The numbers of the twentieth year of Comdex don't sound too extreme-2,100 exhibitors, 3,500 representatives of the press and 200,000 visitors over five days-until you contemplate the scale from the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center with bone weary, aching feet wondering how you can ever register it all.
For me it was a combination of high school reunion, Grateful Dead concert and wacky trip through a futuristic techno-bazaar peopled with the most unfettered sort of wildly enthusiastic sales-mad capitalists.
The Bill Gates keynote Sunday night was a pretty tame affair. A few lawyer put downs and earnest protestations of commitments to the mythical consumer and then on to the vision of the Personal Web which came across as a way to use all Microsoft products in a single uber-application. Yes, it'll be nice when we all have wireless CE devices talking to infinitely scaleable NT Web servers dishing up lovely persistent views of Office 2000 documents from wherever we want to be.
Contemplating Microsoft is sort of like gazing into the eyes of a boa constrictor and visualizing yourself as a bulge in its tummy. As one wag put it in the Microsoft version of the future there will be only one broker-Microsoft Broker.
Monday morning before the exhibits opened the keynote address was presented by Carly Fiorina, the new HP CEO fresh on the job for just over three months as a Lucent import, and already having completed the task of rebranding HP and reinventing their vision thing.
Carly too is looking for the "Next Big Thing" and she sees it in the humanizing of the Net, saying the net hasn't lived up to its hype and that we're at a critical juncture where we need to humanize and personalize the technology to broaden its appeal. Maybe it takes the first female CEO of a Dow Jones Industrial component company to argue that the key goal is to add intimacy to technology.
I'm with her all the way and I'm sure the trading room crowd will be ennobled by technology any day now.
The Las Vegas convention center is so huge as to practically defy belief. It seems you could easily fit two Javits Centers in any one of five giant halls. Just getting in the door I took a wrong turn and found myself herded into a bunch of cattle chutes penning up about 5,000 people waiting to get admission badges to the exhibits. To the weary, huddled masses it must have seemed like Ellis Island knowing that the delights of the free market metropolis were just outside the door.
And boy do they use that space! Microsoft had not only its own booth, but Partner Pavilions, movie theaters, publication centers, media centers, Windows and Office 2000 Pavilions, and on and on. It probably took two hours just to circumnavigate the Microsoft territory. And the other exhibitors were not shy about thumping their wares. Everywhere one turned it was a blast of rock band video cards, a jungle of ISP services, a tiger cage of CE devices, a game show of speech recognition and broadcasting studio of wireless services.
There was a lot of neat gadgetry, some of which might be of interest to the Wall Street technology world. There seem to be a lot of advances in display technology that will make trading rooms less cluttered with multi-headed, video-switched flat panel displays. Wearable, wireless PCs are quite the rage and in general all hands were piping up a wireless data feast. Although no one had any really innovative solutions for the disparate coverage zones and protocols that have kept us all from being untethered electronic day traders on the way home from our day jobs.
The focus on more reliable and scalable server resources didn't really translate into anything more visible than shear size on the exhibit floor. I suspect the reliability of these massive transactional sites with all the layers of middleware integrating legacy systems and Web servers will continue to defy the marketing mind.
Speaking of servers, the Linux (rhymes with minutes) hall was a real hoot smacking of a bunch of 60's radicals trying to cast off the shackles of Big Brother (Microsoft) in a communal, black lit, magic bus sort of gestalt. You could buy several sizes of stuffed penguins and collapse in beanbag chairs. I expected to see the GNU man himself, Richard Stallman, make an appearance any moment. It was intriguing that the Pick operating system lives on, now as a Linux implementation.
And I did enjoy the eponymous Linus Torvalds crack at his keynote presentation, "Good evening Mr. Gates, I'll be your server tonight."
But seriously this Open Source movement is as scary to me as the original PC for its undisciplined ways. Think of the 20 years we've spent futzing around with PCs on the way back to the Web as an undercover return to the land of data centers, centralized systems administration and white jacketed technicians. Then contemplate the support characteristics of every computer programmer in the world hacking on the OS in any idle or frustrated moment.
I thought the press party at the end of the day in the Star Trek Experience casino lounge adjoining the main Hilton casino was a perfect wrap up to the day of booth trolling. And believe me, I could associate with the full size statue of Capt. Picard as Locutus of Borg. They almost assimilated me out there a few times.
Circling the Wagons
In the end my efforts of finding the "Next Big Thing" were a loser. For me at least it's been more a matter of seeing the nose at the end of my face. I was skeptical about PCs because they lacked the centralized administration facilities of mainframes and minis (and they're still selling a passel of network-based remote system administration tools at Comdex), and the Web seemed like timesharing all over again (which it is), albeit with a GUI (that makes you wait a lot longer to get the info you want).
I think Ms. Fiorina is onto something as she advocates the next big thing being the humanizing of cyberspace (and as she says we'll have to find a new term for it to evade the cold, black, airless, empty, loneliness of it all). Maybe the kinder, gentler Linux crowd will make a cultural rather than technical contribution in the end.
And some days I'd like to lock Scott McNealy in a cell and make him watch endless videoclips of Bill Gates golfing ineptly at Augusta. Where does Sun get off charging $5,000 for a C++ compiler and then arguing Microsoft hurts consumers? But this is a war that is being waged in a marketing forum and at the end of the day it probably won't matter who has the better product.