I've read a lot about the demise of COMDEX, but sitting here amid the throng of show goers in the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), I can't call COMDEX Fall 2002 a bust. Sure, the numbers are down: Approximately 100,000 people packed the show this year, down from last year's 125,000 and far down from the high of 200,000 a few short years ago. And there are fewer exhibitors, allegedly: Roughly 1100 this year compared to over 1600 from last year's show. But I've been attending dozens of meetings this year, many of which are being held in hotel rooms and suites off-site, suggesting that the exhibitor numbers are artificially low. And this year's show feels just as busy as last year. Don't believe the hype, I guess.

Of course, COMDEX has changed a bit. What started as a vendor show has developed into a bizarre shadow of its former self, with individuals rather than potential customers wandering the show floor, and children with Web sites and press badges posing as journalists. Vendors at the show relayed the same message again and again: Renting floor space at COMDEX just isn't worth it anymore because of the quality of the crowds, and corporate customers are staying away in droves because of the economy.

For me, however, COMDEX is sort of a homecoming, and a chance to quickly meet with a wide variety of companies. I've been coming to COMDEX Fall for eight years now, and have established a steady, if busy, rhythm to approaching the show. This year, that meant back-to-back meetings for two and a half straight days, with little show floor time until Wednesday. But now that I've spent time in the LVCC, it's obvious that the feel of COMDEX remains the same, though steady improvements here over the years have eased the taxi lines and traffic snarls that threatened to ruin past shows. Another huge improvement is the cost of coming to COMDEX: In years past, hotel rooms could set you back $200 a night. This time around, I was able to get a trip package from Expedia that included a four night hotel stay, rental car, and cross-country airfare for just over $500. That's nuts, and if companies are still cheaping out when it comes to business travel, it's time for them to start reevaluating the Las Vegas shows. I got a similar deal last January at CES as well.

A few observations from the show:

Microsoft's booth, predictably, was massive, and the first thing that attendees see when they enter the show. The company moved its press presence from the small meeting rooms above the show floor to the Marriott up the street a year ago, and that scheme is still working well. Microsoft was showing Windows .NET Server 2003, Windows XP Media Center Edition, Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, and Visual Studio .NET 2003; pretty much what you'd expect.

Samsung's LCD and Plasma displays are huge, bright, and instantly desirable. If you don't believe we're entering the era of flat panel displays, you need to check out Samsung's product lines. Incredible.

SnapStream will soon release a new version of its Personal Video Station digital video recording (DVR) software which features a full-screen user interface, remote control compatibility, and--using a third party add-on--the ability to pipe recorded shows over a network to your PlayStation 2, so you can watch them on the TV. If you wanted Microsoft's XP Media Center software, but didn't want to spend two grand on a new PC, SnapStream is the way to go.

IBM has rebranded its products around the "Think" slogan, which harkens back to the company's origins while highlighting its most obvious product success of the past decade, the ThinkPad. That means that IBM's product lines are all changing, and they've got some exciting stuff coming down the pike though I'm sworn to secrecy on most of it, at least temporarily. But I can tell you that its monitor lines will be marketed as ThinkVision, its desktops will go by the name ThinkCentre, and its various products and services will be part of the Think Family of Offerings. Are you Thinkworthy?

Microsoft OneNote is going to change my life, and it's going to be a huge win for an awful lot of people. If you take notes--losing most of them, as I do--then this application is going to be as huge as Outlook. I'll have a more detailed write-up about this soon, but OneNote is far more important than it seemed at first blush.

Windows Movie Maker 2 rocks, and even though I have spent a lot of time with it already, I learned a few cool tips at COMDEX, and I'll have a full review on the SuperSite soon. I'm still getting incredulous email from Apple fans about this one, but it's game over, guys: This blows iMovie out of the water.

Now I'm not so sure about Hewlett-Packard's Tablet PC, as two problem areas came to light since my first look at the product since the Tablet PC launch last month. First, the HP is the only Tablet PC to use a glass screen, meaning that it doesn't include an active digitizer that provides important features such as pressure sensitivity. That's bad. Second, it uses the Transmeta Crusoe processor instead of the Intel Pentium III-M, which is potentially bad. I'll take a closer look at the HP soon and see how it fares in the real world before deciding its fate, however.

Speaking of HP, they are demonstrating what is clearly a Longhorn PC, though they refused to call it that. Dubbed Project Agora, the hardware end is basically a modular PC is that separates the noisy parts (video card, CPU, fans) from the user stuff (ports, optical drives and so on). But the really cool stuff about Agora is on the hardware end, because of its integration with upcoming Microsoft real-time communication tools. HP was actually showing a demo movie of this project that features prototype Microsoft user interfaces I had seen previously, and it was weird to see them in such a way. I'll be examining Agora more closely in the near future, but the company hopes to ship the hardware stuff in late 2004. You know, at the same time as Longhorn.

And finally, Las Vegas is getting a monorail. This week was my first trip to Vegas since January, and though I don't recall work having started back then, it's now almost complete. The monorail will connect major hotels on the Strip to the LVCC, giving convention attendees a clean, quiet, and fast way to get to the show without having to deal with Vegas' often gridlocked traffic. Like all monorails, the Las Vegas version is really cool looking. I can't wait to give it a try, and I'm assuming--based on the speed that work has progressed so far--that it will be completed soon.

News from COMDEX Fall 2002

COMDEX: Microsoft Announces New Media Center Partners

November 18, 2002: Microsoft announced today that four new PC-maker partners will sell Media Center PCs running Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE). ABS Computer Technologies, Alienware, Cyberpower, and Gateway will unveil new Media Center PC designs this week at COMDEX Fall 2002; the new PCs will be available immediately or within days. Coming just weeks after the XP MCE launch, this announcement is somewhat of a surprise. Microsoft previously said that it was working with other partners on Media Center PCs, but I hadn't expected this many new partners so quickly. And perhaps even more exciting is the news that many of the new Media Center PCs will ship in innovative form factors and a wide range of price points, making the products accessible to more users.

"[These companies] recognize the potential of the Media Center PC, and we're pleased at their commitment with Microsoft to deliver a compelling new way for consumers to experience the home PC," said Mike Toutonghi, vice president of the Windows eHome Division. "With the addition of innovative hardware designs and configurations, consumers will be able to enjoy an incredible digital entertainment experience from an expanded selection of media center PCs."

Gateway's Media Center PC is a standard tower design, similar to the machine Hewlett-Packard (HP) released late last month. But Gateway is pushing the envelope with a high-end bundle that features a Media Center PC and a 42" plasma screen for $4000; the PC will be available late this week. Alienware is using the tiny, cube-shaped Shuttle PC form factor, a truly compact design that might be more appealing to consumers than a standard tower. The Alienware system is available now.

COMDEX: Microsoft Announces New Office 11 Family Member

November 18, 2002: During his keynote address at COMDEX Fall 2002, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates unveiled a new Microsoft Office 11 family member: OneNote. The new application takes advantage of the Tablet PC's handwriting-recognition and digital-drawing features but works well with any kind of computer and a variety of input types. OneNote will let Office 11 users capture, record, organize, search, and reuse information in several formats--voice, digital ink, and standard typewritten notes--and keep the information in one place.

"Note-taking is a highly personal process that has not been well supported by computer software," said Jeff Raikes, Microsoft's group vice president of productivity and business services. "OneNote complements individual styles for capturing and organizing thoughts. It pairs the flexibility of a paper notebook with the organizational efficiency of digital content. By creating new applications such as OneNote, we are keeping the Microsoft Office family fresh and making strides to meet our goal of improving information-worker productivity."

OneNote features a tabbed UI that works like a loose-leaf binder, as well as the usual complement of Office toolbars and other tools. Unlike document-based applications, OneNote doesn't require users to manually save information; instead, the application auto-saves on the fly and brings up the last workspace when it's restarted. OneNote will be available as part of Office 11, which is due in mid-2003.

COMDEX: Microsoft Preps Win.NET Server for RC2, April Launch

November 19, 2002: Microsoft announced yesterday that Windows .NET Server (Win.NET Server) 2003 will hit the Release Candidate 2 (RC2) milestone within 2 weeks. The company will publicly launch the product in April 2003, although Microsoft has yet to announce the exact date or venue for the launch.

Win.NET Server is the next version of Windows 2000 Server, a product that Microsoft originally developed alongside Windows XP. But development of the two products veered in February 2001, when Microsoft decided to stay in tune with customer needs by extending the timeline for server launches. The company recently announced a similar scheme for its next-generation Windows products; the Longhorn project, due in 2005, will now include only desktop Windows versions, and the Blackcomb project will be a server-based successor to Win.NET Server.

COMDEX: Microsoft Updates Security Initiative

November 19, 2002: At the COMDEX Fall 2002 trade show in Las Vegas yesterday, Microsoft announced three important changes to the way the company communicates security fixes to its customers. The changes come less than a year after the company rallied around its Trustworthy Computing initiative, under which Microsoft is redesigning its products for better security. According to the company, the changes are the result of customer feedback.

"We're clarifying how we communicate security to customers," Mike Nash, vice president of Microsoft's Security Business Unit, told me in a briefing yesterday. "We had three main areas of feedback. First, the overall severity rating in our security bulletins was hard to understand, especially for individual users. Second, customers told us that our detailed technical bulletins were good for IT, but they scare individuals and are hard to understand. And third, customers appreciate our security alert email service, but [the email bulletins] often discuss products that customers don't care about."

To address these problems, Microsoft has changed its security-vulnerability rating system from the previous three levels to four: low, moderate, important, and critical. The new important level will describe many vulnerabilities previously classified as critical, and the critical rating will now be reserved for wormlike viruses and other more virulent problems. In addition, Microsoft will issue modified security bulletins for products that individuals use; the consumer-friendly version will contain simplified language and will be less technical than the standard bulletin, Nash said. Finally, Microsoft will begin a security email notification service for consumers that will contain only information about consumer-oriented products.

COMDEX: Windows Powered Smart Displays On Tap

November 19, 2002: Microsoft revealed yesterday that it will finalize the Windows Powered Smart Displays (formerly code-named Mira) software this week, and partners will deliver the first-generation hardware January 8. Beginning today, customers interested in buying Windows Powered Smart Displays can preorder units from major online retailers such as Amazon.com or Buy.com, the company says. In the United States, customers can preorder ViewSonic devices in both 10" and 15" versions. Elsewhere, Fujitsu, NEC, and Philips will sell Windows Powered Smart Displays. Dell will begin selling ViewSonic Windows Powered Smart Displays in the coming weeks.

First introduced in January 2002 at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Windows Powered Smart Displays let users access their PCs using remote, wireless-enabled displays. The products are based on Windows CE .NET, Wi-Fi, and Microsoft's Remote Desktop technology. Because Remote Desktop requires Windows XP Professional Edition, all Smart Displays will ship with a copy of that software. ViewSonic's devices, which include wireless-networking adapters, give consumers everything they need right out of the box.

When I tested the final ViewSonic hardware yesterday, I found performance acceptable but a bit slow. The 10" model weighs about 3 pounds and features rubber grips that make it easier to hold, buttons that emulate the mouse buttons, a cursor for using the mouse pointer without the stylus, and other ease-of-use features. Windows Powered Smart Displays will cost about $1000 to $1300, depending on the model and size.

COMDEX: Microsoft Delivers Final Visual Studio .NET 2003 Beta

November 20, 2002: Microsoft announced at COMDFX Fall 2002 this week the immediate availability of Visual Studio .NET 2003 (code-named Everett), which includes the final version of the Microsoft .NET Compact Framework for smart devices based on Windows CE .NET (formerly code-named Talisker). Visual Studio .NET 2003 is an incremental update to Visual Studio .NET, and Microsoft will finalize it early in 2003. Microsoft will launch the product with Windows .NET Server (Win.NET Server) 2003 in April, the company says, although customers who want to launch applications written to the .NET Compact Framework before that time can do so with a new Go Live license, which will be available in the coming weeks.

Visual Studio .NET 2003 includes support for the latest Web services specifications, such as WS-Attachments, WS-Routing, and WS-Security; support for Windows Forms in Visual C++ .NET; an integrated version of Visual J# .NET; and support for more than 200 mobile devices based on Windows CE .NET, the Pocket PC, and Pocket PC Phone Edition.

The next generation of Visual Studio .NET will be based on the Yukon series of technologies, which will debut with the release of the next Microsoft SQL Server version. This Yukon-based Visual Studio .NET version--due "a little bit more than a year from now," according to Microsoft's Dan Hay--will be a major release featuring an easier-to-use interface for Visual Basic .NET and SQL Server stored procedures that are written in any .NET language, including C#.

Visual Studio .NET 2003 will be a free upgrade for Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) customers. Other users can upgrade to the new version for $29.99.