April 5, 2001

Comdex ends with a whimper

Author: JT Smith

- By Dan Berkes -

Chicago -- In more ways than one, this year's spring Comdex was no big deal. And when it came to Linux at this year's midwestern high-tech extravaganza, the sounds of advocacy were a little more muted than usual.Chicago's McCormick Center is a huge place. So huge, in fact, that there were several other conventions going on at the same time. Comdex wasn't the largest of them, not by a long shot. That honor went to the affair across the hall, the annual Waste Management Expo.

Trash knows nothing of a recession. The "garbage people," as one of the Comdex booth babes called them, wandered through an industrial exhibition landscape three times the size of the technology show. Conference organizers reportedly had to turn away exhibitors due to a lack of floor space.

Last year at this time, the tech stock market was taking its first nosedive. The participants at spring Comdex 2000 almost resembled the passengers of the Titanic just after hitting the iceberg: They knew something had happened, but they didn't know what or how bad.

Reality set in this year: Less than two-thirds of the exhibit floor space was filled, with portable curtains used in an attempt to hide all of that vacant real estate. The largest exhibitor at this year's show was Mercedes-Benz, on hand to show off their new standard on-board computers.

Even on this smaller scale, the conference was still packed with geeks crashing into each other as, like moths drawn to a burning flame, they bounced from one flashy booth display to the next. The numerous small companies at this year's event, however, offered some of the most compelling products, from booths with almost no flash. While certainly Windows-centric with code closed so tight it was waterproof, the software that turned any game into a 3D display was a sure crowd pleaser.

The hard part was finding anything worthwhile to write about Linux. For other reporters, the hard part seemed to be finding anything worthwhile to write about, period. Above the show floor, the media contingent gathered in a special lounge set aside for our use. Called the "snake pit" by veteran Comdex employees, we occasionally stared up from our laptops and put down those complimentary sandwiches to compare notes.

This show, said one veteran reporter, was a dog, a complete waste of time for everyone involved. This verdict was met with murmurs of agreement from the surrounding tables.

The Open Source community was a small subset of this slimmed down show. Shoved all the way to the back of the exhibit hall, with some of the cornerstones of the community (GNOME, BSD, Free Software Foundation) relegated to an out of the way corner. On the brighter side, Corel was on hand to spread the Linux gospel with its interactive display and a classroom offering hands-on Linux refresher courses.

Corel was up to something else, with its representatives visiting the snake pit to talk in hushed tones with a flock of reporters from a major news network. It probably won't be a secret for very much longer.

Other bright Linux moments were covered here: The near-launch of the Agenda VR3 handheld; the impressive display of embedded Linux computing power at the heart of OEone's operating environment; and the release of a software patch from Rackspace designed to halt some effects of a nasty cracking tool.

In addition to the Linux theme park section of the show, the penguin was represented in other areas of the show. South Korea sponsored a large section of booths to represent technology offered by its companies, including a manufacturer of embedded Linux chipsets.

Other companies were overheard discussing Linux, much the way that someone might discuss the presence of electricity: Of course it's there, but it's not the focus of what they wanted to present. The operating system has finally reached the point of being transparent.

Just to be sure we didn't miss any possible Linux coverage, we even spent Thursday morning canvassing the Waste Expo. The verdict: No Linux yet, but most company representatives wouldn't be surprised to see it in their workforce within the next two to three years. There were one or two solutions based on SCO UNIX, by the way.

As more companies eliminate the show from their public appearance schedule, some of the more fancy positioning of booths into trade show neighborhoods and communities may fall by the wayside. Another possibility is that smaller companies and one-person enterprises could fill the void, making for a more diverse exhibition.

Perhaps Comdex and Waste Expo should team up to combine their shows and offer an entirely new exhibition. On the other hand, maybe not. It could be dangerous having garbage disposal tools in such close proximity to the technology industry's premier marketing event.

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