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Rough trade show

Is Comdex getting old, or am I just getting too old for Comdex? Its charms, slight to begin with, have worn even more thin, and my tolerance for the desert, as Burning Man demonstrated this summer, is less than robust. Vegas did me in, folks.

Is Comdex getting old, or am I just getting too old for Comdex? Its charms, slight to begin with, have worn even more thin, and my tolerance for the desert, as Burning Man demonstrated this summer, is less than robust.

Vegas did me in, folks.

One night at AdultDex at The Imperial Palace, featuring all the latest in DVD, multimedia, videoconferencing, e-commerce and other technology useful to the "adult entertainment" industry, and I was spent. So at the last minute I flew in my minions--my 12-year-old son Vermel, his paramour Ammonia Blossom and their school chum Jai Pegue-- to cover the all-ages portion of the tech show.

This sorry Comdex is showing its age (writes Vermel, a discerning critic). The official word was that 200,000 people showed up, although the city's all-knowing cab drivers said that was wishful counting. Some think Comdex's days as the largest Vegas convention are history. Two said the town attracted more gear heads for the national auto parts dealer show the week before. So put that in your tailpipe and smoke it…

And where were the vendors? No-shows included Motorola, Intel, AMD, IBM, Compaq and Dell. That gave the attendees some elbow room: Toshiba had a monster booth, while Gateway and Sony moved from the back of the main hall to the front. Iomega had a respectable presence, especially for a company whose stock has been on a downward slope since Comdex two years ago.

Acer wins for best exhibit (chimes in the critically acute Ammonia Blossom). They hired acrobats who whipped around to New Age music while holding notebooks--an impressive feat considering that most people can't handle computers while sitting at their desks. National Semiconductor, trying to plug its chips as the way to power new Internet gadgets, resorted to the usual sexist antics in the form of scantily clad imitation Spice Girls. This had the desired effect on the testosterone-driven geek audience--i.e., it got their attention--but those of us in possession of our faculties winced at the spectacle almost as much as at the lyrics: "Easy Internet access/For you and for me/Easy Internet access/Beyond the PC." You get the picture, and it's not a pretty one.

On the show floor, some companies proved savvier that others at drawing a crowd. Booths offering free chocolate chip cookies, foot massages or any type of T-shirt invariably proved more popular than some of the larger companies' attempts at entertainment. Philips, for example, staged a full musical extolling the virtues of the networked home to a small, yet perplexed, audience. Honorable mention goes to TurboLinux, though, which hired parachuting penguins that burst through a Microsoft Monopoly board.

Speaking of monopoly, Sun CEO Scott McNealy, no shrinking violet when it comes to bad-mouthing Microsoft, is having a field day with Judge Jackson's finding of fact. At McNealy's Comdex keynote, he played the song Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, a reasonably low blow. His act sank even lower in the Q&A that followed. Referring to the ad campaign that boasts Sun is "the dot in dot-com," McNealy quipped, "SGI and Compaq are the slash-slash, and Microsoft is the colon. We left that part of the tagline out." Colon jokes! What was he trying to do, evacuate the place?

Bill Gates may be a predatory monopolist, but anyone who has The B-52s in his Rolodex can't be all bad (reasons the pop-savvy Jai Pegue). NEC followed up this flawless act with '70s retro curiosity REO Speedwagon. And at the annual Micrografx Chili Cookoff, the Commodores--sans Lionel Richie--entertained the crowd while America's Most Wanted filmed in the background. HP's entry in the contest: Chili Con Carly.

For the benefit of us film buffs, Microsoft hosted a preview of the upcoming James Bond movie, "The World Is Not Enough." The crowd of tech press and analysts laughed, on cue, at references to the millennium bug and applauded when the HP Jornada was spotted on actress Denise Richards, who uses the palm-sized PC to disable a nuclear warhead.

"Denise," as one Microsoft product manager fondly referred to her, will also do promotions for the struggling Windows CE operating system during the run of the movie. But apparently Microsoft and HP didn't get what they paid for when they split the $300,000 bill to get the product placement, one insider said. In the movie, the audience only gets the faintest glimpse of the PalmPilot wannabe.

Lounging at the Paris Hotel, I nursed my hangover before hopping on a shuttle to check in on Oracle OpenWorld in Los Angeles.

The new Paris Hotel, by the way, is a story unto itself. The French are notoriously proud of their language and ever vigilant about blocking the intrusion of English into their vocabulary. So it was with a little sympathy, if not horror, that I watched as employees were forced to converse with guests in grade-school French. Other atrocities: gambling-floor signs like "Le Jacque-Pot" and "Tour de slot." C'est tragique, n'est pas?

At the Oracle gathering, company execs were asked the question of the day during a Q&A with Larry Ellison: Why host OpenWorld during the same week as Comdex? Oracle marketing honcho and diminutive man-in-black Mark Jarvis fielded the question with typical Oracle hubris: "We booked our date before they did," he said. Never mind that Comdex has been held during the same week for about the past decade.

Other notes on OpenWorld:

• Larry delivers the same keynote for the millionth time, complete with his routine complaint (as if to prove his mettle as an eccentric billionaire) about turning down the lights. Reporters sigh wearily. He makes it up later with an extra lively rant against Microsoft.

• The power of using gadgets over the Internet: Larry pushes the button on his cell phone to automatically make a Coke pop out of a vending machine. Magic!

• Larry admits he is aging: Peering at his cell phone, he reaches in his pocket for a pair of glasses. He notes: "Now I can see the phone!"

• High point of the show: Larry trots out L.A. Lakers star Shaquille O'Neal to support Oracle's new "NC for every child" campaign. In true Oracle fashion, the NC does not yet exist. Shaq mumbles something about being into technology for two years, asks the rich folk in the audience to buy NCs for kids, and shuffles off the stage. Larry looks like he swallowed a fish. I'm not going to ask you to buy an NC, or even a cola out of a vending machine. Just send me your rumors.