Turn On, Plug In, Keep Up

At the annual consumer-electronics fest, businesses see their own future.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

January 7, 2006

5 Min Read

Given the competition, Intel is seeking an edge through alliances. They include content companies such as America Online, ESPN, and NBC Universal that will deliver content to PCs and consumer devices based on the Viiv platform. And Google says it will port its video-search technology to Intel Viiv-equipped machines.

As a consumer of all this stuff, Doug Glen, chief marketing officer at storage-over-IP vendor Zetera Corp., sees more things trending this way. "There's much more intelligence built into consumer-electronics devices which work to- gether but didn't know how to talk to each other," he says. That may mean the end of the devil's bargain he used to make: "An upgrade in quality was a downgrade in convenience." But it's not likely to make business technologists' jobs easier, as people bring their consumer expectations and toys to the workplace.

Emerging Tech
With more than $135 billion in sales forecast for consumer equipment this year, it's little wonder many of the biggest names in business IT are taking on the consumer market. For many of the products, it's easy to see how they'll make the leaps from consumer to home office to work.

One is voice over IP. Microsoft unveiled a deal in which Uniden America and Royal Philips Electronics will make cordless, landline-VoIP phones work with its Windows Live Messenger VoIP service, which it will offer with MCI. Such efforts are aimed at catching VoIP leader Skype Technologies S.A., an eBay subsidiary that's making its own deals to make the service more useful.

New products include a Netgear Inc. mobile Wi-Fi phone due in early spring aimed at letting the Skype VoIP system work over wireless LANs, including Wi-Fi hot-spots; and USB adapters from uConnect and D-Link that let people use their existing phones to make Skype calls. Panasonic and Vonage Holdings Corp. are developing a cordless-phone system to connect Vonage VoIP calls directly to a broadband service without an adapter.

Storage-over-IP vendor Zetera sees its Z-SAN technology jumping from the home market to businesses this year. Built into Netgear's Storage Center today, the company says Bell Microproducts Inc. will incorporate it into its Hammer Storage line in the first quarter of the year. Those products will cost as much as $5,000 and support up to 2 terabytes.

Some product areas like VoIP and smart phones seem headed for breakthroughs this year, thanks to advancements in function and falling prices. Others, though, are just getting smaller and more powerful. Walletex Microelectronics Ltd., a maker of a credit-card-sized USB drive, plans to offer in the coming months a flash memory card that can hold 4 Gbytes.

And then there are categories that sound like wow technologies in search of a purpose. One is wearable electronics, where Elam EL Industries Ltd. and Eleksen Ltd. have separately developed thin conductive materials that manufacturers can sew into apparel, producing, for instance, a glove that works like a touch screen. "The real challenge is educating consumer and industrial markets about smart fabrics," says John Collins, Eleksen's VP of marketing.

Need more gee whiz? Sonare Technologies, a division of office-furniture maker Herman Miller Inc., gives you Babble, akin to the cone-of-silence gag from the old Get Smart TV show. Except this creates noise--rearranging the smallest elements of a person's voice, and broadcasting them via speakers pointed away from the caller--to create a cone of unintelligible noise that keeps cubicle neighbors from listening in.

Future Of PCs
A number of questions hung over the early days of the show, including what would Google do? Having denied reports it would sell its own PC, Google reportedly planned to reveal deals to use its site to sell video from content partners, The Wall Street Journal reported. (Google co-founder Larry Page's speech came after InformationWeek's deadline; see coverage at infor mationweek.com/internet). Then there was no-show Apple Computer, whose iPod is the powerhouse of the consumer tech movement. Apple's plans for its first Intel-powered Mac, likely aimed at consumers, are expected to be revealed this week.

Amid the euphoria that consumers are setting the innovation agenda, Dell chairman Michael Dell brought some balance. He came bearing glitz, of course, promising high-powered gaming PCs, including a not-yet-available SPX 600 Renegade with flames emblazoned on the case and a dual-core Intel chip and four graphics processors that deliver 5.2 teraflops of computing power.

But he also noted that just 15% of Dell's revenue comes from consumers, the rest from business, government, and schools. He does see big growth for Dell in media-driven technology--with the PC at the center of the digital lifestyle. "A lot of people have tried to downplay the importance of the PC, but we shipped 10 million PCs in the fourth quarter, the first time any company has accomplished that," he said. "The PC still remains supreme."

The offerings at CES didn't dispel that notion. But they reinforced another: When it comes to tech, the consumer is king.

--With Bruce Boardman, Network Computing; Spencer Chin, eeTimes; W. David Gardner; and Laurie Sullivan, TechWeb

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