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Christmas Gift Guide
Tech Industry

Comdex cools it

perspective It's taking the year off, leaving behind a legacy of storied product launches and crass commercialism.

perspective For many of us, November has always been a time to gather with friends to feed on cocktail weenies, negotiate transportation difficulties and revel in the crass commercialism that makes this country great.

Unfortunately, Comdex is being cancelled this year. That only leaves Thanksgiving for this sort of thing.

Although it's always been fashionable to carp about the week-long trade show, Comdex has always played a crucial role in the high-tech industry.

First and foremost, it has served as a launch pad for many new products and companies. Philippe Kahn, for instance, held the first press conference for Borland back in the '80s at a McDonald's near the convention center.

Comdex existed in part to prove that everyone, even billionaires, had to press the flesh.
Despite enormous hype, a number of the "big" product launches at the show have flopped famously. The Tablet PC, shown in 2001 and introduced on the eve of the 2002 show, continues to sell below expectations. And Microsoft's "smart objects" effort was supposed to play out on watches, which made a debut in 2002 and has yet to conquer wrists worldwide.

In 1997, there was the Rex, while in 2000 the Internet appliance was a big deal. In the same year, Hewlett-Packard's Carly Fiorina delivered a keynote the same day HP had to admit defeat in its attempt to acquire PricewaterhouseCoopers. And Netscape Communicator--it was going to take over the desktop.

One of my favorite memories is of listening to a speech by Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son in 1996. Standing in front of an image of the globe and flanked by executives that looked more like bodyguards, Son expounded upon his vision of the wired future. "This guy's a genius. He doesn't think in terms of years. He thinks in dynasties," an analyst whispered.

I pointed out that the speech we were listening to was about how Son was updating his vision speech from 1994. "Well, the Internet came along and that changed things," the analyst replied.

Maybe like Grateful Dead fans, executives will just show up at the Riviera parking lot in the second week of November and start doling out business cards.
Still, many of the flops at Comdex eventually came true. The attempts from 1997 to 2000 by PC companies such as Gateway and Compaq to merge consumer electronics and computers began to occur in late 2003. Similarly, a wearable computer--a staple of keynote speeches in the '80s and '90s--has arrived. But it's not a belt. It's the Treo 600.

The show also often served as a forum for gauging the pulse of the industry. In 1998, Joel Kocher theorized that the direct PC manufacturers would begin to operate more like retailers. Two years later, Kocher was out and Micron got sold, but Gateway and Dell have increasingly begun to function like full service stores.

Offshore outsourcing, or offshoring, was a relatively obscure wing of the software industry until late 2002. But starting in 2000 the international composition of the floor began to expand rapidly. Booths promoting the programming base in Egypt, Pakistan, Russia, Qatar and other nations seemed to increase in number.

Party entertainment in a lot of ways served as a proxy for the health of the economy. In flush years, companies hired the B-52s or Macy Gray. In lean years, Eddie Money and other bit players from the '70s came into vogue.

But more importantly, it served as a meeting place. Since the middle ages, merchants have felt compelled to gather annually in central locations if only to re-establish contacts. The tech industry is no different. The success of the Consumer Electronics Show and Computex prove that mass conventions still work.

As did these other shows, Comdex existed in part to prove that everyone, even billionaires, had to press the flesh. Until the past few years, the show would start with a speech from Gates, who would then follow it up with a rare press conference open to the entire media. Late at night, he and Ballmer would hit the round of parties to shake hands. On occasion, Intel President Paul Otellini could be seen helping organize servers and bartenders at charity events.

Even though Dell Computer only exhibited at the convention sporadically, Michael Dell attended regularly. Once, he even gave me a limo ride. The bodyguard kept eyeing me suspiciously, but Dell himself was more than happy to pass along tips about his competitors.

Comdex failed because it got too expensive and chaotic. The demise was signaled in 2000 when IDC analyst Roger Kay realized that it was easier and cheaper to get around by a rented bike than cabs.

"Nobody realized it was just the tip of the iceberg," Kay said in a phone interview. "It coincided with the decline of PC sales, and the industry hasn't been the same since." By 2002, rooms that used to require six-month advance reservations were going for bargain rates.

And even though the show has been cancelled for now, something will pop up on the calendar to take its place. Maybe like Grateful Dead fans, executives will just show up at the Riviera parking lot in the second week of November and start doling out business cards.