The future is up for grabs.
That's the central message of this year's Comdex, the giant annual computer expo that ends here today. While the tech world is accustomed to uncertainty, there's a sense now that the companies, even the widely feared Microsoft Corp., are no longer in control.
"Technology, to some degree, is not driving the market anymore," said Linus Torvalds, the creator of the "open source" operating system Linux. "It's what people want. . . . Convenience and price are the real driving factors."
Torvalds, the former Finnish student who rivals Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates as a high-tech cult figure, is his own best example. Linux, the first operating system to become a true competitor to Microsoft's Windows, barely existed at Comdex two years ago. This year the Linux Business Expo received nearly equal billing to the Comdex floor show itself.
"This is not your father's Comdex--unless your father is a Web developer putting in an 18-hour day," Jason Chudnofsky, president of the Comdex-sponsoring ZD Events, said during his introduction of Torvalds.
Torvalds's keynote speech provided a sharp counterpoint to Gates's talk, which opened the convention Sunday. Gates's keynote was full of high-tech dazzle and tightly structured. It also never directly referred to the government's antitrust suit against Microsoft.
By contrast, Torvalds was low-tech, practically homespun. The screens that enabled the thousands of people in the audience to see his talking points weren't quite working. "Sabotage does come to mind," he commented dryly.
That was one of his many references to Microsoft and Gates, who overshadowed the convention. Microsoft rode the PC boom in the 1990s to a commanding position in the tech universe, but it was repeatedly asserted here that the next decade would be different. Whether that was a firm belief or merely a hope wasn't clear.
During the Q&A period--something Gates didn't permit during his own session--Torvalds was asked the unthinkable. What if Microsoft were to co-opt Linux by offering its own version of it?
"It's not only possible, but it's legal, and I encourage them to do it," said Torvalds.
Microsoft is trying to reach beyond its dependence on PCs by co-opting the single hand-held device that has won broad consumer acceptance: the Palm hand-held computer. A stripped-down version of the Windows operating system powers a number of Palm competitors and is simultaneously bidding to become the operating system for any number of home devices.
At one panel, executives from Microsoft and Palm, as well as Microsoft arch rival Sun Microsystems and Psion PLC, tried and failed to agree on what the future would look like.
Panel moderator Walter Mossberg, the personal-tech columnist for the Wall Street Journal, began by noting that the PC was 22 years old and "still does not turn on when you press the 'on' button."
"It's a device that has never quite lived up to its promise," he said.
With the boom in e-mail and Web browsing over the past few years, consumers have concluded that they don't need a complicated PC. Thus were born Internet appliances, which range from the Cidco MailStation, an e-mail device that retails for $99, to C1 Tech's MPwow, which allows users to directly download and play music. This is the first Comdex, Mossberg said, in which appliances are really a factor: "In a way, we're at another frontier."
The devices that succeed will be the easiest and most functional, said Palm Computing President Alan Kessler. "Simplicity is key," he said. "The success of Palm in the marketplace is not what we put in the device but what we left out."
If consumers can gain access to the Web over a Palm or intermediate-size device, will they also want a PC at home? Microsoft Senior Vice President Craig Mundie thought so. "I tend to think of these appliances as the Internet on training wheels." He thought of the future as "the PC plus its friends."
That view was practically ridiculed by the rest of the panel. The action "has moved to the Internet," said Psion Chairman David Potter. "The movement is away from being PC-centric to Net-centric."
The most-cited new technology at the convention seemed to be Bluetooth, named after a medieval Danish king who brought together competing factions in reasonable harmony. Bluetooth is a specification for using radio waves to enable computers, cellular phones and hand-held devices to communicate with one another wirelessly.
With Bluetooth, consumers could move data from, say, their cell phones to their Palms without cables, as long as they were within a few feet of each other.
Hundreds of companies, including Intel, IBM and Toshiba--although not Microsoft--have already endorsed the Bluetooth standard, and products incorporating it will be out next year. The first, demonstrated here, was an Ericsson headset, which allows hands-free use of a cell phone--ideal for driving.
Comdex is always full of gee-whiz prototypes of products, but there was a widespread sense this year that more of these may actually reach consumers. Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina promised a wristwatch with Internet capability, while Samsung Electronics and Conversa Inc. debuted their wristwatch cell phone, which works by voice commands rather than a keypad.
Sun chief executive Scott McNealy touted a future that "is going to look much more like the telephone industry--with centralized hardware and services for a fee." That would leave little need for a PC-based operating systems firm such as Microsoft, McNealy made clear.
His keynote, too, was filled with Microsoft references, including the "Top 10 Signs Microsoft Has Bought 20 Percent of Las Vegas." (One sign: "The pirates in Treasure Island really steal your money.") Posters on Comdex shuttle buses touted Sun's free StarOffice software, proclaiming, "Scott McNealy doesn't want your money."
If that were true, he'd be the only one at Comdex who didn't. The larger, unasked question behind all these new PC-less devices is how much of a market there will be for them. "Unless you're a techie," said PC Week editor John Dodge, "you have a finite capacity."
And maybe even techies have their limits. At the Internet device panel, one audience question came from a man who wanted to know how to deal with the "human gateway bottleneck."
"I've got access to more information and data than I can handle," he said.
The panelists had no advice for him.
CAPTION: The Cisco Systems pavilion has conventioneers enthralled at the Comdex computer expo in Las Vegas. Convenience will increasingly drive the marketplace, convention speakers said.
CAPTION: Linux creator Linus Torvalds has Microsoft in mind during his Comdex address.
CAPTION: The Microsoft booth draws a crowd during Monday's Comdex session. Microsoft and its chairman, Bill Gates, overshadowed the convention, although some speakers said the software giant's market dominance will decline.