Comdex a Victim of Its Own Success

On the one hand, technology companies can get some pretty good exposure at Comdex.

On the other hand, "it's hard to shout" above the noise, says Jessica Saunders, public relations manager at Fremont, Calif.-based Internet Appliance. With 200,000 people jammed into the exhibit halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center, she says, "It's a zoo."

The zoo is also the computer industry's largest trade show, an annual Mecca for an industry that did more than US$800 billion in sales last year. Comdex is the place where manufacturers show their latest and greatest. This year, that means Web pads, keyboard-equipped phones, high-speed satellite links and the meat-and-potatoes building blocks of an ever-expanding Internet.

But vendors and visitors say it has become increasingly difficult to get any business done at the sprawling conference. Companies routinely question whether it's worth it to shell out all that money and time.

Comdex opened its doors 21 years ago as a place for computer makers, distributors and retailers to shake hands.

Hands continue to shake. But e-commerce is undermining the vendor-distributor relationship just as the personal computer is taking a back seat to smaller, cheaper mobile devices. Comdex seems to be losing part of its raison d'etre.

If that is indeed happening, nobody has thought to tell the attendees. The show has become a human traffic jam. Clots of onlookers stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the aisles between splashy booths.

Upstairs in hotel suites, though, customers and companies continue to hash out deals. InViso, a Silicon Valley startup funded by Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures and Chevron (CHV) , showed off a pocket-size computer that has an interesting twist. A matchbook-sized lens gives one the impression of looking at a 19-inch computer screen.

OnStar, a General Motors (GM) subsidiary, unveiled an Internet-enabled traffic-information service that will be available to drivers next year. A Global Positioning System satellite sends the details to a car's radio, which speaks to them, says President Chet Huber.

For some, however, a preoccupation with the latest showy handheld or futuristic Web pad misses the point. "The focus of events like Comdex is building out the infrastructure first and providing content over those devices next," says Michael Rocha, senior VP at Oracle (ORCL) . That's why infrastructure companies such as Oracle have become so much more visible here.

A similar message comes from computer maker Dell Computer, which for the third year has declined to have a booth at the show, preferring to rent office space instead. The product categories that excite the company most are servers and storage gear, chief executive Michael Dell pointed out during a keynote address. "In five years, there will be 20 times the number of servers as there are today."

This year, Intel came back to the exhibit floor after abandoning its booth in 1997. The chipmaker wanted to bring attention to its new Pentium 4 chips, which were to have made their debuts just before the show. Because of a delay, the chips will come out shortly after. But IBM (IBM) stayed away from the exhibit floor.

Conference organizers say they realize that crowds and higher prices are the consequences of success. This year, they reined back attendance from last year's 220,000 by cutting back on direct-mail advertising.

They also say they are looking for ways to bring new benefits to exhibitors. "Attendees come to kick the tires and check things out," says Kim Myhre, executive VP of sponsor Key3Media Group.

That may mean improving the quality, not the quantity, of the audience, he says.

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