Olympic tech's winners and losers

Some in IT provided medal-worthy performance at the Beijing games

BEIJING -- The flame is extinguished, and the games of the 2008 Olympics are closed. While the medal count is now final, a few awards have yet to be given out -- those for the winners and losers when it came to technology at the games.

Beijing had three aims for the Olympics, intending to present them as "People's Olympics," "Green Olympics" and "High-tech Olympics." While the first was a clear success and the second a failure, what about the third? Here's the medal stand for IT at the Beijing Olympics.

Winner: U.S. sports viewers. NBC presented the Olympics, including 2,900 hours of live coverage, in high definition (HD). With the U.S. economic slump leading to lower prices on HDTVs, the HD Olympics, followed immediately by the NFL season -- and preceded, for the truly athletically addicted with a good satellite package, by the Euro 2008 soccer finals -- gave armchair sports fans their best reason ever to upgrade to full HD.

Loser: Wireless Beijing. In most races, competitors are disqualified for false starts. This attempt at creating wireless Internet connectivity was a complete failure. First, there was no English-language interface. Then there was an English interface, but the log-ins didn't work. Then it said something about payment but gave no option for it. And ultimately, the coverage area wasn't large enough to make a difference for laptop or Wi-Fi-toting Olympic spectators, not in a city that already had plentiful and free Wi-Fi connections, including at Starbucks locations. That supply of free bandwidth makes Beijing a winner anytime, not just during the games.

Winner: Official systems integrator Atos Origin SA had the goal of being "invisible" at the Olympics for the simple reason that if it suddenly hit anyone's radar, then something was wrong. Despite being a top-level Olympic sponsor, Atos never broke the surface, maintaining its stealth status throughout, all the while processing 80% more data than at the 2004 Athens games.

Loser: Chinese sports viewers. Americans got high definition; Chinese viewers got high enthusiasm, but it was standard-definition all the way. Although China's major broadcasters all have HD broadcast capability, consumer uptake of HD sets in China and available HD broadcasts are minimal. Blu-ray Disc is similarly absent in home video. There was more Olympic coverage than anyone could possibly watch, but only outside of China did it leap off the screen.

Winner: Lenovo Group Ltd. installed 30,000 pieces of hardware throughout Beijing and the other Olympic event cities, despite rain and humidity of more than 90%. Perhaps most impressive, the manufacturer continued trials of its Beacon wireless photo-uploading system. Using 802.11a Wi-Fi and supporting Nikon D2x and D3 and Canon ED Mark2 cameras, photographers at game venues were able to transmit photos directly to their news bureaus without having to stop and load those photos from memory to a laptop. Although not yet commercially available, this is definitely a gadget of the future.

Loser: China Mobile Ltd. and China Netcom Group Corp. were top-level Olympic sponsors that really had nothing to win at the games. China Mobile is already the world's largest mobile service provider. That said, they brought nothing new to the "High-tech Olympics." Their trial of Chinese-developed 3G telephony standard TD-SCDMA (Time Division Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access) was little more than a glorified 2.5G service, which could spell trouble for the commercial launch of that service later this year.

China Netcom provided bandwidth and networking for the games. Yep, it sure did. Internet service was no better or worse at any other time of the year. The company's pavilion on the Olympic Green was also the least engaging of any top sponsors, and was little more than a glorified photo exhibition of the development of telecommunications services in China. It may not matter since, as part of its merger with mobile provider China Unicom Ltd., the China Netcom name is about to disappear anyway.

Winner: Samsung Electronics Co. won hearts and minds at the games with its pavilion, which featured green technology including handsets with cases made from bioplastics. The company gave many users their first taste of 3G service through its distribution of handsets to Olympic executives and reporters. The company's big-screen TV and improvised lawn gave spectators one of the few shady spaces that also offered viewing for the games. In addition, Samsung provided athletes and Internet access in its lounge. A parade of Chinese and Korean gold medalists and Korean pop star Rain visiting the pavilion didn't hurt in attracting visitors, either.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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