New digital goodies reach a crossroads

November 19, 2001|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

It's always fun to see what's new at Comdex, the giant computer industry show that drew thousands of geeks, corporate execs and marketing wizards to Las Vegas earlier this month. This year's extravaganza was smaller and more subdued than normal in the aftermath of Sept. 11, but Comdex still provided an opportunity to see what new goodies the people who make PCs, peripherals, phones, PDAs and other gadgets have in the works.

Unfortunately, the industry has reached a point where too many new products have the look and feel of solutions in search of a problem. Almost everyone who really wants a PC already has one, and those who don't can join the club for as little as $600. Even that modest investment will buy more horsepower than anything available a couple of years ago. It will certainly buy a computer good enough for the Web browsing, word processing, e-mail and financial record-keeping that most of us do with our PCs.

As a result, the industry is constantly trying to reinvent the PC, or at least find new uses for it that will convince us we really need fancy new hardware. For example, makers of Windows-based computers are joining Apple and touting the PC as a digital video editor. That's because video processing is one of the few applications that needs more horsepower, faster connections and more hard disk storage than most existing PCs provide.

But the Next Big Thing in hardware (at least from the manufacturers' standpoint), was introduced by none other than Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, who happens to be a software kind of guy. He showed off a concept that dates back to the 1980s, which he called the Tablet PC and which, not surprisingly, runs a new version of Microsoft Windows.

His platform was a prototype from Acer, which looks like a conventional, slim-line laptop. But once the screen is flipped up, it can rotate 180 degrees and fold back on the keyboard, with the display facing the user.

The screen is touch-sensitive, which means you can navigate Windows by pointing and clicking with a stylus, like a Personal Digital Assistant on steroids. More important, from Microsoft's standpoint, Tablet Windows will be able to perform true handwriting recognition, a trick that has so far eluded just about everyone. If it works, it will be like writing on a magic slate, only your scribbling will turn into a Microsoft Word document.

Gates showed off a variety of other tablet prototypes. For my money, the dream Tablet is computer and screen in one slim unit that can operate on its own with a stylus but dock with a keyboard, disk drives, printer and other peripherals in the office. I'd like high-speed, wireless Internet access, too.

But the question with the Tablet, as with so many other gadgets these days, is: "Who really needs one?"

An obvious answer is people who can't type, but as a market, their numbers are shrinking. The Tablet PC could also be a boon to people who have to fly economy class, since their seats are squished so close together that it's virtually impossible to open a standard laptop on a fold-down tray. On the other hand, the people who can afford these gadgets are likely to fly first class anyway.

A Tablet PC could help people who want to take notes unobtrusively at a meeting. And, since most notes wind up in the trash - or in drawers full of pads with equally useless notes of equally forgettable meetings - the Tablet PC could save forests of notepaper.

But serious note-taking, as in contract negotiations or conversations between presidents and co-conspirators - produces notes that are legally admissible in court because they were created at the time of the conversation in the participant's handwriting. It's doubtful that the courts would look kindly on electronic versions that could be invisibly altered, or that serious note-takers would consign these valuable handwritten records to the care of yet another buggy version of Windows.

On the other hand, Microsoft and the hardware manufacturers could overcome these objections and make the Tablet PC irresistible to one group of buyers. It would take a bit of redesign, but if they made the tablet 14 inches long and turned the screen yellow with blue rules, every lawyer in the country would line up to buy one.

Think about it, Bill. And remember who told you.

A good idea improved: I don't know anyone who likes pop-up Web browser ads, or pop-unders, or a cascade of exploding browser windows, for that matter. Unfortunately, they're becoming ubiquitous as advertisers and porn site operators look for ways to hijack your eyeballs. But you don't have to put up with them.

A tiny company called Panicware has recently upgraded its free (no strings attached) Pop-Up Stopper, a nifty little program that does exactly what it says. The software, which previously worked only with Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.x (that means versions of IE that start with the number 5), now supports IE6 and Netscape 4.x, but not Netscape 6.

There are some new features in Pop-Up Stopper 2.6, including a setting that will block most obnoxious pop-ups but allow a link on a Web page to open a new browser Window - something that legitimate sites often do. The previous version blocked all but one instance of a Web browser, which meant that legitimate window-opening links wouldn't work. Like the previous version, this one allows you to override the blocker by holding down the shift or control keys when you click on a link.

If you hate pop-ups and use one of the browsers it supports, give this one a try. If it annoys you, throw it away - there's no downside. Surf to www.panicware.com.

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