Reflections of a ModemJunkie

Comdex in a day

by Leonard Grossman

I'm zooed....absolutely zooed. That's the only word for it -- or is it zoned? I still have to give lip service to the priorities of my day job, so I was forced to limit my attendance at this year's Comdex/Windows World to one day. But I am an experienced trade show junkie. I can handle this, I thought. Well, I'm absolutely zooed. I sneaked out today and crammed a week of booth hopping into six hours.

Then I got back to my office and found a brand new copy of PCWeek with a lead editorial "Trade Shows: Who needs them?" Since PCWeek's parent company owns Comdex, it's no surprise that they conclude we all do. But the question is a good one.

I arrived by packed shuttle bus just before 10:00 a.m., presented my preregistration and waited for security to release the impatient hordes. (I especially liked the guy with a walkie talkie or cell phone in each hand. . . He had a certain country panache as he allowed exhibitors to pass but sternly stopped any mere "guest" from entering the "promised land." At last they relented and we descended upon the waiting exhibitors.

Since the first bus stop was on the Windows World side of the street, I stopped there first. I figured I'd spend an hour and a half there...maybe two tops. I used my experience . . . I began at a fairly leisurely pace. I don't have to visit every booth. I don't need that many ball point pens and my daughter has outgrown buttons and pins.

At first, I found the exhibitors and staff more knowledgeable than in the past. I actually found that some even knew something about their products and could answer questions. As usual, I found the side shows the most fascinating.

As a kid I always liked the side shows at the auto show. You know -- the isle where they sell the wax stick that you rub on your car window and you can see through the fog . . . and those great knives that never need sharpening.

At computer shows, this is where you find the memory resellers, the off brand mother boards and security systems.. and a few genuinely interesting products. I found something called "Wordix 1.0, your Personal Browser."

It takes great courage to try to sell a product labeled version 1.0. but there it was. And it looked fascinating. It appears to be a sophisticated text search engine with a number of excellent features. When I mentioned my beloved Magellan, the owner seemed curious. Several others had mentioned it to him this week but he had never seen it. After we talked for a while and I told him about this column, he agreed to give me an evaluation copy so I could review it. That will have to wait until later this summer, after I clear off a few meg from the pawnshop special. But I felt like a real pro. It was going well.

But then I looked at my watch... it was already after 11:30 and I still had several isles to go before I could cross the street and enter Comdex itself. I picked up my pace, scurried by the booths and only glanced in the direction of others. My early savoir faire was beginning to break down. as I talked to an exhibitor, I discovered I was tongue tied.. already sensory overload was hitting me.

On my way out I found a pizza stand, bought a large slice cheese and ate it crossing the tunnel/bridge to the other building of McCormick Place. When I got to the other end... There was a coke machine,, only a dollar-- not counting the quarter which rolled under the machine . . . Then off to the next set of exhibits.

Comdex itself was divided into two major sections on two floors. The first level focused on Multimedia and the Internet. Super bass subwoofers pounded and vibrated, assaulting me from the moment I walked through the entrance. But here was the online stuff. Netscape dominated. And here the demonstrators grew a little weak. They knew the current product but couldn't remember back to version 1.22, much less 1.0. All I wanted to do was ask how to do something in the new version 3.04b that worked well in 1.x. But they didn't know what I was talking about.

Hey!! Version 1.0 came out in November, 1994 (a week after I got my first Internet account). I know computer time moves fast. But 18 months isn't a lifetime. Then I remembered-- The New York Times had a cover feature in its business section the other day. It focused on something it called "Netscape Time," referring to the incredible pace at which new versions of software appear. The Netscape staff proved that the authors were more accurate than they knew.

Anyway, I found something special on this floor as I surfed the net with different browsers in machines with giant screens, T-1 lines and huge amounts of memory. My own pages look better than I had imagined using my creeping 386. The Gropper Windows were amazing---loading in an instant. Even the huge downloadable files popped open in an instant. This was fun. There was even a cybercafe, with free coffee (although the plain had a hint of hazelnut--yecch!) and a slew of Thinkpads for surfing.

I looked at my watch. It was after 2:00 p.m. and I hadn't even set foot on to the main exhibition floor. Well, the assault of the interactive games was getting to me. I gave up on gaming years ago.. How many times can you shoot so many villains. Aside from Myst, has there been a really inventive game in all these years. The graphics and sound have become incredible. The deep bass explosions filled the room. Avid gamers tried thier hand at the latest with an intensity I didn't see anywhere else in the show. But I had to move on.. Thank God!!

Up the escalator to the main floor. It was late and I was just beginning the real Comdex. In the bright light the spaciousness of the main hall beckoned. There in front of me was the main IBM stage. I'll pass, I thought-- even though the grand prize drawing was a Thinkpad 350. I've learned that the most interesting demos aren't those with the big prizes and I've never won any way.. so off I went to see the real stuff.. Oh, I threw a few baskets and "won" a couple of circular mouse pads and a great cap with my initials on it. (I'd never heard of a company called LG Semicon before.) And the blue and lavender slinky looks great on my desk.

Suddenly, I realized I hadn't seen Phil Katz yet. Phil is always at these shows and I always say hello. Phil Katz is the PK of PKZip. And we all owe him a lot. It's different in these days of huge hard drives. Heck, I just deleted 60 meg of zipped files from my machine last week. But boy did we need him when a huge drive was only 40 meg. It hasn't really been the same since version 2.x came out and was no longer compatible with Magellan but I've found ways to survive. Just yesterday a friend needed to sneaker net a 2 meg file. PKZip spread that file over 2 disks and then restored it with no problem.

Then I found his booth. Not nearly as busy as in the old days. And there in the back was Phil. Looking a little tired. But he always looks a little tired. I waved. He has no idea who I am of course. I tried to tell the young kids handing out his stuff how important he had been to all of us. But we live in Netscape time and version 1.10 was light years ago to them, I guess. The same product. The same trinkets. Not pens but one of the most useful gifts at the whole show. A little round plastic container containing a sponge and a shoe polisher. It was strange. But he has given those away for years. Just like he gave away PKZip. Did any of us ever register it? The show was almost over.. The kids gave me a handful.

I was tired and disoriented. There was no way I could cover all the rest of the show in the 35 minutes I had left. I came past the IBM pavilion again. The chairs were empty. I sat down for a minute. A few others sat down and then a small crowd. The last show of the day was about to begin. Maybe I'll try for that Thinkpad door prize after all. That way I can just sit for a while before I have to leave.

Then the deep bass voice of a professional announcer began an introduction. I couldn't believe it. There in front of me was a member of the 1984 Gold Medal winning U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team and he was doing a demo. He looked great and fit. And he had some young kids with him to demonstrate the hard stuff. Really young. Half my daughter's age, it seemed. They didn't live in Netscape Time...or did they? From the right, on the MacIntosh stage, a song and dance review competed for our attention. Giant speakers filling the room. I was getting dizzy. A pitch for the Olympics . . . song and dance . . . sounds from other stages began to whirl. I looked up at the young kid on the uneven bars.

What am I doing here? I thought. What does this have to do with anything? I suppose its better than the huge T&A show CA Associates used to put on at these events. At least it's more politically correct. But it made no sense. I politely waited for the kid to finish his routine. I got up.. crumpled my application for the drawing, left it in a garbage can and headed for the shuttle back down town. I could get another hour in at the office.

I checked my mail. There was PCWeek. Absentmindedly I skimmed the table of contents. "Trade Shows: Who needs them?"

Then I looked at the headline on the editorial itself: "Trade Shows Do Evolve - Will You?" Yes, I thought, but into what?

Copyright 1996 Leonard Grossman

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