It wouldnt take a degree in logic to deduce that last weeks Consumer Electronics Show focused primarily on consumer technology. But despite the shows moniker, some of the products announced at CES hold promise the corporate market; you just have to look a little harder and (in some cases) exert a little imagination.
For me, the most important announcement in Las Vegas came from OQO: The San Francisco startup has put its ultra-personal computer into production and was showing it in its final form.
This innovative system was brought to fruition by the team that created the Apple Titanium PowerBook. In fact, it was first conceived as an Apple product. However, Steve Jobs apparently couldnt see opportunities for a laptop computer you could put in your pocket; the team spun out of Apple to form OQO and retool the concept for the Windows market.
Not surprisingly, this product showcases the same design skills that created the award-winning Apple Titanium. Encased in a magnesium alloy, the system sports an extremely high resolution screen and a keyboard that conceals itself when not in use under that screen. It has both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi built in, which opens it up to a wide variety of peripherals.
The device has a digitized screen to provide many of the technical capabilities of a Windows Tablet PC. (Currently, however, its slated to run a more-generic form of Windows XP so it can hit its price target of less than $2,000.) In normal use (document creation, e-mail and so on), it should run between three and four hours on a battery; since the battery is removable and relatively small, you could carry several to get through a transatlantic flight. It is tuned for downloaded movies and powerful enough to play a number of PC games.
Meanwhile, Hewlett-Packard demonstrated that its largest laptop, the zd7000, with an Intel Extreme processor, making it the most powerful consumer-branded notebook you can buy. Notebooks like this could be used as low-cost workstations, and with an estimated 1.5 hours of battery life, they are clearly not to be used for long away from a power source. However, for anyone who pushes performance and needs to be able to set up quickly in the field, these systems represent one of the best values in the market. (The fact that they are in high demand for LAN parties is something well just keep to ourselves.)
Next page: Embedded innovations from Microsoft.
Microsofts Muscle Cars
Microsofts embedded group showed a number of its design wins of the past few months. It was interesting to note the number of booth visitors who arrived bearing products of which Microsoft was apparently unaware. These offerings included handheld computers running embedded Windows CE rather then the full-blown Microsoft Mobile platform. The handhelds came from a number of manufacturers and were mostly aimed at vertical industries that need devices to read meters, or scan bar codes, or do specific kinds of testing. The apparent value proposition: For a fraction of the cost to develop the base platform needed for a device to connect easily with other systems, the manufacturer can license embedded CE from Microsoft and cut months—if not years—from its development time.
I spoke to several companies that had chosen the Microsoft embedded platform and asked why theyd opted for Microsoft and not Linux. Time to market, market acceptance, and no real desire to do the plumbing work were the answers.
Microsoft also showcased the current iteration of its automotive platform in a custom Hummer. The system drew heavily on voice commands to move between modes, including navigation and entertainment controls. Notably, while Microsofts automotive technology has enjoyed a number of design wins in Europe and Asia, no U.S. automaker has picked it up for domestic production. One problem: Fewer and fewer cars will accept aftermarket technology; its increasingly likely that customers will buy a car expecting its technology to remain current only to find in a few short months that it is obsolete and beyond the reach of cost-effective updates. Since users may want to tap the potential of stronger automotive transceivers to keep in touch with their offices, this obstacle could become a problem for its adopters.
Speaking of future automotive technology, Intel was the only vendor that seemed to understand that the future wired home would include the car. In his keynote presentation, spoke of Omnifi (the only company that currently offers a product that installs in the car and synchronizes files via Wi-Fi when the vehicle is in the garage). Intel was also showcased design wins for its next-generation Centrino platform, which will be more powerful and support 802.11g wireless.
One of the more interesting technologies at CES was the iBiz virtual keyboard. iBiz projects the keyboard on a countertop, but the product clearly needed work; it took me nearly five minutes to enter one line without errors. The idea is sure attractive, though: With a device about the size of a large lighter, you get a full size keyboard. Heres hoping the company can get it to work.
Finally, Premier GPS demonstrated a comprehensive mobile automotive system based on the VIA Mini-ITX platform. This product, currently under trial by schools in North America, allows school buses not only to be tracked but to broadcast video of the inside of the bus so concerned parents can watch their young commuters over the Internet. School officials can also observe and make sure that the safety of children is not compromised. The genesis of the product is especially impressive: Evidently, one of the executives just bought a VIA board at a retail store, took it back to the Premier GPS labs and in a short time had mocked up the product. (This sort of process can often take years.)
I expect these small, low-cost, portable PCs will become tremendously important as an enabler going forward.
Ive only scratched the surface of an incredible wealth of technology, much of which will be released for back-to-school budgets. Fortunately, this gives my wife at least eight weeks to find a secure place to hide my wallet!