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A Las Vegas Treasure Hunt

tnuH erusaerT sageV saL A

In late November, almost a quarter-million other people and I descended on Las Vegas for the Comdex computer show, in search of intriguing technology.

Comdex is a treasure hunt, with a dazzling array of innovations to catch the eye – some 10,000 new products on display. You miss more than you see. It’s fun to run into friends and ask what they found.

sketch One person, knowing my interest in flat-panel monitors, told me to check out the stunning image quality of the ViewSonic VP204 View Panel. The monitor, which is only a few inches thick and yet has an 18-inch image, looked great from every angle – even from way off to the side.

It’s not for sale yet, but by the middle of 1998 it should be available for about $6,000.

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Few people will pay that much for a screen, even one they can hang on the wall like a photograph. But with technology prices plunging, it won’t be many years before wonderful, large flat-panel screens are reasonably priced. When that day comes, the face of computing will change as today’s bulky monitors (and television sets) fade in popularity.

sketch Besides impressive flat-panel displays, products that caught my eye included 18-gigabyte disk drives that could hold a lifetime of photographs in the palm of your hand, powerful laptop computers less than an inch thick, and a Cross pen that lets a computer "read" (or at least try to read) what you write in ink – provided a special electronic tablet is under the paper.

These evolutionary products were among thousands displayed by more than 2,100 companies, all at Comdex because they wanted the world to see how their offerings improved the PC.

In the good old days, three decades or so ago, the industry was structured entirely differently. There wasn’t much treasure to hunt.

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If you were an independent company that came up with an improvement in a disk, you were out of luck because IBM and DEC made their own disks. If you came up with a new screen, you were still out of luck, because the big guys did that themselves. Only a few parts of a computer were available separately, and software generally wasn’t one of them. Choices were limited and terribly expensive.

Now, in the age of the PC, any company can contribute anything. The evolving operating system provides a framework that makes it easy for companies to mix and match innovations. Nothing but the marketplace says ‘no’ to an idea.

The result is specialization, focus and a thrilling pace of product evolution on the part of thousands of companies chasing what has become a huge volume market.

This leads to countless unexpected developments. Take PC Cards (once known as PCM/CIA cards), for example.

Laptop computers have little slots into which people can push the credit-card-sized electronic cards. Since the slots were designed for miniature modems that connect a laptop PC to a telephone line, it’s no surprise that numerous innovative modems were featured at Comdex.

What is surprising, though, is all of the other things that enterprising companies are doing with these cards.

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sketch

When the PC Card specification was developed a few years ago, nobody imagined that the cards would be used for mass storage. But at Comdex, a company called SanDisk showed cards that store 220 megabytes of data – more than a third the capacity of a CD-ROM – with no moving parts.

Other companies make tiny mechanical disks. Iomega showed hard drive the size of a matchbook. It’s called ‘Clik’, and holds 40 megabytes of data – about as much as 22 high-density floppy disks.

Not every cool product I saw at Comdex was tiny, of course.

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The Philips 3610 CD ReWritable lets you record and rerecord your own CDs and CD-ROMs. Hitachi and a number of other companies showed PCs rendering impressive 3D graphics. A new $800 Acer NetPC could be upgraded, with the addition of a floppy or CD-ROM drive, to become a full-fledged PC. None of these were miniaturized products.

Other head-turners were quite small.

The Sharp VE-LC2 digital camera, which will be available for $499 in February, weighs less than 7 ounces and yet stores up to 120 digital images. It can transmit pictures via infrared link to a laptop or other infrared-equipped PC.

High-powered laptops are shrinking, too. Sony’s PCG-505 weighs three pounds and is less than an inch thick, despite having a Pentium 133 chip and a 10.4-inch color monitor.

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The Mitsubishi Pedion notebook is even thinner and more powerful than the Sony machine, and has a larger screen. I found the keyboard to be a little awkward, but a lot of people will love it.

sketch

Both the Sony and Mitsubishi machines are made of magnesium, which is lightweight, strong, and good at dissipating heat. Both models are available in Japan now, and will ship to the European and North American markets in early 1998.

When I return to Comdex next November, these laptops and other innovations will be old news. Better tools will be plentiful, at lower prices. Competition is why this business is so vibrant.

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