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COMDEX PROVES INNOVATION LIVES EVEN IF TECH INDUSTRY IS AILING

As goes an industry, so goes its trade show.

Comdex, the annual high-technology show, this year was much diminished from what it used to be -- but still displayed enough new gadgetry to demonstrate that innovation is far from dead.

For the second year in a row, attendance hovered around 100,000, well below the 200,000-strong who once came.

Exhibitor ranks also shrunk, from a peak of more than 2,000 to about 1,000. Many biggies, including Sony Corp. and International Business Machines Corp., did not set up major exhibits, as they had in years before, but instead had smaller booths in theme pavilions such as those dedicated to optical drives or USB connectivity.

Still, exhibitors and analysts at last week's Comdex tried hard to instill a sense that the digital revolution is continuing, making much of consumers' moving en masse to digital photography, movies and music.

Companies that make hard drives for computers introduced models that can store thousands and thousands -- rather than just thousands -- of pictures and music files. Companies that make CD and DVD drives introduced faster, cheaper devices that digital families can use to store their home movies.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and others tried mightily to make the case that innovation continues to thrive amid the tech doldrums, and that the era of the personal computer is giving way to a world of many interconnected devices. He pointed to the company's work over the past 2 1/2 years on "smart" objects such as the refrigerator magnets, key chains and alarm clocks. Such objects would connect wirelessly to a PC, which in turn would use the Internet to update information continuously through some undefined pay service. The company did not say how much the service might cost.

Wireless chips were included in a wide range of devices at the show, including Hewlett-Packard's new iPaq handheld computers and Viewpoint's "smart displays" that can be carried around the house and still be wirelessly connected to a personal computer and the Internet.

There was no shortage of tablet PCs -- laptop-like devices offering limited handwriting recognition with Microsoft's Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating system. There was also a home computer whose flat-panel screen can be removed from a docking station and used to surf the Web and do other PC chores remotely.

Microsoft said it plans to incorporate a new application called OneNote into the next release of its Office product. OneNote is a virtual white board that offers a free-form way of storing notes and other digital data from a meeting.

Microsoft also announced a deal with Kinko's Inc. to create a Web service that would allow traveling businesspeople to order copies from their computer. With the proper software, people could simply hit the print button, and a menu would appear giving them the choice of using either their regular printer or, if they were away from the office, sending the job to Kinko's.

A Swedish start-up Cypak showed off a tiny wireless chip product that could be embedded in paper. Jakob Ehrensvard, CEO, showed how the chip could help doctors determine if patients were taking their drugs on time. Whenever a patient opened a packet for a dose of pills, the breaking of the paper would trigger a signal to the doctor's office, which would record the time that the pill was taken.

The show-stopper might have been the astonishing Segway Human Transporter.

Comdex attendees were eagerly getting in a 45-minute line to ride the Segway.

Introduced about a year ago, the stand-up electric scooter went on sale to the public last week on Amazon.com for $4,995. (Expected delivery: early 2003.) It uses an array of gyroscopes and sensors to track a rider's body motions -- moving ahead when the rider leans slightly forward, going into reverse when the rider leans back, and stopping when the rider straightens up.

Rotating a grip on the handlebar turns the machine left or right.

What was especially astonishing was that it posed no challenges to any of those who waited to use it. After a two-minute instruction drill by a Segway employee, attendees who were young, old, frail, stocky, timid, uncoordinated -- and at least one woman in high-heel boots -- were zipping around as if they had been riding it for years.

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