as they might cut costs by using the data network to carry voice traffic.
Speech recognition was high on the agenda at Comdex, the technology appearing in a range of products, but mainly dictation gear. The three major players to create speech recognition engines are Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products (which Microsoft recently bought into), IBM, and Dragon Systems. All three support continuous speech recognition, which allows users to speak to their computers without having to pause between words, and cope with 140 words per minute at about 95 per cent accuracy.
There were 10,000 stories at this biggest of computer shows. These are just four of them, but I hope they've given you some food for thought.
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