Fall '96 COMDEX: Computer Madness
A humorous look at a visit to the largest computer convention in the world

By Steve Kremer
Copyright 1996 All Rights Reserved.

The COMDEX fall convention is the largest computer related convention in the world. Each fall 220,000 people converge on Las Vegas with the stated purpose of seeing the latest innovations in computer hardware and software. This is the story of my first exposure to the convention madness that is called Fall COMDEX '96

The flight to Vegas, car rental, and finding the convention center all went smoothly. My first indication of the inflated prices common at COMDEX was my paying ten dollars for the privilege of parking in a dusty unpaved lot. I then trekked the three blocks to the convention center. I had heard horror stories of waiting in line for hours to get the credentials to get into the convention so I was very surprised to enter the registration tent to find a very small crowd. I grabbed a form and filled it out. I approached a very friendly Kelly temp, who gladly took my application and debited my credit card $75. As I signed the credit card receipt I thought this is great, I've been here five minutes and I'm just about done. She returned a copy of my receipt and a copy of my application and informed me that registration was in the back of the tent and the wait was currently "about two hours."

I stood there confused. Hadn't I just finished registering? No, she said I had just finished preregistration. I understood their logic, get their money first then tell them how long the wait was. I guess I had no choice, if I wanted to get in to the convention I would have to brave the line.

The "tent" that the preregistration and registration was held in was the largest temporary structure I had ever been in. You probably could have fit five or six full size basketball courts side-by-side in it. So I guess I wasn't surprised to find about 600 people in a massive snaking line at the back of the building. It looked like the line to get into Epcot center at Disney world on the first weekend of spring break.

Author Steve Kremer visits the MGM Grand Hotel during COMDEX Standing in line I was immediately struck by the fact that for the first time I was actually seeing the face of the World Wide Web. There were representations from just about every ethnic and cultural group you could imagine. I heard people conversing with each other or talking into their cellular phones in five or six languages. If you believe, as I do, that every computer professional in the world spends at least part of their everyday lives on the Web then what I was seeing was the embodiment of the World Wide Web virtual community.

Just standing in line with all these people gave me a warm feeling all over. I was part of the community, the brave new world of the Internet. These all were my brothers and sisters of the Web. It was something that was bigger than us all, and I was part of it. It was so exciting. Right as this warm feeling was rushing over me, the Web brother who was standing in front of me talking on his cell phone turned around quickly for some reason. The antenna on his cell phone clipped the corner of my eye. I reeled back from the impact and immediately tripped over the carry-on bag of the guy behind me. The warm feeling left quickly as I fell flat on my ass.

The rest of my two hour stay in the line was much calmer. The only other interesting observation was the stir caused by one apparent "professional" woman. I began noticing some of the male participants in the line discreetly pointing and murmuring about a woman further up in the line. They made comments like "I wonder what kind of 'software' business she's in ?" I finally caught a glimpse of her and could see what they meant. In the sea of T-shirts, Dockers, and running shoes she did stand out. She was about 5'10", long mane of blonde hair, dressed in a black short skirt business suit. Her four inch heels put her chest about at the eye level of her Japanese companion. One group of college age guys in front of me were having a difficult time getting one of their buddies to see her. As the line shifted she often moved in and out of their sight range. Finally they were successful in pointing her out to their friend. At that point I decided to play a little joke. While they were all nodding and agreeing she was a sight to see I joined them. I mentioned that I knew her. They all said "no, really, wow." Then I said "and the funny thing is, she's actually a guy. She's an engineer with Novell and I've worked with him on a couple of projects. His name is Mark, although I think he goes by Margaret now." I told them I was sure Margaret would be flattered to meet them if they'd like. But they moved away without an answer.

I was getting closer to the front of the line and closer to finally getting my prized credentials.

The application I filled out had asked questions like "your title, your company name" and a lot of marketing related questions. Since I don't have a company or title I decided to make one up. Under title I put "Senior Lifeguard" and under company name I put "Bernie's Byte Shack" after the fictitious software company Doonesbury's Mike character works for. I filled out the marketing survey "maxing out" each question, checking the box next to "I make purchasing decisions of more that $1 Million a year," etc. I expect I will be getting lots of junk mail and phone calls from puzzled sales reps soon. The COMDEX people accepted the application without question.

I walked out of the building into the bright Nevada sunlight and into my first experience with the contrast of reality and fantasy of COMDEX. Sitting on a packing carton was a little person (dwarf) dressed up as an elf. He was apparently on a break from one of the production numbers in the convention center. As I approached he finished up the cigarette he was smoking and expertly flicked it at an Apple Power Mac banner hanging nearby. He then walked back to the convention center as the bells on his curled toe slippers tinkled away.

I met lots of very interesting people at the convention but the one who really stands out is Maury Weintraub. I met him outside of the Lotus notes display. He had gravitated towards the Lotus booth because he thought it might have to do with Chinese food. He told me that he was not in the computer business at all and that he had won his trip to Las Vegas because of a misunderstanding. He was a delivery driver for "Lan and Wan's Chinese" in Trenton, New Jersey. Lan and Wan's was owned by two brothers named Lan and Wan. An IBM salesman had visited Lan and Wan to see if they were interested in a Local Access Network or Wide Area Network solution for their computing needs. The salesman was disappointed to find Lan and Wan were using an ancient abacus and a Verifone to run their business. Before the salesman left he did sign up the brothers to a contest to win a free trip to COMDEX and that's how Maury made it to Vegas. Maury's inexperience with computers had led to one tragic misunderstanding. While visiting the Cisco booth, the sales rep had asked Maury if he was interested in "switching." Maury thought he said "snitching" and popped the salesman one in the nose. After security let him go he said he just wandered around the floor of the center seeing how many T-shirts and pens he could collect.

Almost every company at the convention was giving away some sort of doo-dad or gee-gaw to get you to visit. Many companies were throwing frisbees and T- shirts out into the passing crowds. The most innovative of the lot had to be the folks from America Online. AOL took to throwing out laid-off employees. It was quite a site to see their MC yell "O.K., who wants Harold from accounting!!"

The two most memorable company booths at the COMDEX show belonged to Gateway 2000 and Alta Vista.

The Gateway 2000 display was definitely a "moooving" experience. I heard from more than a few people that they thought the Gateway people had gone too far with the cow theme. Having cow patterned shipping boxes is one thing but having a live Holstein cow in your display is another. Finding their booth was not difficult at all, you just had to follow your nose.

Alta Vista Blimp during test drops of Mimes in New York City Alta Vista didn't actually have a booth, they had a blimp that circled the city. They would land on the roof at the Sands convention center and take a group of fifteen convention visitors on an aerial tour of Las Vegas. The most amazing part of the trip was the fact that throughout the trip they had jugglers standing on the blimp's engine pods juggling balls. They also had a small troupe of mimes performing during the product demonstration on the blimp. The convention goers filled out a questionnaire and near the end of the trip one lucky visitor was chosen to have the privilege of pushing one of the mimes out the open door of the blimp at three thousand feet.

In just about every booth there was some kind of product or service demonstration. I sat down for one demo on a company's "E-Commerce" services; selling on the Web. The stage was set up like the set on a talk show with a host who had obviously washed down his caffeine pills with plenty of coffee. All of the vendors were trying to get the visitor involved in their demonstration to keep your interest so it was no surprise when the hyperkinetic young man began his spiel with a question to all of us, "How many of you have a Web page?" Most of us raised our hand. Then the host asked "How many of you are successfully selling on the Web?" Three of us raised our hands. The host sprinted over to the first man, stuck a microphone in his face and asked "What's your name and what are you selling on the Web." The man answered with his name and the fact he was selling golf vacations on the Web. The second person said they were selling flowers. After every answer the host would say "fantastic" or "great" and try to get the crowd to applaud. Then the host ran over to me. He thrust the microphone in my face and said "What's your name, and what have you found people are eager to buy on the Web?" I said "My name is Steve and I'm successfully selling stolen nuclear weapons and shoulder launched surface-to-air missiles." The host automatically said "that's super", then launched into his pre-scripted speech. He got just a sentence or two into it then it registered what I had said. He looked over at me, stumbled on his words for a moment, then got back on track. I sat through the rest of the presentation which was actually very interesting. The host was good at making eye contact with the audience but he avoided looking my way for the rest of the presentation.

Away from the main convention floor upstairs there was an area that housed a lot of "private meeting rooms" for many of the big computer companies. I was not invited into any of these meeting rooms but I do know that some business was actually being conducted in them. I happened upon the Dell Computer meeting room and the door was wide open. I was intrigued by what I saw and I moved in closer to listen. Apparently the Dell executive was just finishing up a deal with representatives of the Cuban government. The Cubans, dressed in army fatigues, were trading big bundles of sugar cane for some old 386 Dells.

IBM, Solutions for a Big Beefy Planet The mother of all computer companies IBM was, as always, a dominant force at this convention. I saw evidence the moment I got off the plane in Vegas and saw someone carrying a blue cardboard IBM "briefcase." When I got to the convention center it seemed that everyone was carrying one of the boxes. Their purpose was to hold a convention goer's growing pile of handouts and brochures. You would carry it like a briefcase, then later check it as luggage for your trip back.

I visited the IBM booth on the main convention floor where two young ladies were handing out the boxes. They were surrounded by a mountain of the blue boxes. I had an idea for having a little fun and approached the senior looking person at the IBM booth. I suggested setting them up on end in a long row and knocking them over just like with dominoes when you were a kid. He looked at me politely and said that he really didn't think that IBM would be interested in playing dominoes, thank you very much. I guessed that he probably wouldn't be interested in my other idea of taking the IBM employees in the booth and lining them up for a little game of "human dominoes."

With my IBM domino theory a "no go" I decided to check out some of the new IBM products on display in their booth.

The two main themes of new products I saw at COMDEX were small and flat. The "lap top" computer is giving way to the "palm top" computer. Microsoft introduced their Windows CE OS at the show, an OS for computer that fits in your palm. The other trend was toward flat screen computer monitors and TV screens. Say goodbye to your big computer monitor-your next one will be a plasma display no thicker that three or four inches.

With "small" and "thin" being the buzz words of the convention I was surprised that IBM had decided to break with the crowd and go "big" and "fat" with their new slogan: "Solutions for a Big Beefy Planet."

Their display was dripping in politically incorrect images. There was their "Big Beefy Main Frame" computer that promised the sluggishness of the room size computers of the 1960's. They even had a smaller LAN server they called "Baked Potato With Extra Butter and Sour Cream." They really broke with the rest of the crowd with their version of the "palm top" computer that they called the "palm oil" computer. It weighed nearly one hundred pounds and came with a cart to wheel it around.

The Samsung display had to be the most elaborate and expensive of the entire convention. As well as the usual display of computer hardware, Samsung staged a complete fashion show every several hours. It was put on by the people from Vogue magazine in New York. They had real live super models strutting their stuff in the latest fashions and of course accessorized with Samsung portable computers. I was seeing in person the real fashion show I had seen only on television and portrayed in movies for so many years. It was quite an experience with loud rock music, a host who described the fashions and of course the incredibly gorgeous male and female models. I noted more than one of the geeks in the audience standing with mouth gaping open.

After the fashion show was over I decided to take a break from the madness of the convention and get a cup of cappucino from one of the vendors in the main lobby of the center. As I joined the line to buy my drink I was surprised to find three of the models from the fashion show standing in line directly in front of me. Tall and very slender, even in their casual clothes they still were the image of the New York runway model. They were in an animated discussion so I moved in closer to eavesdrop. I knew the stereotypical image of women obsessed with their weight and their looks but I was hoping that I would learn more about the real person behind the image.

As I moved closer I heard one model say "so she gained a few pounds and she's desperately dieting to get it off." Another added "you know what I do when I've put on a few extra pounds, I go on a diet I learned from my grandfather. He was from Belgium and he loved to eat chocolate, bread and butter and mineral water. So when I'm a little over in weight that's all I eat." The conversation then drifted to the best place in New York City to buy Belgian chocolate. So from the short snippet of conversation I heard the stereotype persists.

Bill Gates Ruby Slippers I think the highlight of the convention had to be the keynote address by one of the icons of the computer business, Bill Gates.

I had heard that Bill was staying at the MGM Grand hotel and that he had not been able to get the room he wanted. It seemed that the Presidential Suite had been taken by Netscape's Marc Andreesen. The Emperor's Suite had also been taken by a Netscapee, Jim Barksdale. That left the Wizard Of Oz Suite for Mr. Gates. The fact he spent the night in that suite probably had an effect on some elements of his keynote speech.

The morning of Bill's speech I arrived early at the auditorium early to be sure to get a seat. Despite my early arrival I found all the seats were taken. I had to stand at the very front of the auditorium. Even though I had to stand I found that my position gave me a perspective of the stage that no one else in the auditorium had. As Bill walked out on to the stage and to the podium I think I was the only one to see that he was actually wearing ruby slippers. For a moment I couldn't believe my eyes. But several times during his speech the light would catch the slippers just right and they would sparkle.

At the end of the speech my suspicions were confirmed that his stay in the Wizard Of Oz Suite had influenced him. He ended his speech by making reference to the Internet and saying "There's no place like a home page, there's no place like a home page, there's no place like a home page." I'm sure I was the only person to see him click the heels of his ruby slippers as he said the magic words.

After his speech and several more hours at the convention center it was time for me to say "there's no place like home" and head to the airport to go home. After three intense days of seeing a computer everywhere I turned it was great to be home and have to look at only one. But I'll definitely be back next year for another visit with the Fall COMDEX computer madness.

For another crazy look at the Fall '96 COMDEX visit...

PUSH. One man's journey through COMDEX.


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