Issue No. 02 - February (1997 vol. 30)
DOI Bookmark: http://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/MC.1997.10018
A famous mathematician, trying to explain the concept of multiple dimensions, posited the following: Imagine a flat sheet of paper with infinite dimensions in all directions. Now imagine that a "living" stick figure—let's call him Chuck—is drawn on that sheet of paper. This two-dimensional being can move in any direction but only in two dimensions: Chuck can move only along the surface of the paper. If Chuck had consciousness, it would only be in the context of two dimensions. He could not even fathom what it would be like to move off the paper into our three-dimensional world.
Las Vegas is like that. If you've never been there you cannot fathom what it's really like. Photos and movies don't do it justice. I have traveled extensively and have never been anywhere like it. Las Vegas is in another dimension. Here, there is no night. The streets are crowded at all hours. Breakfast is served 24 hours a day. People who normally go to bed at 9:00 p.m. and rarely drink can be seen at the gaming tables at 4:00 a.m. nursing another in a long night of drinks.
Yet for one week each year the tables are turned, and Las Vegas enters a dimension even more bizarre than its own: the existence that is Comdex. For five days every November, hundreds of thousands (200,000-plus this year) flock here from every imaginable place on Earth. They come to present and promote, to wheel and deal, to pronounce and announce.
This great horde of "computer dealers" has invaded Las Vegas for more than 15 years. Each year they create a Comdex that has a unique personality, formed by the confluence of natural and manmade events, the prevailing weather conditions, the economic climate, and—from time to time—new computer products. And I've been to nearly every one.
There was the year the city shook from an underground nuclear test. There were the years of temperature extremes. The years when smog inversions wreaked havoc on asthmatic attendees. When the winds were so strong that hotel windows seemed ready to implode. When the humidity was so low that Chapstick sold out across the city. There was the year, 1980, of the terrible fire at the MGM Grand Hotel. And there were years, like this one, when terrible rainstorms literally shut the city down and threatened to drown us all, Las Vegan and Comdexian alike.
Comdex week accounts for almost all the news that comes out of Las Vegas every year, and almost all the news is about technologies, products, and their promoters. In the early '80s the news was all about IBM's new PC and its torchbearer, Don Estridge, who unfortunately was killed a few years later in a Dallas plane crash. Does anyone remember the operating system wars? Not OS/2 versus Unix versus Windows, but MS-DOS versus CP/M-86. Or the year of windows. Not Windows—windows: The year that every software company with an ugly DOS application slapped a character-based GUI on it. For companies that weren't up to such advanced technology, QuarterDeck offered DeskView, IBM offered TopView, and alpha versions of Windows were running in Redmond. Today, QuarterDeck's financial future is questionable, and IBM seems more and more to be looking at Intel-based PCs through Microsoft Windows.
From a development standpoint, there was the year the general populace learned that Microsoft invented object-oriented programming with its new VisualBasic. Soon after, Borland's Philipe Kahn offered even better tools. So where is Kahn today? And who is running Borland? None other than Del Yocum, a former Apple executive who has taken on a task that is certainly less formidable than trying to resuscitate the comatose Apple Computer Corporation.
Some say that Comdex is a place where insiders talk only to insiders, but from time to time the real world actually does affect the show. In 1987, for example, the mood was dour, reflecting the stock market meltdown that had happened just the month before the show. The mood was certainly different this year, given the market's infatuation with technology stocks. You could almost see the attendees getting wealthier as they trudged down the endless aisles of this massive show.
Comdex continues to evolve from its early beginnings, when its main focus was business, to today, when personal computing is becoming ubiquitous among consumers. In the early 1980s, when products reflected the needs of businesses, Comdex featured products such as minicomputers, high speed peripherals, terminals, system development tools, and business applications. Toward the end of the 1980s, as the PC became increasingly important in business, Comdex products reflected that trend, featuring PC-based business products that were functionally similar to their predecessors, but proportionately cheaper.
In the early 1990s, as costs continued to decrease, ancillary PC technologies and products—graphics, digital sound and video, color laser printers—targeted to the business user were increasingly presented at Comdex by small pioneering companies. With only some exceptions, many of these were a hard sell to the downsizing, penny-pinching, reengineering managers who wanted proof of productivity gains before making any investment.
But the home market is different. As time moved on, more and more consumer-oriented PCs were sporting audio, video, CD-ROMs, and virtual reality-based interactive games. Through the 1990s, in a lesser known milieu—at least lesser known to computer professionals—the Las Vegas-based Consumer Electronic Show was held only two short months after every Fall Comdex. One of the evolving trends at the Consumer Electronics Show has been a steady increase in the influence of digital technology in home products, particularily in technologies and products that were not seriously considered by a hard-nosed Comdex business market.
The end of the 1990s will go down in history as the beginning of the real revolution in personal computing, the time when digital technologies and products finally began to have a significant impact on the consumer market, and vice versa. And much of this is due to the mindless, chaotic, incontestable rush towards the World Wide Web, a stampede that is creating social and cultural changes that are more widespread than those touched off by the first PCs.
This Was the Year of Unwashed Masses
The effects of this revolution were apparent at this year's Fall Comdex. For the first time ever, a preponderance of Comdex exhibitors displayed products that were more targeted to consumers than businesses. Product pricing points too seemed to be aimed at human-scaled salary levels rather than at corporate-scaled annual budgets. For example, companies like Minolta and Sony showed digital still and video cameras, proudly proclaiming price points for some at under $1,000.
In promoting these products, the companies touted the ease with which users can move their captured images to PC desktops for subsequent editing with desktop-publishing software and morphing packages and output them on affordable printers or standard TV receivers.
Standard TV receivers? Only a couple of years ago this kind of obsolete, low-quality, cheap, worthless technology would have been rare at Comdex. This is, after all, the stuff of the Consumer Electronics Show. No longer.
This year's Comdex featured products from both the consumer and commercial divisions of many multinational corporations, often integrated into single products. After all, how can Joe Sixpack surf the Web and watch the Game of the Week unless his large-screen TV has digital picture-in-picture? How can you move a cursor from your couch unless the mouse has been integrated into an infrared remote control? And don't forget the telecommuters, who prefer to spend their couch time in front of their PCs, but want to watch CNN in a small corner of their 20-inch high-resolution display?
Close but No Cigar
If there was any one mind-numbing revolutionary, trend-setting announcement at the 1996 Fall Comdex, it was made, not surprisingly, by Microsoft. Aside from its Office 97 suite, much of Microsoft's 40,000-square-foot booth was dedicated to Windows CE, the HPC (handheld portable computer), not to be confused with the PDA (personal digital assistant). Because it has been forecasted that between 350,000 and 1 million of these largely useless units will be sold this year, it is probably worthwhile to examine this announcement in some detail.
First, some history. A few years ago John Sculley, the person who (now that he's left) everyone blames for the company's debilitation, introduced the Newton MessagePad, a handheld digital PIM (personal information manager). For reasons that remain in dispute to this day, Sculley made the terrible mistake of believing that the Newton's revolutionary character-recognition system really worked. It didn't take long for every product reviewer to justifiably label the Newton a failure because of its terrible character recognition. Even the Doonesbury cartoon strip ridiculed the Newton as definitely not ready for prime time.
At last year's Comdex, Apple released the second generation MessagePad 120, an identical product with a new character-recognition system. This new character-recognition system was as good as the first one was bad: This thing really worked. Anyone who had been stuck with the first release was offered a ROM upgrade for a few dollars. All the other features were ostensibly unchanged. A few months later, MessagePad 130 offered slightly faster performance, more memory, and a much-needed backlit screen. Although somewhat more expensive than the portable PIMs from companies like Casio and Seiko, and although it has one very acute and surprising shortcoming, and in spite of its relatively slow processor, the MessagePad 130 is functionally a near-perfect micro-micro-laptop computer. The best part of the MessagePad 130 is its optional small, lightweight keyboard that gives you completely laptop-like touchtyping. It is far superior for text processing on airplanes than laptops that weigh 10 times more. And with batteries that last for days rather than hours, who could ask for more?
But here's what's wrong with the MessagePad 130: Although it's smaller and lighter than a laptop, it's much larger and heavier than PIMS such as US Robotics' (functionally inferior) Pilot. And, unlike the Pilot, there is no way to synchronize its functions to your desktop PC. In fact, there are no desktop equivalents. Here's this wonderfully functional, self-contained PDA, yet Apple has provided no practical way to get information out of it, either onto a desktop or even to hardcopy. It is no wonder that only 250,000 Newtons have been sold to date!
Enter Microsoft Windows CE, a software system licensed to about seven hardware manufacturers. All seven have built HPCs, all about the same—their overall strengths and weaknesses are essentially identical. HPCs are about the same size as the Pilot, but they have keyboards and the Pilot has only pen input. HPC screens are touch-sensitive, allowing you to manipulate Windows-like icons on a Windows-like desktop by touching and dragging. Best of all, CEs run reduced function versions of Microsoft Office 95 (not Office 97) applications.
HPC-to-desktop synchronization is wonderful. You can mindlessly upload all the work you do on the road and download whatever you do on your desktop. Ignoring the limitations of a small screen, these machines have great functionality. If you use Windows and Office, there is essentially no learning curve. But here's the problem: the keyboards are useless. Aside from desktop downloading, there is no useful way to get information into the machine. According to Microsoft, no third parties are manufacturing Newton-like keyboards for HPCs. To make matters worse, there is no character recognition (except for one third-party's user-unfriendly package). So what you have for your $400 to $700 is a great, lightweight PC with lots of unusable function.
It's hard to believe that Microsoft and its partners could have produced a device that is 90-percent perfect, yet is missing the last and most important 10 percent. When I interrogated each of the CE manufacturers about this obvious weakness, each one seemed surprised at my reaction, declaring that everyone else liked the CEs just they way they were. After all, I was told, CE's real strength is its cellular, wireless, and Internet communication facilities.
Cellular, wireless, and Internet access for paging, e-mail, and Web surfing are functions that both Microsoft and Apple tout as strengths of their HPC/PDAs. There are even rumors that third-party manufacturers are slated to announce Pilot add-ons to provide these kinds of functions. Somehow I think this completely misses the boat. My own market research (conducted by observing people I know) indicates that nearly every PC user would gladly pay a few hundred dollars for a CE/PDA with a detachable Newton-like keyboard, character recognition, and desktop application synchronisity. But only a very few are interested in wireless communication. So until someone develops a Newton-like keyboard with an integrated pointing device, the marketplace will once again be paying Microsoft to beta test a generally unmarketable product.
Now, if past is prologue, especially as it relates to Microsoft, we may in fact be on the verge of the next revolution of personal computing. But for now, as our two-dimensional friend might suggest, we should just chuck CE.
Sorel Reisman is a professor of MIS at California State University, Fullerton and Director of Information Systems and Services for University Extended Education.