COMDEX: Mobility, free slacks steal the show

As the first official day of Comdex Fall 2001 wound down Monday afternoon, the chit-chat among attendees waiting in the winding taxi lines to escape the Las Vegas convention center focused on two things: mobility and productivity.

As immobile as the attendees may have been at the time, visions of 802.11b wireless networking were dancing in their heads, just as Microsoft Corp.'s floating Windows XP commercials had them wishing they could just fly back to their hotels instead of wait for a cab.

Wireless products and the convenience of wireless networking grabbed the attention of attendees looking for tools to increase their business productivity, and were strong themes in keynote addresses given by Microsoft Chief Software Architect Bill Gates [cq], Sony Corp. President and Chief Operating Officer Kunitake Ando [cq], Cisco Sytems Inc. President and Chief Executive Officer John Chambers, and Nokia Corp. President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Jorma Ollila.

Gates kicked off the show Sunday night, showing off prototypes of the company's forthcoming Tablet PC and promising that the device would soon knock traditional PCs off the shelves with its heightened productivity and ease of use. He also predicted that wireless networking, advanced PCs and next-generation set-top boxes would come together to connect to the Internet and take advantage of Web-based services.

As for fun and games, Gates also showed off Microsoft's new XBox video game console, set to launch Thursday. The XBox consoles garnered rapt attention by some attendees on the exhibition floor, although the lines at the computers set up for attendees to check e-mail were four times as long.

And that was just the point that Cisco's Chambers made Monday morning: "It's all about productivity, productivity, productivity."

To that end, Chambers touted wireless LANs, wireless Internet cards and networked everything as a competitive advantage for companies that want to stay alive in a tough market. Cisco on Monday also announced a strategic partnership with IBM Corp. to offer high-speed Internet access to enterprises and public venues, including hotels and convention centers.

Not to be left off of the networking bandwagon, Sony's Ando predicted in his keynote Monday that wireless network connections will become a standard feature for all of Sony's future electronic devices. Just to show he meant business, Ando announced new partnerships with AOL Time Warner Inc. and Nokia Corp. to improve connectivity among consumer electronic devices and to make home networking easier.

All this talk of mobility and networking seemed to sit well with Comdex attendees who were looking for technology that fits their tightened budgets.

Charles Pelz [cq], president of jewelry company Pelz Inc. said that he came to Comdex to look around see what essential technologies could help his business.

"I'm looking into e-commerce and networking tools," Pelz said.

Pelz wasn't alone when it came to practicality. Many attendees, faced with a global economic downturn and heightened security concerns after the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S., skipped the fun and flash to get down to business, buying PDAs (personal digital assistants) for work and checking out nifty new phones.

In another sign of the times, tightened security at the convention center meant that taxi lines weren't the only place where attendees were queueing up. Metal detectors and security dogs lined the entry ways, slowing down the crowds as they filtered in.

Once inside, however, there was more room to breathe than in past years given that attendance was lower. And attendees seemed to enjoy it.

"It's good that Comdex is smaller this year," said Scott Rich [cq], IS director for Washington University. "I can move through the show more quickly."

And as much as Comdex is focusing on mobility this year, the current economic client and attendees' concern with practicality seems to have brought attendees back to the basics.

Take last night's Mobile Focus exhibit as an example: While Motorola Inc. had lined up five of its chic Java cell phones to woo attendees, its booth remained nearly empty while the adjacent booth giving out free Dockers slacks was jam-packed.

At least, one attendee quipped, they didn't lose their shirts.

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