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Tom and I spent last week at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas and as always, it was overwhelming. Crowds at the Microsoft booth were especially large; you you felt as if you were taking your life into your own hands to fight your way to the front of the Vista Home Server, Ultra Mobile PC and Xbox 360 displays. If you’d like to see photos of some of the tech toys we saw there, check out my blog.

TVs were, no pun intended, on display everywhere. They ranged from tiny handheld models to movie theater-like giant screens, and picture quality on some models was amazing. Bigger may be better, but it doesn’t come cheap. Sony’s 70 inch 1080p LCD goes for $33,000.

Sharp unveiled the world’s largest full HD LCD with a breath-taking screen that measures 108 inches, but they’re not telling the price (it won’t be available until later this year).

But why buy just a TV when you can get a device that combines multiple functions? It seems as if the main theme this year was “convergence” – we heard the term over and over and saw numerous examples of converged technologies. TVs converged with computers, computers converged with phones, IP phones converged with PSTN phones, retro designs converged with futuristic functionality. Everywhere you looked, something was converging with something else.

This rush to combine several devices or functionalities into one is a natural outgrowth of our electronics-dominated world. How many of you have three or four or even more remote controls sitting on your coffee table? There’s one for the TV, one for the DVD player, one for the sound system, maybe one for the Media Center PC … well, you get the idea. A universal remote that can control all of those components is a mighty attractive idea, but I can go you one even better; my Pocket PC, which is also a cell phone, includes remote control software that I can use for my home theater equipment. In fact, there are a number of such programs for the PPC.

Speaking of remote controls, some of the coolest things we saw at the show were the various models of SideShow remotes. These are remote controls for Windows Vista Media Center that have a tiny LCD screen with which you control things like music playback without even turning on the TV or monitor. Link.

Convergence of computer and cell phone is something that many of us want today, but there’s an inherent dilemma: we want our cell phones small, but we want our computers to be capable of full desktop functionality. How do you accomplish both? All of today’s solutions are compromises, but we’re seeing more and better efforts to provide both of these. My Samsung i730 PPC phone does pretty much what I want, but it’s a bit bulky and battery life leaves a lot to be desired. At CES, we got a look at the next generation: the i760. It’s slightly sleeker and the model we saw there (as opposed to those we’d seen previously on the Web) has a side-slide keyboard.

The Samsung that was getting the most hype, though, was the Blackjack. There was even a huge ad for it on the front of the Las Vegas Convention Center. It’s actually a bit longer and wider than the i730, but significantly thinner. However, I don’t like that its keyboard is “out in the open,” rather than a slider.

Personally, I’d prefer to do away with the physical keyboard altogether and make the device thinner. I always use the on-screen keyboard anyway. Now Apple, with their just-announced iPhone (MacWorld’s attempt to steal the thunder from CES), has done just that. In fact, the Apple phone has many features I like, including a big screen and the elimination of a bunch of buttons on the front. I was excited when I heard that it runs OS X – but less so when I learned that it won’t allow you to install third party software, doesn’t have a memory expansion slot, and won’t support Exchange or Office. Not quite the level of computer/phone convergence I’d been hoping for. But hey, LG has a phone that’s similar in design to the iPhone (and in fact, came out before the iPhone was unveiled). Don’t know much about it yet, but it’s got my hopes up again. You can see it here.

One of the most interesting converged devices we saw was Samsung’s new P9000 “Communicator.” When you first get a look at it, you’re not sure exactly what it is. Its foldout keyboard “wings” remind me of a Lamborghini (but I’m hoping it’ll be a lot less expensive).

It turns out it’s a full fledged Windows XP computer with a 30 GB hard disk and a 5 inch screen but, unlike the Sony U series and various Ultra Mobile PCs, it’s also a cell phone. It works with CDMA and EVDO networks such as Verizon’s, but will also connect to WiMAX broadband networks. I figure it’ll either be a great success or a big flop. Since it was behind a glass case at CES and I wasn’t able to touch or hold it, I haven’t yet decided whether it’s the perfect size compromise for a computer/phone device, or whether it’s too big to work well as a phone and too small to work well as a computer.

The convergence trend continued as we encountered “smart” watches, “smart” coffeepots and other common household devices with embedded computers. This is obviously what the future holds, but which ones will catch on is anybody’s guess. I still remember the Samsung Internet-enabled HomePAD refrigerator that came out back in 2003.

Everyone ooh’ed and ahhh’ed at it in the stores, but I don’t know of anyone who actually bought one. Only a really dedicated gadgeteer would be willing to shell out eight grand for a fridge just because it has a monitor in the door.

Which brings us, in a round-about sort of way, to the real question of today’s editorial: just how far can/should convergence go? Combining devices certainly offers certain conveniences – who wants to carry around separate cell phone, PDA, and MP3 player if you can get it all in one compact package? But, as those who have owned printer/copier/fax machines and other combo devices know, there’s also a downside. What happens if one part of your multi-function device dies before the other(s)? Now do you have to throw away a perfectly good MP3 player because the phone quit working?

And some devices seem to take convergence to the point of being ridiculous. Do I really want a coffee cup that can connect to the Internet? A pair of sunglasses that plays video games? I haven’t even yet accepted the idea of having a camera built into my phone; watching all those folks in Vegas taking pictures with their cell phones was a little disorienting. I guess it’s convenient, but there are just too many places where cameras aren’t allowed, and I don’t want to have to give up my phone every time I enter one of them. I’ll stick with my dedicated Nikon for now.

Tell us what you think. Do you like having all your devices combined, or do you prefer separate, dedicated devices, at least for some functions? What (if anything) would you like your cell phone to be able to do that it doesn’t now? Are you a fan of unified communications, where you can receive and send your phone calls, faxes, email and instant messages from a single interface or device? What’s the most ridiculous “combo” device you’ve seen or heard of?

Deb Shinder, Microsoft MVP