This Year's Models

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Just as the Internet is becoming more tightly woven into everyday life, computers are moving off the desktop and into everyday objects, including phones, cars, washing machines and even toasters. This trend toward "smart" appliances, which are linked to the Internet through wireless connections, will give users access to new capabilities and services without the need for a personal computer. Some of these new Internet-enabled devices will be given a dose of emotional intelligence, too. Through arrays of sensors that monitor a person's body language, these appliances will be able to anticipate and respond to a user's needs before he or she can even express them.

IBM estimates that within five years at least 30% of new household appliances in Europe will interact with humans through body sensors or speech recognition technology. A new study by tech consultancy IDC predicts that the worldwide market for smart appliances will reach $17.8 billion in 2004, up from $2.4 billion in 1999. PC makers are responding to the flood of information appliances by introducing a new breed of personal computer. It should come as no surprise then that smart appliances will again be among the hottest gadgets at this week's CeBIT show, the technology trade exhibition that attracts more than 600,000 people each year. A glimpse of things to come:

Handheld organizers are no longer just diaries with attached modems. Manufacturers are launching a slew of new applications at CeBIT that allow the devices to double as a digital camera, download electronic books, play games and even make restaurant reservations. Kodak, for example, is announcing the PalmPix camera, a compact partner device for the Palm series, which turns the electronic organizer into a digital camera. Weighing in at 45 g (without batteries) the PalmPix is as lightweight as the Palm organizer and can be carried in a shirt pocket. It will be available in April.

Users of handheld devices will no longer need to carry paperbacks, newspapers or magazines--unless, of course, they actually enjoy doing so--since organizers will be able to download large amounts of text, including electronic books. Palm Computing will be showcasing the result of a joint initiative with Adobe Systems to develop devices equipped with the company's latest operating system, such as the Palm V. Palm's operating system has been modified to support Adobe Portable Document Format (pdf), meaning any device running the operating system--such as the Palm V or IBM Work Pad organizers--will now be able to offer users a range of new content and the ability to access documents anytime, anywhere over a wireless Internet connection. Microsoft will also be demonstrating the ability of a pocket device to be used to read electronic books--but with an added twist: the revised version of its Windows CE operating system will also contain audio capabilities, meaning consumers can not only download books to read but can also have books read to them while they are driving a car, for example, says Phil Holden, Microsoft's group product manager for the mobile devices division. Microsoft will also be demonstrating at CeBIT two other key features of its revised operating system: the ability to download and play MP3 music files with stereo quality and full Internet Explorer browsing ability. These features will be demonstrated on existing devices because new pocket PC hardware, being designed under the code name Rapier, will not be ready until later this year. U.K.-based handheld manufacturer Psion will demonstrate its Series 7 organizer's ability to download games--which can be played through a wireless connection against yourself or against other people anywhere in the world through a wireline connection.

Compaq will show off Aero, a series of organizers based on Microsoft's Windows CE operating system that helps people navigate unfamiliar cities and can make restaurant reservations. At CeBIT the company promises to give away hundreds of Aeros which will run an application especially tailored for the show. The screen will display not only a map of the vast CeBIT exhibition hall, but also a map of nearby Hanover. It will also download information about restaurants and allow users to electronically book tables.

Motorola will be showing off a prototype wristwatch GSM phone with voice-activated dialing and Alcatel will unveil a new Web-connected phone, but the real focus at CeBIT will be applications that run on the most advanced next-generation phones. Philips will demonstrate a voice-recognition application, known as voice tagging, launched in partnership with Saraide, a San Mateo, Calif.-based company that specializes in designing wireless Internet services. Voice tagging allows phones to recognize speech commands. For example, you can preprogram your home number into the phone and when you say the word home, the mobile will automatically dial the number. Philips and Saraide are going a step further, demonstrating a system that allows users to preprogram up to 10 different types of content, such as weather forecasts or stock information, into their mobiles. When the user says "weather," for example, a short message service (sms) text command is automatically sent to Saraide's server and the information sought is sent back to the phone in text form. Ericsson will showcase Mobile e-Pay, a platform for secure sales transactions over mobile phones that works like an electronic wallet. For online payments, the technology links directly to a user's bank or credit card provider.

Siemens will demonstrate the fruits of its new partnership with U.S. portal Yahoo. Siemens is now building direct access to Yahoo's Internet content into all its products. Users will have constant access to the latest information on the Web, such as stock prices, news headlines and sports scores. With a direct connection to My Yahoo, a bookmarked webpage, Siemens customers will be able to personalize the content they receive on their phones.

Personal computers are due to get a lot more personal, too. IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., has already come up with a mouse that is sensitive to the user's mood. The "emotion mouse" can detect physiological signals--such as skin conductivity, blood pressure and heart rate--that may indicate how a user is feeling. For example, a user who is under stress will have sweaty palms, which can be detected by sensors studding the surface of the mouse. IBM believes that the mouse can be used in computer-related training in order to reduce stress among students by displaying a soothing screen-saver image or offering a different task after a certain stress threshold has been surpassed. It remains to be seen if users will feel comfortable with a mouse that can read minds.

Meanwhile, Hewlett-Packard and Compaq are announcing open-platform, scaled-down Internet versions of the standard desktop PC for business users, a move which analysts say is a direct response to the growing popularity of alternative ways of accessing online information. HP's Vectra and Compaq's iPaq machines are designed for the corporate market, making it easy to connect to the Web but hard for staff to reconfigure on a personal basis or copy company files onto disks. Roughly a quarter of the dimensions of a standard PC and weighing in at only 3.8 kg, the Vectra takes up a fraction of the deskspace used up by a standard PC.

Although the new breed of PC attempt to emulate information appliances they still are burdened by the negative aspects of PCs. "They are smaller, sexier and hopefully easier to use but still tied to the Windows legacy, which is basically cumbersome," says Roger Kay, an analyst at technology consultancy IDC. As other types of consumer-friendly gadgets gain in popularity, the pressure will be on PC makers to make even more improvements in time for next year's CeBIT.

With reporting by Tony Glover and Steve Homer/London and Peggy Salz-Trautman/Bonn