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Web valleyofthegeeks.com

Comdex, Shmomdex

Zack Urlocker
Thursday, November 27, 2003

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Comdex used to be among the largest of the mega large computer industry tradeshows held in the fall in Las Vegas and in the spring in either Atlanta or Chicago, depending on which is more humid. Comdex is also held internationally in Canada, Germany and Japan. If there was a way to get exhibitors to ship booths to Mars, they'd probably have a Comdex there too. ("Now with the most volume buyers in the solar system".)

Although people used to criticize Comdex for being too large to have any way to find important technology or draw insights, no one can say that anymore. Instead they say it's now too small to have any significant technology or insights. And besides, the parties used to be better. Fall Comdex can be thought of as 100,000 geeky guys trying to get an outside phone line to a local Internet service provider. Heck, when Comdex comes to Vegas, even the hookers have URLs.

A typical Comdex show involves thousands of vendors, a hundred thousand attendees, and millions of cocktail frankfurters. Why do so many folks go to Comdex? The answer is simple: because everyone else is there. That makes it easy to set up meetings with customers, press, industry analysts and recruits. Of course, none of the folks you want to meet with will really want to be there. That's the beauty of Comdex. No one wants to be there but everyone is.


Comdex, like most major tradeshows, has a tradition of having significant keynote addresses delivered by industry visionaries. These have included presentations from the likes of Bill Gates, Scott McNealy, Philippe Kahn and the Pope.

This spring, the Pope had to cancel, so Microsoft Vice President of the Platforms Group, Paul Maritz, spoke instead. This was just as well since Maritz has been responsible for getting the Win 95 user interface on Windows NT, something no Pope has ever been able to do.

The format of a Comdex keynote is like that of an infomercial but with PowerPoint slides instead of celebrity endorsements. Unfortunately, most of the software execs just don't look as good in tights as Cher does.

Mostly keynote addresses are expected to be visionary. This means that not only should the technologies they demonstrate not exist, they should be technically infeasible. Of course, a good CEO will never let on that a technology is infeasible. Instead, he might give a smug look that says something like, "Of course, to you this may be hard, to me this is as easy as minesweeper on a 386."

Similarly, if a product is under development, but still months away from shipping it will be heavily promoted at the tradeshow exhibit area. Vendors show their commitment to their product line by reinforcing the fact that everything the customer has is completely obsolete. This is what's known as creating demand.

This technique is not unique to the computer industry. For example, Detroit auto shows often show futuristic "concept cars". However, if concept cars were built like Comdex demos, the leading auto manufacturers would be GP Fault and Access Violation.

Comdex also has quite a few panel sessions where attendees get to listen to a subject debated by competing vendors. This provide a subtle discourse that allow attendees to balance the issues in a particular area. To anyone who is contemplating a career in babysitting six year-olds, panel sessions can be very enlightening. Otherwise, usually it's good to check out the trade show floor.

Get floored

The most interesting technologies at Comdex, in asmuch as they are likely to be shipping sometime this century, are shown on the tradeshow floor.

Most of the demo workstations at Comdex are staffed by engineers or support personel from the vendors. So if you're not at Comdex, don't expect to get any tech support that week. However, it also means you can show up with a 10,000 line listing of assembly language code and probably get a lot of attention. Also, if you pull an engineer away from the marketing folks, then you can find out anything you want about the product or the company since most engineers are incapable of lying.

Because the conference is so large, there are usual several different exhibit locations scattered around the city and in neighboring states. ("Welcome to Arizona, the Comdex multi-media exhibit state.")

Therefore you have to develop a plan of attack. First of all, wear running shoes. Secondly, don't stop at any booth unless they are giving away food, t-shirts, hats or possibly running shoes.

In fact, there's really no need to bring clothes to Comdex since you can easily get decked out with "vendor ware" while you're there. One year I traveled to Comdex with only a change of clothes crammed into my portable computer bag. (Note: I was single at the time. Do not attempt this if you are in a heavily committed relationship or otherwise approaching a second date.) Make sure you map out a plan to visit the "must see" vendors on your list. This way you'll waste less time wandering around the exhibit hall and can spend that time in a more meaningful fashion such as waiting in the taxi line.

Queueing Theory

Comdex taxi lines to can actually run for several miles longer than the ride from the Convention Center to your hotel. You'll also face long lines for registration, keynotes, hotels and restaurants. By the time you leave vegas, you'll have spent more time in line than in college.

One high point of Comdex is the large number of parties. These are typically sponsored by hardware and software vendors. The goal at a vendor party is to consume as much free food and booze as possible without mistakingly placing an order for, say, 10,000 Commodore Amigas.

For many folks, the best way to experience Comdex is simply to read about right here. Besides, you'll be one less person in the taxi line ahead of me.

About the author
Zack Urlocker is a pseudonym for a Silicon Valley software executive. He has attended more Comdex trade shows than weddings.

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