In tune with the times, technology fair scales back

  • Mark Briggs / All Things Media
  • Wednesday, November 14, 2001 9:00pm
  • Local News

The major information technology conference each year is Comdex Fall. It takes place in Las Vegas and in recent years has been front-page in newspapers and worthy of daily reports on major TV news stations. This year, however, thanks to a depressing technology economy and much more important news events worldwide, the splash of Comdex is barely a ripple. Still, I thought it would be interesting to see how the world’s greatest toy fair was shaping up during such serious times.

The best way to measure the buzz at Comdex is to avoid the temptation of actually attending the event, remain at your office in the rainy Pacific Northwest, and access all the reporting online, comparing and contrasting the different views. (OK, so the company wouldn’t spring for my trip to Vegas.)

The goal of Comdex is to allow technology companies, large and small, to show off in front of an audience of technology and business reporters, venture capitalists and corporate buyers. A “preview of the future” is what many of the companies who lease space on the 750,000-square-foot exhibition floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center would like you to think. I was one of 100,000 attendees at Comdex several years ago. The scope of the event is unlike any other trade show I’ve seen.

But before we take a look at this year’s show and what the next big thing might be, let’s turn back the clock to see how some previous hot items panned out over time.

PC Week’s top awards from Comdex in 1997 included companies like Trellix, U.are.U, Mangosoft and Dragon Systems. They may not be household names but many are actually still in business, and that’s saying something in an industry where so many companies received adulation in the press for business plans that never had a chance of working. Still, among the award-winners (the judging included some 600 entries from more than 2,000 new products at the show), there wasn’t one that I recognized as having lived up to the hype it was given four years ago.

So what’s new this year? Well what’s not new is Bill Gates using his keynote speech to push a new Microsoft technology that will change the world (this time, it’s the Tablet PC) while also predicting bright days ahead for the industry. Also not new is Oracle’s Larry Ellison using his keynote speech to explain how companies should dump Microsoft products for those made by his company.

The most striking new thing at Comdex this year is the mood. Elise Ackerman described the scene for the San Jose Mercury News, the primary news source for Silicon Valley:

“For years, Las Vegas’ Comdex trade show has been to technology what Munich’s Oktoberfest is to beer, a rollicking celebration of products mixed with raucous parties on the Strip. This year’s Comdex had more in common with the funeral industry.”

Attendance hit a high of 200,000 last year, but is down to 125,000 in 2001. Some 300 to 500 of the companies exhibiting last year have gone out of business, leaving this year’s total of exhibitors at just under 2,000.

Heck, attendees are even passing on trips to the famous brothels outside Las Vegas, according to the Mercury News, trips that were common in years past.

Among the best new products are gadgets that incorporate the usefulness of PDAs (personal digital assistants) with the wireless connectivity of digital phones. Nokia and Palm apparently have a couple worth noting. Also generating a quiet stir are products that promote security such as Internet server firewalls and iris-scanning technologies. Voice-recognition software is also creating some buzz as is anything to do with wireless technology.

And Microsoft has its usual circus sideshow, unveiling and promoting products, services and accessories that are part of its .Net initiative or the recently released Windows XP operating system. Seemingly in response to Microsoft’s plans, Sony announced it would team up with AOL and Nokia to develop a broadband and wireless strategy.

So as the technology industry adjusts to life after the roaring 1990s, it was inevitable that its annual big-time bash would also scale back. Solid business initiatives may once again be valued before pie-in-the-sky dreams that garner startup companies 15 minutes of fame. That’s a step in the right direction, as far as I can tell.

Maybe someday Comdex will become practical enough that the company will see the value in sending me. But I’m not holding my breath.

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