Reporter's notebook: Show lacks old razzle-dazzle

Reporter's notebook: Show lacks old razzle-dazzle

This year's edition of the annual fall Comdex trade show in Las Vegas is devoid of the extravagance of old. Gone is the thumping loud music emitting from various booths. Gone are scantily clad dancing women who had no relation at all to the IT gear being sold (at least none we could ever determine). Gone are the free concerts featuring big-name acts. Gone, alas, are the big parties, though smaller fetes are still happening here and there. Gone, too, is the truly big IT news that drew an international audience keen for a glimpse of the next big thing.

This isn't necessarily bad, mind you, just something different from what we've come to expect. Some of what we expect is still with us -- we can buy a puny salad with canned mushrooms and ordinary dressing with a bottle of water for US$11 at the Las Vegas Convention Center, and so feel appropriately gouged.

The centre also features a Starbucks now and a lot more new space following an expansion. The show is condensed, although exhibits are still spread out in two of the centre's halls, but wide swaths are curtained off and empty and the media and analyst centre, which used to be in a tent on the parking lot, has been moved inside. Monday afternoon actor Kevin Spacey was eating lunch there. Why he'd be eating in the media and analyst centre was unclear, but a colleague got his Comdex guide book autographed by the accommodating actor.

At times, the smaller exhibition space on the opening day seemed a lot more crowded than in the past. But as closing time approached, it cleared out and navigating was easy, though people seemed to be more inclined to take their time checking out the wares, lingering in the aisles in no hurry. Attendees are saying they are noticing a lot more emphasis on consumer products, and the tone for that shift was noticeable in the opening keynote on Sunday night by Bill Gates. The Microsoft chairman and chief software architect spent more than half of his almost-two hour talk focused on consumer goods due out over the next few quarters from his company, including wares expected for the upcoming holiday season. Something else was noticeable that evening that wouldn't be seen in the past -- there were big patches of empty seats in the MGM Grand arena that night and lots of empty chairs scattered throughout the venue, which in previous years was packed to the rafters.

The consumer emphasis has led Comdex veterans to wonder if what we're getting is a preview of the forthcoming Consumer Electronics Show here.

But while the show is clearly evolving into something different from what it used to be, it's also still true that there are lots of cool technologies and gadgets to be seen. The latest mobile phones that have built-in cameras are here. The new tablet PCs are here. There's lots of software for organising and creating electronic photo albums. Evidence of how hot the digital camera market is can be found at every turn. There are interesting panel discussions and talks, and not so many of them this year that, unlike in past years, it's possible to get to as many as we'd like.

And there are still people walking around in costumes. Microsoft has a whole bunch of those pastel butterfly fellows roaming around, singing the praises of MSN 8.0. Some fellow dressed like a huge and very square HP handheld was around yesterday. A colleague was nearly run over by the giant handheld, which was later seen striding quickly along the concourse surrounded by handlers. The oddest costume so far has been Benjamin Franklin.

We don't know why someone is dressed as Franklin at Comdex and, quite frankly, we don't want to know.

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