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Nifty gadgets brighten hope for an upturn

Posted: 13 Jan 2003 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Consumer Electronics Show? electronics? Panasonic? Sony? Microsoft?

It 'rained' in the desert resort town of Las Vegas, Nevada as the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) prepared to open its doors. Just as unexpected and refreshing, a handful of announcements revived hope of innovations that could help drive an upturn in electronics, though probably not this year.

A host of digital gadgets, a rising tide of consumer networks, and the advent of new service concepts reminded show goers the industry has plenty of potential on the horizon, even though no one product stood out as a killer app and the immediate future still looks overcast at best.

In handhelds, Panasonic showed the Japanese knack for miniaturization at its best with a family of palm-sized recorders based on SD flash cards that can take pictures, record voice or playback MP3 or video files. The model SV-AV10 sports a 2-inch LCD and will sell for $399 with a 64MB SD card.

Sony announced a version of its Clie handheld based on the Palm OS that integrates a 2-Mpixel camera while Garmin International Inc. integrated its global positioning satellite hardware and software into a Palm OS handheld.

For its part, Microsoft demonstrated a video, picture and audio player it called Media2Go. The handheld has a 4-inch screen and a 20GB hard disk and will ship this fall from companies including Samsung, Sanyo and Viewsonic.

Networked systems

One overriding theme for many consumer companies is the move to networked systems.

Panasonic promised to begin releasing a series of networked AV home systems in its 2004 fiscal year. Paul Liao, Panasonic's chief technologist in the U.S., said it remains a challenge to find ways to build the value of networking into consumer devices when their prices are falling so quickly.

Nevertheless, most consumer executives said networking systems remains a top goal. "The real key to the future is a seamless network that is neither IT- nor AV-centric," said Fujio Nishida, CEO of Sony Electronics Inc.

Following the trend, Pioneer announced its first networked home consumer system - a digital library to store and send music, photos and video using an Ethernet network.

Another hopeful theme from CES is that digital television could finally be poised to take off.

Sony and Pioneer pledged to release cable-ready digital TV receivers as early as September based on a recent agreement allowing consumer electronics companies to build cable tuners into their TV receivers. A spokesman for Zenith Electronics said the launch this spring of high-definition versions of ESPN and the Discovery Channel will bolster the uptake for cable-ready DTV sets Zenith will release within 18 months.

Two new service concepts emerged at CES that held out hopes for emerging markets at the high and low end.

Virtual community

Startup There Inc. debuted a beta 3D virtual community where users could create their own characters, meet others, play games, shop and more. The service is based on object-oriented code running in a 100-system distributed server farm hosted by AboveNet. The startup will provide a C++ interface this spring to let experienced individual programmers develop objects in the online world and work with a handful of professional developers later this year to extend the online world based on the company's application programming interface.

While other virtual communities such as Black Sun have failed to take off, There has recruited graphics chipmaker ATI Technologies Inc. as a marketing partner in its effort. ATI will bundle the 60MB of There's client code in its retail graphics cards this fall when the service goes commercial and There will provide ATI's cards free to some subscribers to its service.

"This is the most important use of computers and communications. It gives us access to what could be the first mass market for 3D graphics," said David Rolston, vice president of engineering for ATI.

Tom Melcher, CEO of There, said online 3D communities like There could stimulate slack demand for high-end PCs. At the low end of the service spectrum, Microsoft detailed an initiative to create smart watches that display information broadcast over an FM subcarrier band. Microsoft's Smart Personal Object Technology (Spot) initiative is initially focused on creating watches that use a 28MHz ARM9 processor and RF receiver from National Semiconductor to capture and display simple weather, news, sports, and traffic data.

Citizen, Fossil and Suunto will make the watches, which are expected to ship this fall. The watches will include 512KB of ROM and 384KB of RAM.

"This is four times the speed and eight times the memory of the original IBM PC," Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said in announcing the Spot initiative in a CES keynote. Ultimately, users could subscribe to a range of custom and local services for broadcast to Spot devices that might include kitchen magnets displaying reminders from local schools or restaurants or messages sent from PC users, Gates said.

Gates was clearly in a buoyant mood in the keynote, reporting that Microsoft has sold more than 90 million copies of WindowsXP in just over a year and joking about his past legal troubles with the U.S. antitrust case as well as past market disasters like the Microsoft Bob interface launched at CES several years ago.

Though the malaise of the dot-com bust still hangs over the industry, technology keeps advancing and better days are ahead, Gates told a packed house at the Las Vegas Hilton Theatre. Smart devices and smart services - some of them emerging at this CES - will drive the industry forward, he predicted.

- Rick Merritt

EE Times

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