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Net creeping up on PC at Comdex

The personal computer still is king of the Fall Comdex show, but the Internet is making inroads.

LAS VEGAS--The personal computer still is king of the Fall Comdex show here, but the Internet is making inroads.

The Net's greater presence is felt despite the diminished presence of Netscape, the dominant Net browser provider, at this year's show.

In his keynote speech today, Cisco chief executive John Chambers compared the Net to the industrial revolution in terms of its significance to people's daily lives. (See related story)

On Sunday night, IBM, Netscape, Sun Microsystems, and Delco Electronics announced the "network vehicle" initiative, which lets drivers surf the Net, send email, and navigate around town while driving. (See related story)

Many of the panels at this week's show focus on the Web and bandwidth topics. Some examples: "Selling it on the Net: The Future of electronic commerce" and "How does a Web venture raise money?" Most are well attended.

Even some industry giants chose Comdex (a name that's derived from "Computer Dealers Expo") as the "coming out party" for Net-related products and services. CompuServe rented thousands of square feet of booth space to offer the first public demonstration of "C," the company's Web-based online service. AT&T today announced its WorldNet Virtual Private Network Service, which gives business users remote access to their email and employee directories and gives clients access to their corporate databases.

Both CompuServe and AT&T were handing out their own brands of Net-access software, too. CompuServe scheduled a guest appearance by film critic Roger Ebert, one of its online forum partners, to tout its product. (CompuServe also was holding a drawing for a Corvette convertible carrying a $45,254 sticker price.)

"This show used to be a hardware and software exhibit, and now it's more Internet related," said Randi Mears, an educator from Salt Lake City who was checking out the booths in the Internet pavilion.

Added Jana Cunningham, a telecommunications manager for Nordic Track, who was attending the show: "My impression of Comdex is that it was a PC-based show. But the dividing line between PCs and networking is becoming more gray."

Ron Katzin, president of Skylink Networks, a Las Vegas Internet service provider, is one businessman who is benefiting from the trend. There is a shortage of bandwidth at the show as companies rush to offer online demos, and his company is helping out, Katzin said. As a result, Skylink Networks is providing Net access Microsoft, Intel, and IBM, among others, at this week's show.

In fact, business is so good, he says, that he plans to go national, specializing in providing Net access to trade show exhibitors. This year, Katzin has set up a booth to sign up more customers and promote the service. "Everything around here is based on the Net," he said.

In the Internet and online services category, some 50 new products were listed, including chat programs, online games, virtual shopping malls, search engines, and filters. Most came from smaller companies or start-ups.

Despite the Net's inroads at Fall Comdex, industry executives and attendees see lapses. The biggest one: the diminished presence of Netscape, which last year rolled out Internet products and sent chief executive Jim Barksdale to the podium as a keynote speaker. "Not seeing Netscape here is surprising," said Howard Vaughn, director of operations technology for Tribune Education in Chicago. "It makes you wonder where the competition is."

By contrast, Microsoft is touting its "Partner Pavilion," where a concentration of some 300 software and hardware vendors, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), and developers are demonstrating products built on the company's platforms.

Tracy Wheeler of Doug Evans & Partners in New York thought she would see more search-engine companies and ISPs. (Yahoo did hold a media party, however.)

Some say Comdex could do more to promote the Net. "I think they need to do a better job," said Jim Hoffman, cofounder of Bigfoot, an email and Internet directory company that is in its second year offering a booth at Comdex. "At least this year the Internet pavilion is not some pup tent in the parking lot [as it was last year]. They still are getting their arms around this."

Bigfoot was doing its best to liven up this year's staid festivities, too: it was handing out free tattoos of a footprint.