For most of the ’80s and ’90s, COMDEX was THE computer show of the year. Held in mid-November in Las Vegas, COMDEX was the place for technology buyers to see all of the new hardware and software products that would shape the industry for the next 12 to 18 months.

But COMDEX has now become the graveyard of computer shows as companies like Microsoft, Oracle, and IBM/Lotus found it more valuable to combine their product releases with training and support opportunities and offer their own shows. Microsoft uses their TechEd, Fusion, and Professional Developers Conference to announce new initiatives. IBM/Lotus has their annual LotuSphere conference.

But the vendor-specific conferences left a big hole for hardware-based, cross-company technology initiatives. Interestingly, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in early January has become the preeminent show for the introduction of new hardware trends. The technologies that show up in the aisles of CES will make their way into homes and businesses during the next year.

Often, the real news at the show isn’t the product itself but the company that is introducing it and what it signals about their future. At CES this year, I found three interesting technologies that will directly or indirectly impact businesses in 2001.

Intel’s serious consumer push
Intel’s introduction of their commercial MP3 player is their first serious foray into the consumer electronics space with a finished product. Intel has been practicing with the consumer market by selling Internet cameras and toy microscopes that connect to the computer, but the MP3 player is the first product that will be widely accepted by the general market.

The MP3 player’s introduction signals Intel’s attempt to find growth areas in order for its stock price to hold its value. They’ve gone as far as they can in the systems market by offering complete systems that small computer distributors can label and distribute as their own. Intel’s introduction of this new product puts them squarely in competition with their largest customers (Dell, Gateway, Compaq, and others) at the low end of the computer market.

The release of the MP3 player virtually guarantees that other consumer-product manufacturers that are producing their own MP3 players will look to suppliers other than Intel for processors, memory, and other technology.

It’s interesting technology news because Intel’s inclusion of 128 MB of standard compact flash memory in the player will serve to increase demand and drive down the price of compact flash technology. This is good news for businesses that need the technology for cameras, voice recorders, and other technology dependent on high-speed, small, form-factor memory systems.

Bluetooth’s wireless wonder
CES was truly the “coming-out party” for Bluetooth technology in both the consumer and the business space.

Bluetooth technology allows companies to develop devices that take advantage of the wireless Personal Area Network (PAN). (Think about any two electronic devices that have a 15-foot or shorter cable between them—that cable can be replaced by Bluetooth technology.)

For example, one company at CES showed a Windows CE device that contained cell phone technology with a Bluetooth-enabled wireless headset. As long as the user is within 15 feet of the CE device, the user can speak a name into the lightweight headset and the CE device will place the call to that person, enter the call into the outbound phone log, and upon command, make an MP3 recording of the conversation.

Bluetooth-enabled PDAs will also be able to synchronize with PCs as long as the user comes within range. Bluetooth-enabled laptop computers can connect to a printer, a shared modem or connection, or other laptops at a high data rate. By the middle of next year, I expect to see laptops with both Bluetooth technology and 802.11b wireless LAN technology installed as a standard feature.

(Note: CIOs should start looking at how wireless PANs and LANs will change the way that offices are laid out and the impact on their workers’ productivity by allowing more flexible work areas.)

Taking the movies out with you
New media storage technologies, also introduced at CES, will change the way businesses view content distribution and the way they equip their employees for some common tasks.

Panasonic showed off their use of this technology with their new $999 DVD recorder. These devices, previously available from Pioneer for more than $4,000, allow home video enthusiasts and business video production departments to burn their own DVDs for around $25 each. By the end of the year, the costs for the drives and the DVDs themselves should go under $500 and $5 respectively, allowing for DVDs to replace videotape as the most common distribution platform for personal or corporate video.

Expect to see combined DVD/CD reader/burners as standard equipment on desktop PCs by the end of the year. By midsummer, you should see external FireWire versions of these combo devices for less than $750.

Another CES exhibitor showed off a 500-MB recording device small enough to fit into most MP3 players and easily added to PCs with a PCMCIA slot. The media is about the size of a quarter, with access times similar to a 5400RPM hard drive. A look around the CES floor confirmed that this year, we will see another record increase in the amount of storing bits/square inch and a decrease in the cost.

By the end of the year, many companies will be looking at video first—instead of last—as a viable presentation and learning option. Not because of the cost and availability of high-speed Internet connections but because of the rapidly reduced cost of distributing high-capacity media. This could be the year that video replaces images in those dreary PowerPoint presentations!
Were there other technologies at the Consumer Electronics Show that you anticipate seeing in your office this year? Tell us about them by starting a discussion below.