What if No One Came to Comdex?

FRAMINGHAM (04/20/2000) - Spring Comdex 2000, held in Chicago, was one of the strangest trade shows I've been at in a long time. Remember, this carries the Comdex (short for Computer Dealers Exposition) moniker that's also given to the biggest, most complete computer show in the country - Fall Comdex in Las Vegas.

Spring Comdex has always been kind of a poor relation that never really caught on. In recent years the show has been getting smaller and less predictable as increasing numbers of vendors have opted to stay away.

Take this year's show, which to me was notable mainly for the categories of products and the industry players who weren't there.

There wasn't a single major computer maker in evidence. Oh, IBM and Compaq had token "pods" inside the Microsoft Partners Pavilion, but that was it. No NEC Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., Toshiba Corp. (except for two projectors), Dell Computer Corp., Gateway 2000 Inc. . . . There were no printer makers except Xerox Corp. and Tektronix Inc. No digital cameras, no scanners, no monitors.

There was barely any application software to be found, save for a couple of accounting packages and for Microsoft's product partners. It's been three years or so since I last went to Spring Comdex. This one was maybe half the size of the last one, and a disappointment all around. I doubt I'll come back again.

Even the Microsoft area wasn't particularly interesting or wide-ranging.

The show had two subthemes: Windows World and the Linux Business Expo.

The Linux end of the show was reasonably active, but the best-known Linux vendor, Red Hat, wasn't there. In fact, the Linux show had three separate merchandising/gift shop booths, where you could buy various stuffed "Tux" penguins and the usual assortment of mugs, shirts and carrying bags.

There was a lot of emphasis on wireless hardware and services of all types, including a Wireless Application Protocol service that lets you play games on your phone. Lots of uniterruptible power supplies and keyboard-video-mouse switches that connect several computers to one keyboard, monitor and mouse.

There were a large number of booths offering jobs. Dot-com and e-commerce entities of all sorts, but little that really stood out.

So What WAS There?

My favorite way of approaching large trade shows is to pretty much ignore the big booths and major vendors - at least for a while. You can pretty well know that you'll soon hear about whatever they have that's worth knowing.

So I'd like to start by walking the edges of the show, the small, low-rent booths populated by vendors and organizations I've never heard of. Most of these, to be honest, aren't particularly interesting. But tucked in among them, I often find some really interesting things, new ideas and quirky products that are often the most memorable items I take away from a show. Spring Comdex this year was mostly "edges."

In no particular order, here are the most interesting (if not, perhaps, significant) products I saw:

How about a 16-hour battery for your laptop? It's about the size of a typical notebook computer (8.75-by-11.25 in.) but only 3/8 in. thick and weighs just 2.2 lb. The PowerPad 160 from Toronto-based Electrofuel Inc. uses a lithium ion "SuperPolymer" battery that claims the highest energy density of any battery technology, and it's packaged in a titanium case with five LED charge indicators. It plugs into your notebook's AC power plug and is recharged by your own AC adapter. At $499, it's cheaper than buying several standard laptop batteries and easier to manage.

Flightable is a unique take on the typical laptop carrying bag. It's got wheels and a pull-out handle, but the latter is covered by a hard shell that hinges out, drops a support leg and creates an actual worktable platform. A slick little idea that's ideal for someone who spends too much time waiting in airports. Taiwan-based Azpac International (with an office in Alhambra, California) has several models in a couple of sizes.

Remember the help desk joke about the user who claims his computer's cupholder is broken? Well, someone has designed a real cupholder that addresses the major threat incurred by having beverages at one's workstation - spillage when the cup or bottle or can tips over. The Cyber Drinkholder attaches firmly to the desktop via suction, yet is instantly removable. Its support arms are adjustable, and it's nearly impossible to tip over. It's a neat answer to a common problem, but I suspect its $29.95 price tag ($39.95 for iMac colors instead of beige) will put off most potential users. If you're really cramped for space, there's a model that sticks on the side of your monitor.

Telephones have been morphing into all sorts of shapes, and at Comdex you could find a Korean phone built into a keyboard palm rest (Costel Co., Ltd.) or a mouse (Comtel Telecom Co., Ltd.), but my favorite was a stand-alone phone shaped like a cute but giant cricket (Intops Co., Ltd.).

Another cute gadget: A pager-like object that clips to your belt tracks how many calories you burn in a day (even while you sleep), once you've programmed it with the company's bagel-shaped "body composition analyzer." The $300 device from Stayhealthy.com is set to debut in June.

Adding removable storage to any computer these days is easy. With systems like the Zip, Jaz and SuperDisk drives and multiple formats for solid-state memory, like PC cards, compact flash, SmartMedia and Sony's Memory Stick memory, what else could you want? Singapore-based Trek 2000 International and Q-Tek International LLC in Tacoma, Washington think they know. They have a new format called the ThumbDrive. It's essentially a RAM chip (up to 256MB at the moment, 1GB expected within a year) attached to a Universal Serial Bus (USB) connector, making a package about the size of your thumb, perhaps 1 in. long. The USB connector makes for a plug-and-play device that's about as simple to use as it could possibly be and needs no external power. No prices were quoted.

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