The COMDEX 2003 trade show was much smaller than previous editions--50,000 attendees versus 125,000 last year and more than 250,000 at its zenith--but the downsizing was partially by design, as the show's owners decided to drop all non-IT-related companies and ensure that the attendees were all in the business. The cutback was a welcome change, with a dramatically smaller show floor and much smaller crowds to wade through. However, some of the most exciting stuff at COMDEX couldn't even be seen at the show itself. Many large companies held private meetings in offsite hotel suites and conference rooms. From my perspective, COMDEX 2003 was as busy as ever--a 2-1/2 day marathon of back-to-back meetings that was both tiring and rewarding. Here are some IT-related observations from the show.
No Tech Recovery in Sight
If anything was made clear at COMDEX 2003, it was that no tech recovery is looming. As Dell CEO Michael Dell has noted several times, the companies that sell large volumes of products to enterprises, such as Dell, HP, and IBM, have seen no evidence of increased IT spending, and any rumors to the contrary should be taken with a grain of salt. Dell continues to do well primarily because the company has diversified into other product lines at the right time and brought its legendary cost-cutting acumen to those markets, lowering competitors' prices as well. In short, now is a good time to buy, but few companies are taking the bait, at least so far.
The keynote address by Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates is always the big event at COMDEX, although I'm beginning to wonder why, as Gates is a boring speaker with little stage presence. In any event, Microsoft's message of "seamless computing" was more interesting than Gates was. Basically, the message means that the PC will more effortlessly bring together people and companies. I think a more important message, frankly, is safer computing technologies. Microsoft was pushing its security work at COMDEX too, but talk is cheap. I think most customers want to see Microsoft "shut up and put up."
Microsoft SmartScreen Antispam Technology and Exchange Message Filtering Technology
As I discussed last week, Microsoft is revving its SmartScreen antispam technology for inclusion in a Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 add-on due in early 2004. The company also introduced Microsoft Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server 2004, also due next year, which, when combined with Exchange 2003 and Microsoft Office Outlook 2003, provides an interesting three-tier protective ring for Microsoft-oriented shops. Microsoft didn't explicitly explain it this way, but if I'm not mistaken, ISA 2004's new HTTP filtering capabilities will also overcome the security problems associated with accessing Exchange 2003 through Outlook 2003's new HTTP capabilities. This enhancement is helpful only if you've opted for the full Microsoft solution.
Microsoft also verified that SmartScreen is similar, but superior, to the Bayesian email-filtering technologies I've supported, and the company reported that it has several patents to back up that claim. Basically, SmartScreen is based on machine learning, in which the filters improve with experience and learn what is and isn't spam. Not coincidentally, Microsoft's Hotmail servers have provided the company with an unprecedented amount of sample email with which to work.
Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2004
I covered this product last week, but having spent some time with the revision and the new hardware that PC makers are now shipping, I can honestly report for the first time that the Tablet PC has a promising future. The second-generation Tablet PC devices represent the next wave of notebook computers with powerful Pentium M processors and about twice the battery life of equivalent first-generation machines. If you've held off from purchasing a Tablet PC, it's time to look at the new generation. Accept nothing less than a Pentium M processor, and all will be well: Best of all, the upgrade to Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2004, due in early 2004, is free to all Tablet PC users, so you have no reason to wait.
Windows Mobile 2003 and Smartphone 2003
I spent most of my time at COMDEX with the Windows Mobile folks, complaining about limitations in the current generation of Pocket PC/ActiveSync software. I'm planning to provide feedback to the team in an email message, so if you'd like to contribute, drop me an email message and I'll forward it along.
I did uncover some news about Microsoft's software for smart cell phones, dubbed Windows Mobile 2003 for Smartphone. You might be familiar with the sudden influx of Smartphone devices, a trend that will amplify over the next 12 months. What's curious is that most of these devices, in the short term, will run the previous OS version, Smartphone 2002, and not the latest release, Smartphone 2003. Clearly, the cell phone market is on a different schedule than the PC industry.
Fortunately, from an end-user perspective, there isn't a big difference between the two software releases. Basically, Smartphone 2003 adds native Bluetooth support and an integrated Windows .NET Compact Framework, both of which might have huge implications for corporate customers. But if you're looking for a Smartphone device and don't need either of these features, the software is otherwise identical.
Voice Command for Pocket PC 2003
Speaking of Windows Mobile 2003, Microsoft was also touting its new Voice Command software, which runs on Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PC and Pocket PC Phone Edition and will be ported to Smartphone 2003 by early 2004. This software is particularly exciting for anyone who needs to access data on their Windows-powered portable device while performing other tasks such as walking or driving. The software adds voice command and feedback to common Pocket PC applications such as Inbox, Calendar, Contacts (and phone dialing on Phone Edition), and Windows Media Player (WMP). The software is powerful but simple, requiring no training at all. Consider Voice Command the PDA equivalent of a cell phone headset. You can purchase the software from Handango ( http://www.handango.com ).
This week, I had hoped to tackle November's Laptop of the Month, but I'm out of space. Next week, I'll look at some of the non-Microsoft technologies we saw at COMDEX 2003 and take a look at one of the best business notebooks out there, the IBM ThinkPad R50. Thanks for reading.