Picking up pieces in a post-crash, post-PC world

With the specter of a weakening US economy hanging over the show, CeBIT was officially kicked off Thursday with vendor promises to help users manage and connect the dizzying array of computing devices available on the market today.

Vendors at the show -- who squabbled about the potential effects of the US slump on Europe -- are offering not only a range of hardware and applications but also services to connect mobile devices to back-end databases and management tools. With the heyday of the PC as the center of large trade shows over, and in the aftermath of a quarter where many vendors reported slackening sales, computer makers here are suggesting that they will find financial salvation in their ability to help users manage a fragmented computing environment.

Setting the tone for the show, Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Officer, Chairman and President Carly Fiorina spoke Wednesday, one day before show gates opened to the public, of the recent slump in US financial markets and earnings warnings that IT vendors have issued over the last several months.

"We are not optimistic that Europe will be immune from the economic slowdown or that there will be a quick recovery in the second half of 2001, as some had predicted," Fiorina said during a news conference. "During this downturn, we have seen revenue growth slow from 15 percent in 2000 to about 2 percent in the first quarter this year." HP is counting on new mobile devices -- and connectivity services linking users on the go with back-end information systems -- to attract users and revitalize sales.

For example, HP showed off two new Jornadas -- the Jornada 525 color unit and the Jornada 710, which offers a keyboard and wireless connectivity. The 525 is aimed at consumers, and is priced at US$429. The 710 comes with a keyboard and support for GSM (global system for mobile communications) and wireless LAN (local area network) connections, and is priced at $932. HP also plans to develop mobile connectivity services, which users will be able to access from Jornadas designed to slide into docking stations in cars.

European officials took exception to Fiorina's remarks, though the recipe for success with users -- connectivity technology -- was similar.

"We don't see evidence for the predictions made by Carly Fiorina in our figures so far," said Guy de Panafieu, president and chief executive officer of Groupe Bull SA, pointing to the fact the company's January order backlog was 16 percent over that of January 2000.

One of the company's main announcements was for the release of version 6.0 of its OpenMaster IT management software suite, aimed at ASPs (application service providers) and MSPs (managed service providers). The software -- available during the second quarter on the Windows NT and 2000, Solaris and AIX platforms -- is designed to provide IT managers with an overview of their networks' status. The new version comes with role-based management functions to control which administrators can see or manage differing parts of the network. Prices vary based on number of databases and servers being managed.

Management tools were in demand from users.

"I came looking for possible upgrades or a replacement for our network management and system management software," said Sami Holopainen, a development manager at Finnish IT and telecommunications services company Oy Dataie AB. "We switched from Sun (Microsystems's) software to Hewlett-Packard 's OpenView about a year ago. We looked at Sun again and also visited Cisco."

Management tools and services of all stripes are being announced at the show. With the idea that users will need services to bridge the technology gap among mobile phones that run on different standards, Worldcom said Thursday that it will start beta testing in the second quarter its GRX (GPRS roaming exchange) system. GRX is designed to make it easier for wireless networks using different technologies and maintained by different providers to exchange information -- key to delivering highly customized services to users.

Show-goers were treated to a wide range of new phones. Nokia, for example, announced GSM and GPRS (general packet radio service) phones. The dual band Nokia 3330, running on GSM 900/1800 networks, was released Wednesday. It weighs 133 grams, provides up to 4.5 hours of talk time and 260 hours of standby time, and supports WAP. Pricing was not immediately available, since it is set by different carriers who provide it to users.

Nokia also announced two other handsets, both integrating support for GPRS. The Nokia 8310, to be shipped in the third quarter, will be available in 169 different color combinations, and is targeted at consumers. The other GPRS handset, the Nokia 6310, is aimed at business users. To be released in the fourth quarter, it will include support for the Bluetooth personal area networking technology and SyncML, a protocol designed to simplify synchronization of contacts databases.

Bluetooth was much in evidence throughout the show with companies advertising compatibility with the wireless connectivity standard on devices from PDAs (personal digital assistants) to printers. Beyond new products, the 25,000 square meter Hall 13 has also been fitted out with 130 Bluetooth base stations in what organizers describe as the world's largest Bluetooth network.

Symbian Ltd. also played the connectivity theme in an announcement here Wednesday, when it displayed its operating system for GPRS devices and announced new partnerships. The new Symbian version 6.1 platform supports packet-based data transmission. It works with software developed by new partners Aether Systems., FusionOne., Pumatech, and Starfish Software. The software is designed to let users interconnect with corporate networks and other services.

CeBIT also put the spotlight on several partnerships matching up companies integrating content, hardware, and Internet services. For example, Microsoft and L.M. Ericsson Telephone Co. Thursday announced a device that will play Windows Media Audio (WMA) files over Ericsson's R520 handset. The prototype device, being here, lets the R520 play WMA files, as well as streaming Internet radio.

Microsoft also announced, with Netherlands-based KPNQwest NV, an agreement to launch Managed Exchange Services (MES) across 15 countries in Europe. Microsoft will supply software based on its .Net architecture to be delivered over KPNQwest's Application Infrastructure Provider (AIP) via its fiber-optic network.

Organizers of the show, running until next Wednesday, said 8,106 vendors from 60 countries registered for display space. They claim the show is the biggest IT business trade show in the world, and expect about 782,00 visitors. This compares, for example, to about 211,000 visitors at Comdex Fall 2000.

(This story is based on IDG News Service CeBIT reports by Ashlee Vance, Laura Rohde, Peter Sayer, Joris Evers and Doug Gray).

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