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Michael Powell in Gadget Wonderland

By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2005; 6:45 AM

I tagged along with Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael K. Powell as he toured the convention floor Thursday -- and talked along the way about some of his favorite gadgets. It's part of his job to keep up with technology, but he's also an avid user of communications devices.

This week, for example, he got TiVo software to transfer recorded television programs to TVs around his house, but he couldn't offer a personal review. "I'm trying to figure it out. I'll do that Saturday." He now has two TiVos at home, he said, so his kids don't hog his.

Powell loves HDTVs, too, and has been on a campaign to convince Americans to buy them. He owns a 42-inch Sony Direct View HDTV.

Maybe it was the reflection from the crystal clear TV screen, but his eyes lit up when he visited a booth displaying a high-definition television that gets its programming through electrical powerlines. (See my answer to a reader question about how this works.) He turned to his staff and said: "Now THIS is cool."

He also loves his new BlackBerry 7100, a converged device that's smaller than the older version of BlackBerry, but allows him to e-mail on a nice color screen. The smaller keyboard, he said, "is not bad" to type on, and has good predictive spelling software. For him it represents a happy, ergonomically friendly midpoint between cell phone and handheld computer.

It turns out Powell shares my frustration with all the power cords in our lives, at home and on the road. "My big dream is to getting rid of all cords," he said, and although he still travels with five power cords, he said this year's show seems to be pointing the way toward a cord-free future. "They figured out how to use WiFi, bluetooth, ultrawideband, to actually move things around" on a broad array of devices, he said. Every year, more devices at CES come with those tools built into them.

I asked Powell what he felt the consumer world needed most right now. His answer: "What the mass market most needs is a really simplified thing -- probably wireless -- that sets itself up." He envisions devices with plenty of functions, but not tons of buttons and installation software. "The smart people figure out what to take out."

Along his hour-and-a-half long tour, Powell obliged exhibitioners eager for a digital photo with the chairman. Or at least he did until he was nearly accosted by two tall women dressed in latex catsuits and black sunglasses who apparently wanted their photo too. Powell raised two hands and quickly shuffled out of range. "You learn to avoid that in public life."

At LG's expansive booth, he once again lit up over HDTVs. He said one of the latest models comes with technology designed to help the human eye view color more clearly. And he predicted a much-anticipated price drop for the advanced TVs: "They've really upped the manufacturing capacity on these, so next Christmas the price is going to crash."

We were admiring a 50-inch HDTV with the ability to record programming into a memory card, when I tried to make a cell phone call. When I spun around seconds later, I'd lost Powell and his entourage. They'd vanished into the crowds, like yesterday's technology trend. Such is life at CES: One moment you're entranced by a new technology, the next you're totally left behind.

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