Comdex: Play It Again

Despite economy's woes, show of shows keeps showing up, writes eWEEK's Eric Lundquist.

Comdex, held every November in Las Vegas, has for more than two decades presented an opportunity to take the pulse of the tech industry. It is probably the strongest commentary on the woes the tech business has faced in the past couple of years that it seemed a toss of the dice whether the show would even take place this year. It did take place, and despite my recurrent vows to avoid Vegas at all costs, I spent last week shuttling around the city.

Heres my rundown on the companies, players and events of the week.

Bill Gates and Microsoft: Remember when you used to buy a spelling checker for your word processing program? The companies selling software update distribution systems, spam blockers and system health checkers might want to reflect on the history of the spelling-checker industry. At Gates keynote Sunday night, he skipped the big future technology bang and opted for a solid but no-flash IT tools review. The Microsoft SmartScreen spam filter, the Internet Security and Acceleration firewall, and the patch update capabilities in the Systems Management Server all respond to distinct user needs, although they attack many of the problems Microsoft in part helped to create. And they do bring new competition to the vendors of security and systems management products.

At a keynote held later in the week, John Thompson, chairman and CEO of Symantec, while not dismissing Microsofts lineup, was not overly concerned, either. The security aspect of IT is at least as much a process issue as a product challenge, and that is where companies such as Symantec can outpace bigger competitors like Microsoft, according to Thompson.

The coolest presentation came from Sun Microsystems Scott McNealy. He has backed away from making fun of Microsoft (which has gotten old) and has been concentrating on emphasizing the technology capabilities of Sun. The show came at a difficult time for McNealy, what with some security analysts calling for his head. However, the demo of a 3-D interface that provided a way to navigate and view complex data and a cartload of RFID-tagged products being checked out automatically at a supermarket register drew applause from the small but enthusiastic cadre of nerds in attendance.

McNealy was joined onstage by AMD CEO Hector de Ruiz as the companies announced that Sun will be using AMDs 64-bit Opteron chip in Sun servers next year.

McNealy also used the stage to announce a deal with China Standard Software to develop and deploy a desktop system for China.

In an interview later that day, McNealy hinted at other deals in the works to get countries interested in hopping off the Microsoft-only wagon. Sun, which had previously never been a big player at Comdex, provided the biggest news of the week.

The show floor was, as show managers predicted, a much-contracted version of past years. The memory of what the show once was is both a plus and a minus for MediaLive International, which owns the Comdex brand. While the show in the past often veered into the noisy and meaningless, last weeks show swung too far to the opposite extreme, with a focus on really small components. If you are in the market for a tiny cooling fan or a new power supply, last weeks event provided a good selection.

The show managers are going to have to move the needle further toward the strategic role of IT in business if they are going to return Comdex to the status of a must-attend show.

In the evenings, the chatter on the party circuit was whether the technology industry does indeed need a gathering of the tribes once a year, which is what Comdex used to represent, or whether that role has been taken over by instant messaging and the Internet.

Id say you cant entirely replace the person-to-person contact, the shrimp mountains and the hangover with the Web. If not Comdex, an improving economy will push some other face-to-face event to the fore.

Ill be there next year, wherever that might be.

Editor in Chief Eric Lundquists e-mail address is