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Monday, November 15, 1999 Published at 22:25 GMT

Business: The Economy

Websites and widgets

Cidco's Mail Station - one of the latest electronic devices

By the BBC's Philippa Thomas in Las Vegas

Thousands of high-tech companies descend on Las Vegas each year for the Comdex convention, gambling that their idea will make them the next internet millionaires.

For one week each year, the glitter and glamour of Las Vegas gives way thoughts of websites and widgets.

Comdex is the biggest week on the high-tech calendar when more than 2,000 companies show an estimated 200,000 visitors a glimpse of the future.

The future, sans PC?

At a preview session on Sunday, convention goes made an unseemly scramble to see the latest electronic devices, which promise simple, hassle-free access to the internet.

[ image: The BBC's Philippa Thomas]
The BBC's Philippa Thomas
As each new appliance was ceremonially unveiled, delegates jumped on chairs for a better view; brought out their digital cameras; and shouted excited questions about memory, capacity and function.

These so-called internet appliances are getting the biggest buzz at Comdex this year, products that some industry watchers say spells the beginning of the Post-PC era.

The personal computer and the hardware and software to support it have dominated Comdex for most of its 20 year history.

But Phil Terry of the research group Creative Good told delegates here that technology companies in Europe and Asia should strive to avoid the mistakes being made in the US.

The biggest mistake of all, he says, is ignoring the mass-market customer - the average computer user who wants to use the web, without the bother of doing any technical homework.

Post-PC, post-Microsoft?

Much of the buzz was of course about the future of Microsoft.

The big question: is this 20th Century corporate giant sliding past its peak? Will the Post-PC era mean the end of the Microsoft Empire?

We may be in the "post-PC era" with the consumer demanding quicker, easier, cheaper access to the web, but Microsoft is making it clear they are determined to hang on in there.

Working with the consumer electronics company Vestel, Microsoft this week is promoting a new machine which offers instant access to the internet.

It will be sold as "plug and play", allowing the user one-button access to e-mail, chat, and shopping on the web. Of course, it takes you directly to a Microsoft site, but that is to be expected. Bill Gates has come a long way since he dismissed the internet as a passing fad.

Corporate America plays catch-up

Some of those already dealing in internet-based technologies can afford to gloat. Wall Street is obsessed with internet stocks, and the traditional corporations are frantically playing catch-up.

As one internet guru, Howard Anderson of The Yankee Group, puts it, the big companies are simultaneously threatened and offered great opportunities by the World Wide Web.

  • The first stage is denial - why should this matter to me?
  • The second stage is anger - why am I so unprepared to deal with this?
  • Then comes grudging acceptance
  • Finally wholesale adoption
Well, that is the progression if they are going to survive.

The message from the technology leaders is bullish: Either join our revolution or prepare to join the scrap heap.

KISS - Keep it simple stupid

But internet pioneers, who saw the light early and embraced the global network, cannot rest on their laurels, according to another leading analyst of industry trends.

Phil Terry of the research group Creative Good said that it is not only computers that are too complex and confusing but websites as well.

Look at the billions of dollars expected to be spent online on Christmas presents, he said, and then look at how many people are browsing the sites without dipping into their wallets.

Potential customers find it just too complicated. The so-called "conversion rate" of visitors to buyers is, on average, less than 1%.

In his words, most websites are simply flushing money down the toilet.

The message was that the industry can afford to congratulate itself, but it could do very much better.

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