CMC Magazine: January 1999


Fall COMDEX is Still a Killer

by Robley Curtice

Fall Comdex in Las Vegas is still the stellar electronic event of the year, even though this year saw murmurs of dissent. The stats on the conference are overwhelming: 220,000 attendees from 131 countries, 2400 exhibiting companies, 10,000 new products are launched during the week, and two-million five-hundred-fifty thousand square feet of exhibition space (510 football fields!) are all present. Ponder for a moment wandering about in two-million five-hundred-fifty thousand square feet of electronic buzzing, singing, music blaring, raucous huckster filled exhibition space. Amazing and debilitating! But now onto the bright spots… the highlights… trends of the show.

A slew of keynote speeches by luminaries of the electronic world failed to provide anything really new. Appearing on the soapbox were Bill Gates (Chairman and CEO, Microsoft Corporation), Jeff Papows (President and CEO, Lotus Development Corporation), Eckhard Pfeiffer (President and CEO, Compaq Computer Corporation), Lawrence J. Ellison (Chairman and CEO, Oracle Corporatio), Charles Wang (Chairman and CEO, Computer Associates International, Inc.), Craig Barrett (President and CEO, Intel Corporation), Rick Thoman (President and COO, Xerox Corporation) and John Sidgmore (CEO, UUNET Technologies, Vice Chairman and COO, WorldCom, Inc.). If you are interested in hearing exactly what they said, all their speeches are available on the Internet at the address:, using RealAudio. Perhaps Gates speech summarized the rest with his theme that “the best is still to come…” Also he opined that as the technology becomes more powerful, all should work to keep it simple.

Speaking of Gates and Microsoft, their SQL Server 7.0 was introduced at this show. Thus begins a battle royal between database software heavyweights for this lucrative market. It will be quite a competition since the two systems are very different in their approach to managing data which means the IT departments will have to choose up sides. Oracle 8i is designed to manage over 150 different data formats while SQL is focused on supporting a few formats but giving and optimal and stable performance. Ellison claims that the Oracle 8i has the first Java Server built in means that it is an universal server that can provide a one move stop for the database, file management, and application-hosting features. Microsoft claims that it is a recycled version of the idea of an universal server.

Another show innovation was new ideas for PCs. Xbernaut Corp. of Fairfax, Virginia, for instance, had a “wearable” PC. We had seen similair models at M.I.T., but now a commercial model is available at a price between $4,999 and $5,695 for a 233 MHz Pentium with 128 megabytes of ram, a 4.3 gig hard drive and PC slots to add a wireless modem. Everyone from automobile mechanics to surgeons could use one of these. A new spin on PCs was Cyrix Corp’s a three-pound battery-powered wireless display device called “Web Pad.” This prototype allows the user to surf the Web or check email from almost anywhere near the command station. “Pad” stands for Personal Access Device. It is a product as “…easy to use as the telephone,” as they say.

At the Media Analyst get-together, the Next Big Thing was said to be Home Networking. Many vendors were preparing products that would tie together the various computers, controls and appliances in the house for release next year. But we didn’t see the big push on the floor for these, and it has been said that of the 18 million homes in the U.S., only about 10 percent have any kind of network. As a matter of fact, the consensus at the show was that home networking won’t work if consumers are required to re-wire their houses. AC power lines, phone lines and wireless radio frequency (RF) devices would all provide the needed pathways. There are a few products being sold now that would work. Intelogis Inc. has an AC adapter that allows connecting two PCs and a printer. Proxim Inc. has circuit boards for wireless connections that also fit the bill. And finally, WebGear Inc. offers a two- PC wireless connection. Intel is another company focusing on this market and products even though it knows that they won’t be available for years. Phone-line networking products have been delayed because of technical problems, but expect to see some next year. Perhaps when high-speed Internet access (probably available in only one outlet per home) becomes more available, it will force the networking issue.

Also of interest was the push towards using voice-activation technology that identifies commands and issues them to a computer which would then respond with synthetic speech. Microsoft, again, has been doing pioneering work in this area with their recent acquisition of a voice-pattern company. And again Microsoft has also been hard at work on something called “ClearType,” a product that manipulates pixels to provide a sharper text that is easier to read. Gates was very proud of this new software design, providing a quick run-through on it during his keynote speech.

Finally there is the waning of Comdex from its high point of the conference that all in the industry had to attend to one that this year lost IBM, Intel, Netscape, Compaq, Packard Bell (NEC, Inc.), Western Digital Corporation and Dell. (Intel alone was responsible for at least $2 million dollars worth of business for Comdex.) It all has to do with “cost- effectiveness.” The charge, for instance, just put up a banner over a booth is a $5000 . The companies feel the expenditures to do business at the conference are just to high. There was also the complaint that the show was becoming “too consumer focused.” Some companies feel may be more effective to exhibit at smaller, more specific shows than at this show. This happened to Software Development Conference in San Francisco which may not be back next year because the vendors felt that it did not deliver a focused audience. Comdex, owned by Softbank Corp.’s Ziff-Davis Inc., is still a monstrous event with attendance rising 4% this year. Since its beginning in 1979 as the Computer Dealers Exposition (4,000 attended that), the show has not only grown but so have the gripes: it’s too expensive, the taxi lines are too long, the hotels triple their charges during the show and it’s impossible for an ordinary mortal to cover two-million square feet. Many of the companies are not abandoning Comdex completely but maintaining hospitality suites and meeting rooms in which to get together with customers.

Robley Curtice (, a San Franciscan, is an early-retired teacher who haunts West Coast technical conferences searching for the 21st Century Killer App.

Copyright © 1999 by Robley Curtice. All Rights Reserved.

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