Almost 1 million computer users, vendors and marketeers visited Comdex in Las Vegas this past week to see new products, cut deals and schmooze each other into buying more, more, more in 1996. As usual, attendees trudged across miles of carpeted walkways, their eyes glazed, looking for the lastest, greatest computer gizmos.
This Comdex was different in one important way, however. There was palpable enthusiasm at just about every booth hawking Internet-related products. Late Thursday afternoon the Internet Pavilion at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel was still crowded and both America Online and CompuServe pitched their services to standing-room-only audiences there. Smaller companies, including Toronto-based InContext, showed off a variety of Web-authoring kits aimed at both novice and experienced PC users.
The stage was set for the Net invasion starting on Monday, when IBM chair Lou Gerstner trumpeted the growing role of cyberspace at business sites. In that keynote address, Gerstner revealed that the company is already working on a prototype Net terminal. At another IBM presentation later in the week, company officials said the terminal is aimed at "several large accounts" and not the consumer market.
Discussions over whether low-cost Net terminals will displace PCs among some segments of the consumer market were commonplace throughout the week. Not surprisingly, PC manufacturers spent the week downplaying any future role for low-cost terminals. Said Brian Burch, a marcom manager for Hewlett-Packard's Personal Products Division, "If someone offered you a brand-new TV for $100 instead of $300, but all you could get on it was the talk shows, would you want one? Probably not."
All three keynote speeches touched on the role of the Internet. Gerstner stressed the importance of a network-centric computing environment in the future, adding that the ability to link disparate business computers together will be a key factor. On Tuesday, Microsoft chair Bill Gates demonstrated futuristic software features embedded in desktop products such as Microsoft Office. In the demonstration, software wizards enabled with Intellisense were automated to search out and deliver data from the Net to the desktop. Not surprisingly, Gates's view of the future is decidedly desktop...not network-centric.
Novell CEO Robert Frankenberg played straight man for Dennis Miller at the Wednesday morning address. Frankenberg focused almost exclusively on the Net and its integration with Novell's NEST operating system. NEST is a slimmed-down version of NetWare that can be embedded in household and office appliances. During his presentation, Frankenberg showed off a networked system that incorporates paging, links to a home alarm system, and links to a remote office.
Almost every company at the show attempted to link its products to the Net, even outside the Internet Pavilion. Modem vendors scrambled to bundle their linking hardware with Net access software, and throughout the show Net hoopla prevailed. That hoopla will most likely increase at spring Comdex '96 in Atlanta.
For a close-up look at Comdex check out this weekend's CNET Central.