Comdex left holding the bag

This week at the Communications 2001 show, I decided to interview a developer about an important issue related to the carrier market. He had some great points to make, but then he popped the question: “Would you like to see the application?”

Of course I did — but I assumed he would be able to show me on his laptop, or take me to his company’s booth. But his company wasn’t exhibiting at Communications 2001, and he wasn’t carrying a laptop. Instead, we ended up wandering the trade show floor, asking a series of vendors that included Telus, Bell and Nortel Networks whether we could “borrow” one of their Internet-equipped PCs for an impromptu demonstration. I felt a little embarrassed, and I wasn’t really surprised when they all said no. The other question that crossed my mind was: Is this what it’s going to be like at Comdex next week?

This was Tuesday, when the organizers at Key3Media had issued a stark warning that for the first time, laptops would be banned from the show floor. For a Comdex Fall that seems certain to focus on emerging mobile technologies, it seemed ironic that Key3Media was intent on preventing attendees from taking part in the revolution. The company must have decided it was ridiculous (or, more likely, they got an early indication of the severe backlash from media and exhibitor partners) because the decision was reversed a day or two later.

Usually when I head off to cover Comdex Fall people tell me to have a good time. This year they’re wishing me good luck. Like many of the 150,000 expected attendees this year, we considered not going. I have followed the lead of many managers in other industries who have dispatched their staff on a strictly as-needed basis. I still can’t bring myself to send anyone to New York, though the recent advertising campaign on television makes me think I should change my mind.

The show was already in an unenviable position given the current state of the IT industry. Every year, it seems like the early buzz is not so much around the planned technology releases but who’s pulled out. This year, the big names include Gateway, which isn’t all that big a loss considering that their business PCs have not taken a substantial hold in the Canadian market, and the softness of the retail sector led to the closure of its Canadian stores.

Going to Comdex used to be like going to a big industry party, and like any party, I try to focus on those who show up, not those who don’t. I’m looking forward to meeting with many of the Canadian companies exhibiting, of course, but the conference continues to attract big names. Potential highlights include the CEO track, which includes a speech from the head of DoCoMo, among others. And Compaq is expected to launch an innovative new desktop design.

With the increased security measures — the ban on bags from the show floor, for example — it’s going to be hard to maintain the festive atmosphere at this year’s event. But there is also no doubt that Comdex Fall represents a world-famous showcase for the best in our industry (I realized the extent of its fame the day I saw a Comdex banner in a “Weird Al” Yankovic video on MuchMusic). There are many advancements in wireless, Web services and other areas that are worth celebrating. If you think about it, these technologies could be the make-or-break solutions that help turn the spending slump around.

When I started casually explaining to associates that I wouldn’t be here next week, I’d get reactions like, “Wow, you’re brave!” or “Oh, are you ready for that?” I am. This may not be the largest Comdex Fall we’ve ever seen, but in some ways it could be the one of the most important.

sschick@plesman.com

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