One thing was clear from the crowds anxious to see the most recent beta version of the forthcoming Windows 2000 operating system here this week -- Microsoft remained the Spring Comdex Bigfoot.
But showgoers also paid rapt attention to discussions of open-source technology and the booming popularity of electronic commerce, both of which are said to have the potential to change the course of information technology. In the case of open-source development, enthusiasts here suggested that that growing movement might even change the nature of how Microsoft does business. Meanwhile, the imperatives of e-commerce are changing priorities for information systems managers, according to Comdex attendees.
Discussions of these trends often evolved into philosophical debates on the future rather than on specific current technology, as seems to occur with increasing frequency at trade shows where the big news often has increasingly less to do with real product launches and more to do with what will be coming out months down the road.
"There seems to be more of a trend toward more holistic concepts during this show than on specific technology, as happened at the Comdexes in the past," said Rick Inatome, chairman of Inacom. "This is not just a Microsoft and Bill Gates show, and it's not a Linux show," he said. "People are looking at not just a piece of the pie but the whole pie. Today, there is much more work on e-commerce."
Microsoft chief Gates echoed the prediction that there will be a convergence of media and information systems in his talks at the show. Television, personal computers and telephones will all work together on the Net, he said. "The key is getting hooked up," he said. "All will be connected with the Internet."
Similarly, companies are employing more sophisticated networks with the goal of reacting instantly on the Internet in what Rick Roscitt, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of AT&T Solutions, called "webification".
"Whether it's with computer hardware or computer software, what's powering all that is network interconnections," Roscitt said. "Technology platforms have to be networking-centric and connected to the marketplace and be determined to change."
Companies will have to start e-commerce operations or risk becoming "have-nots", in the future, Roscitt said.
While Microsoft clearly continues to dominate at least this particular trade show and everything related to the Internet garners a lot of the buzz, the popularity of open-source operating systems, and Linux in particular, is another trend attracting more and more supporters. Spring Comdex organisers were forced to move the site of a keynote speech by Linux creator Linus Torvalds to a larger room, and the space still wasn't large enough to accommodate the crowd.
Torvalds gave a spirited, humorous talk criticising the limitations of Windows and extolling the possibilities of his OS. Coming shortly after Gates' keynote address, Torvalds' speech underscored the rivalry between the two operating systems. Microsoft enjoys widespread industry support, however grudgingly at times, but key vendors said here that they intend to offer more Linux options.
Silicon Graphics (SGI) is emblematic of companies moving in that direction. "We believe in the open-source model," Richard Belluzzo, SGI chairman and CEO, said during a talk at the show. "So stay tuned, because you'll see Linux play an increasingly important role in delivery on this vision."
In typical fashion, Gates dismissed Linux as a chief competitor of the newest Windows OS. Rather, the software maker's top competition will come from previous versions of Windows that are being used with satisfaction by so many customers, he maintained.
Loyal Microsoft customers like Steve Francis, an assistant professor of economics at University of Notre Dame who represented the school's information technology committee at the trade show, said he would wait before making the decision to stay with previous versions of Windows or to take the Windows 2000 plunge.
"We can't upgrade every time they introduce a new product," Francis said.
But Microsoft's popularity at the show and its array of products should be a measure of a healthy future, said private investor David Spencer of Chicago. "I'm hanging on to all my Microsoft shares," he said.