LAS VEGAS—Call it Comdex writers block: After a couple of days at the show here, I grew concerned that I wouldnt discover anything worth column space. The mobile products from major vendors that I could talk about had been announced some time ago, and the really hot new gear remains under wraps until CES.
Then I dropped by VIA Technologies suite at a nearby hotel; the company was hosting an event, and I wandered over expecting little more than a lunch.
In fact, I almost didnt get around to eating as I checked out one innovative mobile product after another. Many set aggressive price points for emerging categories in security, home electronics or business; others represented a bold new generation of products in existing market segments. These were all based on the ultra small ITX boards from VIA, which have helped companies and universities bring unique and innovative products to market. The combination of low cost and ultra-small form factor, coupled with the ability to run Linux or Windows XP (full or embedded versions), enables a level of design creativity currently unmatched by the other chip companies.
The most interesting mobile product was the Nimble V5, a book-sized PC IP Telephony device with a built-in KVM for low cost voice conferencing. The product, which costs significantly less than $500, has a Windows XP software load and could be your mobile desktop. It also has a built in IP speaker phone that lets you make inexpensive long-distance calls over the Internet. The software improves the sound quality and simplifies setting up the call, and the full Windows XP load lets you share applications such as PowerPoint or even perform low-band videoconferencing. A built in KVM switch (which frankly would never have occurred to me) allows you to plug this system into your desktop and simply use it as a communications device, switching with the touch of a button to the likely higher performance PC it would be hooked into.
One of the biggest concerns I have when I am traveling is the need to feel connected to my home. With aging pets and uneven crime rates, Ive rigged a series of eight cameras around the house that are actively broadcasting on the Web so I can check on both and, from time to time, give my wife grief if she is outside playing instead of inside working. The problem has been that none of these images are captured, and Im not online watching 24 by 7. One of the products being showcased, the Tempest TM-600, seemed to be perfect for me.
For less than $500, it will monitor my cameras for motion (it takes four camera feeds, so I would have to double up the cameras or get two of them); if it detects movement, the system will record it on a hard drive to be viewed later from a Web interface. That way if something does happen, I have a record of it. After one kidnapping in California where a device like this caught the crime, Im thinking this will be on my short list of things to pick up in the next few months. For those of you who dont price devices like this, a single-feed, slow-motion VCR without a Web interface is between $500 and $1,500, and a solution like this has historically cost more than $2,000 for something that would likely not work as well.
Finally, one of the problems we have when we are mobile is getting access to the stuff we have on our home machines. Im not a big fan of leaving my desktop PC on when Im traveling; having a server would be ideal, but most are really not designed for the home user. I could repurpose a PC, but it isnt really designed for this use (and Id have to do a lot of work to set it up). One imminent class of products is the home server: something that is easy to set up; does the basics; is secure; and draws little power, so you feel comfortable leaving it running. The Axentra Rumba (also priced at less than $500) is such a device. Running Linux shielded behind an interface that resembles Linksys, with an industrial design that looks like it might have come from Apple; this product is the closest to my ideal than anything else Ive ever seen.
Beyond the mobile sphere, there were many other treats at the VIA event. They included PC game systems that ran Embedded XP; White Box Robots (basically, PC cases that comprised robot bodies); Linux and Windows Media Centers that looked like consumer-electronic equipment rather than PCs; and a plug-and-play Internet radio station (which, with a transmitter, could run a regular radio station). I was amazed by the welter of inexpensive, creative offerings VIAs low-cost, tiny EPIA board had spawned.
Rob Enderle is the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a company specializing in emerging personal technology.