Is Comdex still worth the price of admission?
By Paul McNamara
Big-name vendors spend millions to out-strut one another, smaller companies cough up six figures to be seen as Las Vegas players, and 200,000-plus individuals gouge their expense accounts for the privilege of braving the legendary Comdex chaos.
Most vendors believe they are getting their money's worth, based on interviews at Comdex/ Fall '97. But the conspicuous absence of com-panies such as Compaq Computer, Netscape Communications, Oracle and Sun Microsystems from the show floor, coupled with disparaging words from industry watchers and veteran attendees, raised questions about the show's future.
Numbers alone seem to indicate that Comdex is as healthy as Microsoft's bottom line. Although no final count was available, show registrations were up 7 to 10 per cent above last year's attendance of 215,000, while exhibitors numbered 2300, up 200 over 1996.
Everyone said the show felt more crowded, but that growth may be double-edged. While most vendors seemed pleased with the traffic at their booths, others griped about the number of tire-kickers and T-shirt hounds. Attendees complained about not getting answers to their technical questions. Comdex show director William Sell insisted there has been no qualitative drop-off in the audience.
"If it was the case that the audience was weak and that Comdex wasn't working, you wouldn't be seeing the growth and the larger exhibit spaces and the massive commitment these companies make," he said.
Nevertheless, Comdex is feeling the heat from Internet-specific shows like this month's Fall Internet World '97 in New York. In addition, companies said they would rather concentrate resources on their own user conferences, and, increasingly, the Web itself.
"We decided we could get more bang for our buck by doing our own show," said John Sweney, manager of public relations at Compaq.
"We can get our message through to our customers without a lot of extra noise."
That would have been unlikely within the crush at Comdex. There was a constant din at the Microsoft pavilion, in particular, as people crowded armpit to armpit in front of some 300 Microsoft partner stations.
"You couldn't even move," said Stephen Pope, president of Dimensions Computer Automation. "There were things I would have liked to have seen, but couldn't get to."
Darrell Courtley, a manager of emerging technology research, said: "an important part of any trade show is stumbling across the smaller player who I might not come across otherwise, and that's where the size of this thing gets in the way."
The bottom line for vendors and attendees is that skipping Comdex is now at least an option.
"How many are thinking about it versus how many are actually acting on that?" countered show director Sell. "There are very, very few companies that are completely ignoring Comdex."
Hot-air balloons are newest show attention grabbersBy Rebecca SykesBetween the neon and the placard-plastered vehicles, Las Vegas is visually saturated at ground level, so vendors took to the skies to get their marketing message across at Comdex this year.
Several dirigibles with company logos whirred about in the airspace high above the desert floor, and a giant pink rabbit known to many as the Energizer Bunny bucked at the tether confining it to its parking-lot launchpad near the Las Vegas Convention Centre.
Comdex marked the inflatable debut for ViewSonic's square-shaped balloon that was just delivered from England just before the show.
One balloon in particular caught the eye of Jack Brinker, a senior systems engineering manager.
His attention was arrested by the prospect of a $US5 ride in a rattan passenger basket underneath a smiley face balloon dangling a giant pink tongue. Flames which shoot out of hissing hoses linked to propane tanks in the basket heat a small bubble of air trapped inside the top of the balloon and give it lift. The balloon can accommodate up to eight people, and the owner/operator was ordained as a minister so he can take a wedding party of seven and not waste a space on a full-time church professional.
Mice, keyboards, replicators proliferateBy Nancy WeilVarious companies rolled out new mice, joysticks, keyboards and replicators at Comdex. Some of those include the following:
Cirque introduced the Cirque Touchpad Design Kit for engineers, product designers and product managers who want to begin using touchpads for navigation on industrial equipment, as well as with handheld and mini-notebook computers.
The kit is available free to those who qualify and was created to help industrial users move from mouse-type navigation tools to touchpads. Cirque's line of navigational devices are called Cats - Power Cat, Smart Cat, Easy Cat. The Power Cat version comes with what Cirque says is the first touchpad-compatible pen, while the other models are used by gliding a finger across them.
Evolution Electronics made its US debut, demonstrating a range of PC music keyboard and software products. The British company introduced to the US market keyboards ranging from a model with 37 miniature keys to versions with 61 full-size keys with assorted other high-tech music features. Prices start at about $US50 and include the keyboard and PC software. More advanced models also include interface kits.
Sejin announced that its WebPlus wireless keyboard will be available to the OEM market.
The notebook sized keyboard has full-size keys and includes an integrated television remote control that can be programmed to control all popular television sets. WebPlus has a 10m range and uses a low-voltage microprocessor and sleep mode for longer battery life.
Microsoft brought two new peripherals to the show:
Its IntelliMouse TrackBall works with the touch of an index finger and also has a fixed base so that users can navigate the PC cursor without moving their entire arm. Pricing information about the mouse was not available.
The company also showed its Natural Keyboard Elite, designed to allow for a more relaxed and natural typing position than traditional keyboards. The keyboard is scheduled for retail release in February and has been endorsed by more than 15 OEM suppliers that plan to offer the keyboard as an upgrade option, Microsoft said.
Mobility Electronics released two universal docking products for mobile computer users.
The EASi Dock Universal Port Replicator connects a full-size keyboard, laser printer, mouse and scanner for mobile users. The replicator costs $US249 or $US349 with Ethernet.
The EASi Dock Universal Docking Station has all of the features of the replicator, plus two additional drive bays so that a CD-ROM, hard disk drive, tape backup, floppy drive or other similar devices can be hooked to the system. Printers, scanners or modems also can be used with the drive bays.
Ultima Associates released two new wireless products: a joystick and a keyboard.
The joystick uses a stealth fighter look, with angled lines, four firing buttons and throttle control. The flight hat switch on the joystick doubles as a mouse, so the user can change game options quickly.
Printer mania - there's no paperless office hereBy Jeanette BorzoLong-standing dreams of a paperless office showed no signs of coming true at Comdex this week, as a host of vendors announced new printers.
If anything, the computer revolution - most recently fuelled by inexpensive digital cameras and the phenomenal popularity of the World Wide Web - has increased the demand for printers of all shapes and sizes. As with most market segments in the computer industry, printers are getting "faster, better, cheaper" noted Angele Boyd, vice president of peripherals research at IDC during a Comdex session. Look for new players, particularly from Asia, in the coming year, she added.
Photos downloaded from the Web, traditional photos that have been scanned, along with the increasing popularity of digital cameras, have all boosted the market for colour inkjet and laser printers.
"There are lots of opportunities to print digital images," said Boyd. "If we compare growth of digital cameras with photo inkjet printers, you can see that photo inkjet printers are growing at a much higher rate than that of digital cameras."
IDC expects the photo-printing colour inkjet market to grow to 19.5 million units shipped by 2001, up from the expected 1997 level of 5.7 million units. These figures are included in the total colour inkjet projections of 12.5 million units to be sold this year, with 20 million units to be sold in 2001.
In the colour laser printer market, Hewlett-Packard and Tektronix hold the lead, said Alyson Frasco, a research manager at IDC, as the two vendors capture a combined total of 67 per cent of the market.
Next year, IDC expects Canon, Fuji Photo and Xerox to add new and faster printer engines to the market, leading to colour laser printers that produce up to 24 printed pages per minute - but no more significant price drops are expected until 1999.
The quality of colour laser printers is improving, Boyd noted, but still needs to improve to effectively compete with laser printers for the printing of colour images. Mita showed off a prototype of its new PointSource Ci-1000 Color Laser printer at Comdex, with plans to ship the device in the first quarter next year.
Fuji announced the Fujifilm Picto- graphy 4000 printer for large-format photographic-quality printing.
Hottest of the year
Iomega's booth was hot this year as hundreds of showgoers checked out the company's new disk drive. Even hotter was the company's gift to Comdex/Fall '97 attendees: ubiquitous yellow clickers that defined the sound of this year's show. The gadgets could be heard throughout the convention centre, provoking one reporter to yell "Just stop!".
Sweatin' to handhelds
The Philips Electronics booth took on an industrial edge. Against the whooping, stomping and grinding of an industrial backbeat, dancers clad in tank tops and shorts whipped chains on the stage as a childish female voice chanted, "Remember the Industrial Age . . . Remember the sweat". We think they were promoting handheld PCs.
Christmas came early
Fujitsu adorned a stage within its booth with a festive Christmas display, complete with a tree and a toy train circling it. Many dull-eyed and weary showgoers sat in front of the lonely display, nibbling candy canes at 3pm, listening to Christmas carols. The next demonstration wasn't until 4pm.
Samsung space cream
Samsung doled out some tasty treats at its booth: freeze-dried Neapolitan ice cream, the same stuff astronauts allegedly munch in space. "It's fun; it's a living," said Larry Alexander, who wore a bright orange astronaut-style jumper and handed out silver packages of the stuff. Alexander said he got to shake hands with none other than Bill Gates at a party earlier in the week.
Stress reduction a hit
The perennial stress-reduction booth at Comdex appeared to have some of the most intent users. Among the weary who strolled over were exhibitors and potential buyers. "This is the best demo I've had all day," said one IT manager, who asked to remain anonymous.
Back to the future
For those who took a minute to stray from the chocolate-chip cookie wielding component people who inhabited a makeshift booth at the entrance to the Las Vegas Convention Center, there were live computer women complete with platinum wigs, silver stiletto heels, dark shades and metallic micro-miniskirts.
Vendors extend build-to-order to notebooksBy Terho Uimonen and Kim GirardLeading US PC vendors, including Compaq and IBM, have extended their build-to-order strategies to the notebook segment, giving distributors the capability to offer US buyers a wider range of configuration options.
For vendors, the focus now is on implementing their build-to-order and configure-to-order plans in order to improve time-to-market and lessen the risk of being stuck with excess inventory, said Randal Giusto, director of mobile technologies at IDC.
In addition, some of the cost savings gained from the manufacturing efficiencies may benefit buyers in the form of lower prices and faster access to the latest technologies, said officials at Comdex/Fall '97. Compaq announced that additions to its high-end Armada 7300 and 7700 lines will be built to actual channel orders as they become available later this year.
And IBM gave the nod to its US resellers to build notebook PCs.
IBM will kick off the program with its ThinkPad 770, which has components - including memory, battery and CD-ROM - designed to slide into the machine, rather than be anchored down with screws.
Putting components into the hands of resellers could reduce from several weeks to several days the time it takes to get a laptop. And IBM said the new strategy should lead to price cuts, as it has with its desktop model, the PC 300GL, which now sells for $US999.
Device Bay may cause problems despite benefitsA new hardware standard that creates a universal receiving bay within PCs to ease the swapping of components would let users build their own PCs according to need. But it also could lead to more management headaches.
Named "Device Bay", the IEEE 1394 standard eventually would let users hot-swap hard disk, CD-ROM drive, optical drive and DVD-ROM units, as well as interchange the devices among PCs. Systems that use the components would automatically recognise peripherals installed, meaning users could easily add a second hard drive or battery using the PC or portable as a building-block platform.
But it could be some time before that option is available.
Intel's preliminary chip design supporting the standard won't be out until at least January, and Microsoft officials said they don't expect hardware to be available until the second half of next year.
Analysts said it is likely users will wait until 1999 to use Device Bay, as Windows 98 isn't expected to support it. It is unclear what operating system it will work with.
"It sounds like it would be a great idea if it truly works," said an IT manager Kenneth Bronson. by Kim Girard