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Sanity check: The top developments in business technology from CES 2008

While CES is primarily a consumer technology event, many of the products and announcements at CES also have important implications for business and IT. I was at CES 2008 from start to finish and here's my list of the top developments.

While CES is primarily a consumer technology event, many of the products and announcements at the show also have important implications for business and IT. Here's my list of the top developments in business technology from CES 2008.

NETGEAR introduces one-touch wireless security

NETGEAR unveiled the new RangeMax Dual Band Wireless-N Router (WNDR3300) at CES. This router — which could provide a strong wireless solution for small businesses, remote offices, and home offices — has two innovative new features. First, it has eight antennas (while most wireless routers have only one to three antennas), and that gives it stronger signal strength and longer range.

Second, with its "Push 'N Connect" feature, it allows strong security settings while still making it easy for users to configure by simply holding down the blue NETGEAR button on the router. The light then starts blinking and users have a couple of minutes to do a one-click connect from client software (which NETGEAR says will soon be built into Windows Vista). To see it in action, take a look at the video clip CES 2008: NETGEAR Next Gen Wireless N router.

HP MediaSmart and MediaVault offer simplified storage

With Windows Home Server, Hewlett-Packard gets it. One of the primary markets for Windows Home Server is going to be small businesses because Home Server greatly simplifies file sharing, automatic backup, and storage management. When I spoke with HP at CES, they made it clear that they are marketing their HP MediaSmart Server for SOHOs and not just home media enthusiasts. IT professionals are already taking advantage of MediaSmart Servers — which cost $600 for 500 GB and $750 for 1 TB — for remote offices and dedicated backup for executives and employees who manage highly critical data. IT consultants can place these in offices and easily manage them remotely. Independent professionals who work from home can use MediaSmart Servers to get professional-level storage for under $1,000.

A related product that also featured prominently at CES was the HP Media Vault, a Linux-based storage server that is in the same type of case as the MediaSmart Server but is only half as tall because it has slots for two drives rather than four. Nevertheless, the Media Vault has some software features that make it smarter than just a NAS device, and the 500-GB version costs only $300.

Intel MID opens new possibilities in computing

Intel is trying to stimulate a new category in computing called the Mobile Internet Device (MID), which is a computer smaller than a laptop but larger than a smartphone. Intel is developing a chipset aimed at supporting these devices and has already lined up 15 publicly announced vendors who are creating a huge diversity of devices, from consumer-oriented media players that can also do text messaging and Web browsing to business devices aimed at road warriors and workers who don't sit at desks. At its CES booth, Intel showed off demo units of the different MIDs and said that most of these devices will hit the market during the first six months of 2008.

These are x86 devices that can run full-blown versions of Linux and Windows. They typically have 5- to 7 -inch screens and usually include full qwerty keyboards. The MID category also includes Ultra Mobile PCs (UMPCs). Intel is not the only company with a vision for this type of device. Nokia already has its N810 Internet Tablet on the market and Qualcomm is developing its "Snapdragon" platform, which will run Windows Mobile and Linux in a similar form factor.

My prediction is that these devices won't become mainstream until there is widespread mobile Internet access to power them. However, there's no denying the fact that the devices have a strong "wow factor" and users are drawn to them. I've tested several of these devices and whenever I pull them out — even in a high-tech crowd — I get lots of oohs and aahs and "what's that?" inquiries.

DisplayLink simplifies the multi-monitor option

While lots of users are clamoring for small screens with more computing power on the go, other users are looking to work on bigger screens and multiple monitors when they actually sit down at a desk. Unfortunately, using multiple monitors in Windows XP and Windows Vista can be a frustrating experience. The software often forgets your settings and preferences and you need third-party applications like UltraMon to get the kind of functionality you'd expect.

DisplayLink is a company that makes chips and software to greatly simplify the setup and configuration of multiple monitors. It essentially allows you to use USB to connect multiple monitors and eliminates the need to have a bunch of extra graphics cards in the PC. DisplayLink has partnered with Samsung and LG to build this technology into their displays, and it has also created dongles that can be used for other displays (including TVs) that don't yet have the technology included. I saw a DisplayLink demo that had six displays connected, including a large LCD TV and a digital picture frame, and the performance across the displays was very good, although it is currently limited to up to 1600x1200 resolution.

Because of all the headaches usually associated with configuring and reconfiguring multiple monitors, DisplayLink technology could be a boon to IT departments by making users with multiple monitors easier to manage and opening the door to support more multiple-monitor users. DisplayLink is also being built into several USB-based docking stations by vendors such as Kensington and Toshiba. This could be another asset to IT since standard docking stations are typically $300+, have to be special ordered, and have to be replaced when users switch laptops. A USB docking station with multi-monitor capability built in would be a much more manageable — and potentially more powerful — solution.

WiMAX drives into the real world

WiMAX had a strong presence at CES 2008, and not just in PowerPoint presentations and diagrams. I saw three separate demonstrations of WiMAX — one powered by Intel and Motorola at the Intel booth, one powered by Clearwire and Intel around the perimeter of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), and one powered by Xohm and Motorola at the Sprint Executive Briefing Center in the LVCC Monorail Station.

The most impressive demonstration was the ride I took in a Suburban, teched out by Intel with a variety of gadgets and connected to the Internet by Motorola base stations placed by Clearwire, which were stationed around the perimeter of the LVCC. The Suburban used WiMAX to get to the Internet and then had a Wi-Fi access point to connect multiple devices, so I brought my own laptop and surfed the Web while we drove. The experience was fairly seamless, with only a couple of instances of noticeable delays. In the speed tests I ran, I got about 2 Mbps down and about 1 Mbps up.

I also used two separate EVDO cards during CES 2008. My limited experience with WiMAX — which is equivalent to a beta at this point — was that WiMAX was a little faster and more consistent than what I got with EVDO. Thus, at CES, Mobile WiMAX definitely took some baby steps toward becoming a mass market reality.

HP Tablet PC includes touch-based interface

I've had mixed feelings about the Tablet PCs I have used in the past. I like the idea, but until there's consistent handwriting recognition I don't know how useful it will be to me. My other big beefs are that Tablet PCs are too expensive and they become virtually worthless if you don't have the magnetic pen. HP's latest foray into the Tablet PC addresses these last two issues.

On January 3 — the week before CES — HP officially released the Pavilion tx2000 Convertible Notebook. This convertible tablet retails for $1,300, serves as both a standard notebook and swivels into a tablet, and includes a touchscreen in addition to the pen computing functionality of standard tablets. The touchscreen is smart enough to turn itself off when you are using the pen so that any incidental brushing of the screen with your hand does not cause problems. I saw a tx2000 at CES and was impressed. TechRepublic will be getting a review unit and will do additional coverage of it.

The Pavilion tx2000 is loaded with Windows Vista Home Premium by default, but businesses could replace that with Vista Ultimate, Vista Business, or even Windows XP Tablet PC Edition.

Which of these technologies are most exciting to you? Did you hear anything else about CES that you think should be on this list? Join the discussion.

For additional photos of these products and technologies in action and to get a look at some of the other stuff I liked at CES, see my gallery Jason Hiner's photo tour of CES 2008. To read more of TechRepublic's CES coverage, see our Special Report on CES 2008. And for a complete roundup of the show, see the video CES 2008's major tech trends, product hits, and show misses.

About Jason Hiner

Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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