Comdex: It's smaller, but is it better?

Comdex: It's smaller, but is it better?

Joo-hun Lee is happy to be at Comdex, but Comdex isn't particularly happy to have him.

Lee travelled from South Korea to hawk his company's air cleaning equipment for offices on the Las Vegas show floor. At a time when Comdex is trying to reinvent itself as a show focused on enterprise IT, it's not the type of vendor that the show's organisers are particularly enamored of.

Attendees offered mixed reactions to this year's Comdex, which has been trying to remake itself after coming under fire for becoming too big and unfocused to be worth attending. Many said the show is smaller and easier to navigate than in past years, but some were disappointed with the class of exhibitor and said they'd like to have seen more enterprise IT vendors on the show floor.

For sure, Siebel Systems, Microsoft and Computer Associates International all have prominent booths. And Dell is back on the show floor for the first time in several years. But many enterprise vendors, such as Oracle, SAP, Hewlett-Packard and BEA Systems have little or no visible presence.

Some attendees complained that too many exhibitors - many from China, Taiwan and South Korea - are selling niche components such as batteries, cooling fans and LCD (liquid crystal display) screens. Discrete Surveillance Technology of Taipei displayed a handwritten sign above its booth offering "Show special - colour wireless camera kit only $189."

"I don't think I can bear to see another computer fan," said Malachy Smith of the software and services company DNM Technology of Dublin. He and a colleague travelled from Ireland because they'd heard about the renewed focus on the enterprise. They both said they'd like to have seen less hardware and more software.

"We went to see Scott McNealy's keynote and afterwards we thought we'd go and look at Sun's booth on the show floor. We got there and - surprise! - they don't have a booth," said his colleague David Quirke, DNM's IT services director.

"It's been a big disappointment; a lot of the big enterprise players aren't here. There are a lot of smaller companies that no one has heard of," said Jeffrey David, an engineering manager with MultiTech Systems, which was on the show floor selling its data communications equipment.

"On the upside, because of the economy being the way it is, we've had better people stopping by the booth. I think the people who've come are serious about being here and we've been getting some good leads," he said.

MultiTech has been at Comdex almost every year since the show began, but it's debating whether to return next year, he said. The company also exhibits at smaller shows focused on its industry, David said.

Robert Brown, a director of investment technology services with Bank One said he thinks the show needs to "keep evolving" if it is to meet the needs of the exhibitors. "I still think a lot of the audience isn't very targeted. It still seems there are a lot of consumers," he said.

Brown will be back next year, though, because it helps him stay abreast of what the industry has to offer, he said. He and a colleague paid their own way to get to the show because his company considers a trip to Las Vegas too much of a vacation, he added.

If the show has fallen short of its goal of focusing entirely on enterprise IT, it has certainly managed its other objective - to get smaller. Anecdotal evidence inside and outside the convention centre suggests attendance has been lower than expected - although the show's organisers insist that's not the case.

Tom Siebel, chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of Siebel Systems, gave a keynote speech Tuesday morning to an auditorium that was barely half full. By Wednesday morning, half the seats in the auditorium had been removed for a speech by David Nagel, president and CEO of PalmSource.

Outside, local businesses have felt the pinch. The Las Vegas Hilton, which is next door to the show and is usually fully booked weeks in advance, was letting rooms for as little as US$50 a night on Sunday, show-goers said. Taxi drivers are also smarting. The city doled out additional medallions before the show so there would be enough drivers to ferry convention centre traffic. On Monday night it recalled half of those medallions because business is too slow, an assistant at the Nevada Taxi Cab Authority said.

Outside the convention centre Tuesday evening, eight stretch limousines were parked waiting for fares. Some drivers held signs advertising cut rates of $35 per hour. "Comdex this year is the worst I've ever seen," complained driver Gabriel Adefris.

On the other side of town, at Computer Digital Expo, a rival trade show set up by Jupitermedia, attendance also appeared to be low. No more than 50 people were there to watch Peter Blackmore, the head of HP's server division, give his keynote speech on the show's opening day.

"After two days of trade show watching I have concluded that a focused tech trade show in Las Vegas may have gone the way of the dodo bird," Alan Meckler, Jupitermedia's chairman and CEO, wrote in his Web log about the show. "The fact is, the traffic at both Comdex and our show is not robust. I blame Comdex for this - they failed me. I had counted on them getting decent numbers and that we would get at least 10 per cent of their traffic."

MediaLive International, which organised Comdex this year, had planned for a smaller event - they expected about 50,000 visitors, down from 200,000 in the show's heyday a few years ago. They screened attendees for the first time this year, promising a better class of attendee. Dave Rosenberg, director of content for MediaLive, said Tuesday that the show had met its attendance targets.

"We've definitely got 40,000, maybe 45,000, possibly 50,000," he said.

MediaLive has called this "year one of the new Comdex," and it has acknowledged that despite its efforts, the show still came up with fewer enterprise IT vendors than in the past. But Eric Faurot, the show's vice president and general manager, said the show has attracted enough visitors and exhibitors this year to maintain its momentum and attract a bigger crowd next year.

Microsoft has rebooked its space on the show floor for next year, and Bill Gates, its chairman and chief executive officer, will keynote again, he said.

As for Joo-hun Lee and his air cleaning equipment, some non-IT vendors "slipped through the cracks," Rosen admitted. Asian manufacturers are well represented at the show because they've been less hurt by the slow economy than some others and could afford to attend.

Next year, he predicted, the show will be bigger, with more enterprise players.

"It's all about rebuilding relationships," he said. "We've done enough this year to show people this is a show worth attending."

When registration opens for Comdex 2004, he'll find out if he was right.

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