3Com chief urges caution ahead

Listening to Eric Benhamou talk about the converged, digital future, you wonder sometimes whether he wants it to happen at all.

The 3Com chairman and CEO injected a dose of caution into his keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Show yesterday. At the same time, he promised a smart telephone and other new consumer products from 3Com later this year that should take us further into the fully networked world.

Little research has been done about how access to almost unlimited information anywhere, any time will affect the human mind, Benhamou warned. Humans traditionally have learned to make decisions based on limited information; suddenly we must learn to cope with the deluge of facts offered by the Internet.

The digital divide is another hurdle that must be overcome on the way to progress, he said. The rich have far greater access to information technology than the poor, just as whites are further along the digital path than blacks.

"It's a gap of access as well as skills," Benhamou said. "It's hard to envision a harmonious society when you have such a big gap."

While companies like America Online and eBay boast of the virtual communities they have created, cellular phone users pass in the street without acknowledging each other's presence.

"Good relationships and good connectivity are not substitutes for each other, in fact it's quite the opposite. The relationships must pre-exist," he said.

Benhamou's speech brought a dose of much-needed realism to a show that is wall-to-wall with connected appliances, digital services and the promise of a better future. 3Com and its competitors are engaged in programs with schools and city governments to address the problems that may lie ahead, he said.

Meanwhile, 3Com is going full steam ahead to make the digital, converged future happen.

The company will begin field trials next quarter of a new telephone that uses the Internet and wireless technologies to make possible new services and capabilities, Benhamou said. Most notably, a user could point a Palm computer at one of the telephones installed in a public place and "beam" his personal information to the telephone, including telephone numbers and other caller preferences.

The phone uses a technology called SIP (Session Initiation Protocol). SIP could have as profound an effect on telephone use as the HTTP protocol has had on the Internet, Benhamou said. 3Com's phones are being tested currently by "major service providers," and will be released when they have proven themselves reliable enough, he said.

3Com later this year will release another Internet appliance aimed at the consumer market, according to a 3Com engineer who joined Benhamou on stage. He wouldn't disclose any details, but said it will be comparable to the Palm computer in terms of its simplicity and impact on consumers.

Benhamou noted several shortcomings in the current computing experience. Before the digital home of the future is realised computers will have to become much easier to use and much more reliable, he said -- "not things our industry is well known for."

This became painfully clear when Benhamou tried to demonstrate a 3Com digital camera, which plugs into a PC and is supposed to let two people communicate face-to-face over the Internet. The camera failed to work on the first try, leaving Benhamou fumbling for words for a few awkward moments.

"As you can see, we're not there yet," Benhamou said later in his speech. "Throw in a few software crashes, hardware bugs, a few hours on hold to technical support and this starts to throw a few wrinkles into your connected lifestyle. But you should take my word for it, we can work this out."

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