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Perspective: A last hurrah for Comdex?

On the eve of the computer industry's annual product fest, CNET's Charles Cooper says the show is slowly dying for lack of interest.

The first time my editors sent me to the Comdex computer trade show in Las Vegas, I was young, wide-eyed and owned a reasonable head of hair. Well, at least I had more on my head than the accompanying photo might suggest.

During those go-go days in the mid-1980s, the annual trade show was something else. For starters, it was a semi-annual event. The new product spigot was full blast. So much was happening that the event's organizers could hold another Comdex each spring in Atlanta.

In those pre-monopoly days, Comdex was full of possibilities and fizz was in the air. Nobody knew how this nascent industry was supposed to end up. And if they said they did, well, they were just fibbing. There was just too much going on.

Microsoft was just another software company. Truth be told, it was not even considered first among equals. That title went to Lotus, at the time the preeminent software developer with its runaway spreadsheet success Lotus 1-2-3. When Bill Gates opined, the press did not fawn over him like a rock star. We paid closer attention to the more interesting ruminations of Lotus' then-CEO Mitch Kapor or the always-flamboyant antics of Philippe Kahn of Borland.

In those pre-monopoly days, Comdex was full of possibilities and fizz was in the air.
Fact is the early versions of Windows were awful and, besides DOS, Microsoft didn't have much of a product portfolio to talk up on the show floor--at least not compared to what was going on at Lotus, Borland, WordPerfect and Ashton-Tate.

Of course, that helped to make it all the more fun.

The competition on the hardware side was equally fierce. IBM may have been big and bad, but upstart clone makers like Compaq Computer, Tandon and AST Research usually grabbed the bigger show headlines.

Comdex was a geek's delight and you could lose yourself in the back aisles and easily stumble upon new products that were uniquely, outrageously cool.

Even the dumbest ideas got their 15 minutes of fame--and there was no short supply of oddball gadgetry. My particular favorite was a co-processor board that let Mac users operate a PC. The product was so kludgy and so expensive you had to wonder why anyone would bother.

But that was just it. Everything was up for grabs. This was not just a conventional trade show. It was a happening. Comdex may have been a zany potpourri, but you came away convinced that there was important stuff going on there that would reshape the future.

In a way, it succeeded too well. The computer industry, which grew up to become a key part of the overall economy, also outgrew Comdex. Now that Microsoft lords over the software industry as a convicted monopolist and PCs have transmogrified from cool to commodity, this is just another--albeit expensive--trade show.

With the big names increasingly staying away, who can blame them? For a lot of companies, the hassle and expense of trekking out to Vegas just isn't worth it. They can get a better return for the buck showing up at the sundry specialized conferences that attract the really serious buyers. With the economy still in a funk, every penny saved is a penny earned. So it hardly came as a surprise when Comdex promoter Key3Media warned earlier this week that it may need to file for bankruptcy protection.

The sad truth is Comdex just isn't relevant anymore. And it will never recapture that lost spark.