Mobile and DVD make PC Expo

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PC EXPO, NEW YORK–PC Expo wasn’t exactly a snooze, but it was close. And while the competition for the CNET Best of Show awards wasn’t exactly intense, we did find some cool stuff for you. Though I’m not a CNET editor, my radio and TV ties garnered me an invitation to participate as an ex officio member of the committee, and I hope they’ll invite me back.

I am leaving PC Expo feeling better than when I arrived. I did, in fact, see some cool products. I made or renewed some important contacts, started the wheels for some new products to review for you, and learned a great deal. Not a bad investment of time, as it turns out. Here’s the short version of my trip report:

In my preshow column, I promised to check up on the nascent format wars in the recordable DVD space. Think of this as the 21st century rematch of Beta vs. VHS, and you’ll understand the stakes involved and why it’s probably best for consumers to stay on the sidelines until the battle has been fought. Remember: This is a war of alliances and dollars, not technical quality. After all, Betamax was the better format, but it still lost.

CNET awarded two Best of PC Expo awards to interesting products in the recordable DVD market. One was a Panasonic device–list price $1,500, but supposed to sell for less than $1,000–that uses recordable DVD to replace videotape. It’s a cool product, but way too expensive and too likely to become a white elephant if the format wars go badly for Panasonic. The other product is the QPS Que USB 2.0 SuperDrive, capable of writing DVD-R, DVD-RW, CD-R, and CD-RW. This doesn’t cover all the competing DVD formats (DVD+RW and DVD-RAM are missing), and USB 2.0 is not in the market yet. Price: $699.

The CNET reviews folks are much more in the USB 2.0 camp than I find myself to be. I really don’t care whether USB 2.0 or FireWire wins as the standard way to connect high-speed peripherals to PCs. But I much prefer that there be only a single standard. Microsoft has said it will support FireWire but not USB 2.0, so until Microsoft changes its mind, I’ll be in the FireWire camp. If Microsoft does an about-face and supports both standards–as my CNET colleague Steve Fox predicts–I’ll bemoan having two standards where only one is necessary and will support the likely winner, whichever it happens to be. We need fast connections for video cameras, high-speed storage, and the like, but we don’t need another standards fight.

I learned that mobile apps–I am talking about PDA-based enterprise applications–are finally becoming something average companies can start considering. There is a lot of money to be saved by using PDAs to make field (and some office) workers more productive. Palm CEO Carl Yankowski convinced me of this in his keynote. But he didn’t convince me that Palm will remain the standard-bearer of the mobility generation. This is Palm’s battle to lose, but they seem pretty intent on it. I hope they don’t, because it will set back mobile apps a couple of years. If you work in corporate IS, now is the time to start looking at what applications your employees might take with them on Palms or other handhelds.

Wireless wasn’t the big deal I expected it to be. In coming weeks I will be comparing the Go America services introduced at the show (another CNET award winner) with those from competing vendors. I am also testing a new Sierra Wireless card for Handsping devices and a PC Card for Sprint PCS data services. But if wireless wasn’t the theme–not all by itself–then the broader concept of mobility was. I am leaving New York feeling that the mobile dreams I’ve had for more than a decade are within three years of playing out. The Transmeta devices are very small and have fewer compromises than previous lightweight computers. Building apps for PDAs is doable, though the platform (Palm OS more than Pocket PC) still seems underpowered to me. And wireless communication is widely available and almost reasonably priced, though slow. This combines to mean that if your application has a high return on investment, you should get started and migrate as technology changes. The mobile era is about to be upon us in a big way.

And, finally, I learned that Microsoft’s new activation scheme, intended to stop pirates, has some problems. Like I am writing this in WordPad because Office XP is shut down because I made some “modifications” to my laptop–which is interesting since I haven’t done anything unusual–and XP wants to be reactivated because of them. Since I don’t carry my original installation CD on business trips, the software is essentially dead and useless until I can reactivate it back at home. This madness must end.
I am sure other things will come to me as soon as I press the send button and put this column to bed. (Outlook stills works, thank goodness.) So I will be coming back to PC Expo-related topics over the coming weeks. If you’d like to hear more about these products and everything else about the show, Richard Hart and I discussed these issues on Friday, June 29 on CNET Radio. Our hour-long show can be heard on 910AM in the San Francisco Bay Area and at everywhere else. If you miss the live airing, the archived stream is posted later in the day at the same URL.



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