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 user 2003-11-23 at 10:52:00 am Views: 127
  • #7960
    Comdex isn’t what it used to be
    Commentary: High tech’s biggest showcase downsizes

    SAN FRANCISCO (CBS.MW) – The biggest news stories at Comdex, even in its heyday, involved Bill Gates dancing with leggy women, baseball slugger Barry Bonds hawking networking gear, and a string of performances by the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

    The story this November is whether Comdex, the largest information technology trade show in the world, can regain enough substance to not only remain tech conference king, but to stay in business.

    “It’s been a show without focus for years, said John Peddie, independent analyst who has attended each ofthe annual Las Vegas events since 1980, and who somewhat reluctantly says he’ll be attending next week’s show. “I’ll be surprised if we see one more year of it — and I don’t think many people will miss it.”

    Anyone remotely related to the information technology went to Comdex in the late ’90s to walk labyrinthine hallways until you were lost, buzz about countless booths scrounging for free food, then end the day at any number of over-the-top corporate parties hosted by cut-rate celebrities.

    At its height in 2000, the show boasted more than a million square feet of exhibitions, more than 200,000 attendees, $200 dumpy hotel rooms, two-hour cab stands, and more hung over geeks per capita than anywhere else in the space-time continuum.

    In recent years, Comdex organizers scrambled to fill all the available floor space, amid complaints among IT professionals that the show was pointless and disorganized. Conversely, tech companies complained about a lack of quality sales leads.

    Peddie says about a quarter of the tickets were given away to locals in Las Vegas at last year’s show — not exactly the show’s core audience. Or was it? Companies hawking digital cameras took up nearly a third of the floor space.

    The ample space Comdex organizers couldn’t sell in 2002 was taken over by people hawking digital watches, socks, shoe inserts, back massages, even Bibles.

    There was a point to Comdex when casino owner Sheldon Adelson started it 23 years ago as the first Computer Dealer Expo. The idea was to give technology buyers a sneak peek at many of the products that would be available the coming year, so businesses could plan their budgets accordingly.

    The current Comdex owners, MediaLive International, just emerged from bankruptcy in June. Its executives say they are attempting to return to Adelson’s vision. For starters, space is only being leased to information technology companies — that means the cameras, cars, and personal massage machines are all out.

    To help keep the show IT-focused, MediaLive is “qualifying” attendees. With few exceptions, those who aren’t technology buyers or sellers will have to shell out $50 in advance, or $100 at the door.

    As a result, this year’s Comdex will be a decidedly scaled down affair. MediaLive is expecting about 50,000 attendees. They say they’ve sold about 150,000 square feet of floor space. While that’ s merely the size of a Home Depot, it’s better than some analysts had anticipated.

    The show is loosely being organized around several themes, including security, wireless, Linux/open source, and web services. Any improvement on how the floor space is organized will be welcomed.

    And instead of each company hawking their own respective products, many of this year’s displays will bring two or more companies together to demonstrate how their wares can work together. It’s a smart idea, since that’s the way most customers are actually buying products and services.

    While the IBMs ( IBM: news, chart, profile) and Microsofts ( MSFT: news, chart, profile) of the world no longer need Comdex as a springboard to announce their products, several companies will breaking out some new wares, showing that the show isn’t dead yet.

    Gateway ( GTW: news, chart, profile) plans to announce several enterprise-class storage products. Computer Associates ( CA: news, chart, profile) will debut software that integrates antivirus anti-spam and a program to control inappropriate Internet use by employees in one product. AT&T Wireless ( ATT: news, chart, profile) is expected to make an announcement from the showroom floor on Tuesday, and IBM and Acer are expected to show off new hardware.

    A number of technology companies such as Dell ( DELL: news, chart, profile), IBM and Intel ( INTC: news, chart, profile) that abandoned the show are coming back this year. Dell will be on the showroom floor for the first time since 1997 — although it also plans a separate event at a nearby hotel. IBM executives will speak on two panels, and Intel will run a booth inside Microsoft’s pavilion.

    And several high-profile technology companies including Siebel Systems will make an appearance at the show for the first time.

    One thing that won’t change is Microsoft, seemingly the show’s highest bidder, will have prime billing. The company will once again occupy the center of the showroom floor with a massive booth. And Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates will give the show’s keynote address — yet again.

    Others set to speak include Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy ( SUNW: news, chart, profile), Siebel Systems ( SEBL: news, chart, profile) CEO Tom Siebel and John Thompson, CEO of Symantec ( SYMC: news, chart, profile).

    Despite numerous threats, including a competing technology show in Las Vegas the same week that will use Darl McBride, the controversial open-source-hating SCO ( SCO: news, chart, profile) chief executive as a draw, MediaLive sees a future for Comdex. This year’s show will operate at a “very healthy margin,” insists Eric Faurot, Comdex’s general manager.

    For the sake of MediaLive and anyone in the tech industry with a hint of fondness left for Comdex, it had better. This seems to be the show’s last best chance to survive.