Jewish World Review Nov. 27, 2002 / 22 Kislev 5763

Honey, they shrunk the COMDEX

By Mark Kellner | LAS VEGAS The Walt Disney Company, it is rumored, last week rushed actor Rick Moranis here to do another film, and quick. The title: "Honey, I Shrunk the COMDEX." (stet)

That's not true, but it might as well be. The venerable, 26-year-old showcase of the personal computer industry limped into the convention center here, a shadow of its former self. At its peak, somewhere between 225,000 and a quarter of a million hardy souls traipsed through the miles of exhibits. This year, according to veteran computer journalist Peter Lewis, in a story, "[Total] attendance is likely to be around 110,000, about where it was when [Microsoft Chairman] Bill Gates delivered his second keynote in 1988."

Opening day drew only 60,000 people; I believe more folks turned out for a Washington Wizards season, even before Michael Jordan's un-retirement.

Sic transit gloria. Sic transit COMDEX. Two days before the event opened, show organizer Key 3 Media Events was reported to be near bankruptcy, with shares trading below 2-cents each. One rumor: COMDEX's founder, Sheldon Adelson, who sold the event for $800 million, could end up buying the remains, the better to rebuild from.

The fault lies not in the show's stars, but in the changing nature of technology and business. There was precious little here that was truly "new," with the fall's major product -- Microsoft's Tablet PC, as implemented by a host of companies -- having bowed two weeks earlier. All the Tablet PC makers were at COMDEX, and, yes, corporate buyers of information technology could get a first look, but that same look might well be available at the local Comp USA or Best Buy.

Two firms bowed new handheld computers at the show, which are worth consideration. Hewlett Packard's new top-of-the line iPAQ (stet) offers built-in Bluetooth and 802.11b wireless connectivity, a boon for synchronization, printing and Web surfing at many Starbucks locations (but not the Las Vegas ones, I'm told, not for at least a year). At the lower end, the $299 iPAQ Pocket PC 1910 is slim, stylish and has replaceable batteries: carry a spare and you can keep on working without losing power. Its screen is also a little brighter than some competitor's, and its form factor is very nice: it won't bulge a shirt pocket or stress out a Kate Spade handbag.

Dell Computer Corp.'s entry into the handheld market, the Axim X5, starts at $199 for a "basic" model sporting a 300 MHz Intel StrongARM processor and 32 MB of memory; a full 64 MB model, with a 400 MHz processor is $100 more, each price the result of a $50 rebate that you have to claim by mailing a form back to the Internet-and-phone-marketing company that sold you the product in the first place. As editor David Coursey noted in his online newsletter, Dell doesn't need "proof" that you bought the device in order to send you a rebate.

To borrow from Dell's much-exposed TV ads, the whole rebate idea seems a little bogus, dude.

But beyond the handhelds, there was precious little that was really "new" at the show, save for two items I can't talk about right now, although either of those could have been premiered elsewhere, as noted above. In fact, one will bow in about six weeks, at the Consumer Electronics Show due in Vegas just after the New Year.

The advent of the CES event, organized by the Arlington, Va.-based Consumer Electronics Association, underscores what may be COMDEX's biggest problem: computers are, by and large, a consumer item, or at least a commodity one. Thus, it's CES, and not COMDEX, where I expect some of 2003's hottest new product to make their public debut.

Yes there are specific models and products aimed at the corporate market, but almost all of THOSE introductions can be made at other venues more suited to specific applications -- and usually are. For example, federal I.T. buyers would likely find an event such as the annual FOSE show, due April 8-10, 2003 at the Convention Center, more suited to their needs than COMDEX ever would be.

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JWR contributor Mark Kellner has reported on technology for industry newspapers and magazines since 1983, and has been the computer columnist for The Washington Times since 1991.Comment by clicking here.

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