Last week, Robert W. Priest-Heck, president and CEO of MediaLive International Inc., announced that the Fall 2004 Comdex, set to open November 14 in Las Vegas, has been "postponed" for a year. The next Comdex show in the United States is scheduled for November 13-17, 2005, at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Priest-Heck cited a lack of leading IT company support as the cause for the postponement. Last year, IBM didn't buy booth space, and other tech companies also boycotted the expo, renting hotel space outside the convention center and meeting privately with prospective clients.
The question on everyone's mind is "Will this spell the end of Comdex as an IT vendor institution?" But there is a larger question, regardless of Comdex's future venues. What is the relevance of IT expos in the interconnected world of the Internet? Do any IT expos make sense today?
Comdex: Child of the 80s
Comdex was one of those crazy tech expos that should have been called an "explo" because of its spectacular growth. Comdex helped turn Steve Jobs and Bill Gates into household names, fueled the PC revolution, and transformed traditional Information Systems (IS) departments into Information Technology (IT) bastions. Its success in promoting technology companies helped to position both the software and hardware industries for their spectacular rise on the NASDAQ. In fact, shows like Comdex almost made "geeks" a respectable word in the boardroom.
But a lot has changed since the 80s, and Comdex's success also bred its future difficulties: It became the poster child for what was wrong with the dot-com economy.
My Science Project at Comdex
In the first years of its existence, Comdex was like a regional science fair where geeks and nerds and product promoters could show off their latest projects to customers at card tables in makeshift booths. These entrepreneurs got customer feedback and went back to their drawing boards with their heads filled with possibilities and potentials. It was a kind of "Star Wars Convention" for technology groupies and, as such, had tremendous appeal to the slide rule set.
But as the popularity of Comdex grew, so too did the maze of booths, the formality, the hype, the unfulfilled promises, and the craziness.
The Magic of Comdex
The mystery of "what if" was the allure of Comdex. What if somebody invented a personal computer? What if you could connect them all together? What if you could send written communications instantaneously across the country? What if you could publish your information electronically for people around the world to access? What if you could sell products online? What if you could demonstrate those products remotely?
One by one, the "what if" technology questions became the research projects of IT vendors, and these "science projects" actually began to produce productivity products. What started off as a science fair turned into a World's Fair of the high-tech gadgets: a place where the future of technology was on display for everyone to see.
Smaller Means Bigger
However, just as the age of miniaturization made electronics smaller and smaller, so too did Comdex make the potential for technology seem to grow larger and larger. Comdex, as a show for the benefit of the IT industry, had lost all sense of proportion. It became a generator of a new kind of atmosphere called "vaporware," a kind of gas that vendors could inhale from the booth-side balloons and talk "funny" to their customers about things they never intended to deliver. As savvy customers grew weary of broken promises year after year, vendors began turning Comdex into a kind of Woodstock for the nerd-crowd to increase attendance, with after-hours parties, special passes to free Las Vegas shows, and complimentary gambling chips for the roulette wheels. But by the time the 2000 recession hit, the corporate bean counters had already discovered that the full expense of sending IT personnel to Comdex was like sending an employee on all-expenses-paid vacations to Las Vegas: Little could be shown for the expense, and less could be remembered. More than anything else, the carnival atmosphere doomed Comdex to corporate expense accounts, and IBM and others took note.
A Need for Expos?
There's no question that expos like Comdex helped make some small start-up companies fabulously successful. Yet the largest companies simply became larger still, and today it's these companies that are currently pulling the plug on Comdex and other expos. Why?
Beyond Comdex's flawed reputation, the truth is that companies like IBM no longer want to acknowledge that they have competition. Once upon a time, proving your company's success meant appearing at Comdex and competing for customers on the expo floor. Today, proving success for these corporations means not bothering to compete at all.
Corporations like IBM count on other means to funnel customers to their online marketing demonstrations: brand loyalty, name recognition, good press. Appearing at an expo, by comparison, may actually foster a false sense of choice in the minds of their benighted customers, and a poor showing--or even a "so-so" booth on an expo floor--is a gamble that IBM marketing executives no longer feel is warranted. In their minds, large multi-vendor gatherings don't drive corporate IT purchasing decisions. The new strategy is to convince customers that it's "dangerous" to look elsewhere.
The Value of Comdex
Yet, when one looks back at the spectacular history of expos in the 80s and 90s--and Comdex in particular--one has to remember that for a while IBM's ultimate fate was not so secure. Microsoft, Apple, Novell, and a slew of startup organizations were just starting to call the shots about the direction that the industry should go. Customers were curious about solving their problems with technology products, and they were willing to take risks with new technology to find answers.
This makes us wonder what will happen as smaller U.S. companies really start to feel the competition from the global economy. Will companies be willing to take new risks with technology to make their products competitive? I think they must!
If so, then there is actually a new need for expos like Comdex today, without the hype and without the balloons. By this, I mean smaller vendor gatherings like the COMMON Expo, where individual tech companies can position themselves and their products in light of their real productivity advantages. For the customers, new products offer hope for productivity gains within their organizations. (And who knows, maybe they'll meet the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs!) For vendors, there's the continual need to gather feedback about their products, to test the waters with their new ideas, and to get market exposure for their companies and solutions.
In this light, it's unfortunate that MediaLive, which organizes Comdex, is holding out for the big players like IBM. If Comdex is supposed to be for the vendors, then relying upon the largest vendors to participate sort of defeats the purpose of the expo itself.
The Comdex Legacy
Yet, somewhere in the desert outside of Las Vegas, there is a secret landfill devoted to 20 years of cast-off Comdex promotional flyers, buttons, banners, diskettes, CDs, DVDs, and other giveaway gizmos and gadgets.
Perhaps someday archeologists will discover it and dig through those remains to write academic treatises on the meaning of the fossilized bits and pieces they find. "How the 8-Inch Diskette Shaped the 1980s" will certainly be somebody's PhD thesis.
So what about our loss of Comdex this year? Until the archeologists arrive, the site should sport skull and crossbones warnings: Comdex paraphernalia will be radio-active for some time to come.
Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press Online, LP.