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Weekly Column

Float like a butterfly, sting like a lawyer: Muhammad Ali and other weird characters of Comdex '97

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Comdex is the biggest computer show of all, and it is running this week in Las Vegas. The name stands for COMputer Dealers Exposition, though you can't tell the dealers without a scorecard. The whole thing takes place in Las Vegas because that's the only city in America with enough convention space. They couldn't hold Comdex anyplace else even if they wanted to.

God, how I hate Comdex. It's always the same -- too crowded, too expensive, too busy, too rushed, and too dorky. You can wait an hour in a taxi line or walk an hour across town. You can wait half an hour for an elevator to some party on the roof of the Hilton or you can take 20 flights of stairs and ask the maitre d' to perform bypass surgery while you wait for a table.

Every fifth year there is a downpour that ruins a pair of shoes.

Comdex is where the computer industry comes to meet, to see and be seen. Silicon Valley is literally emptied of "suits" -- sales, marketing, and executive types -- who completely fill short term parking at the San Jose Airport all week since they adamantly refuse to use long-term parking for their S-class Mercedes.

What's especially odd about this business of meeting at Comdex is most of the people who want to meet me there are local and have offices just down the street from mine. I don't do those meetings. For that matter, I don't do any Comdex meetings at all. It's all I can manage to wander around for a day or three, ruin the odd pair of Bally loafers, then miss my flight home.

Missing your flight home from Comdex is the worst situation of all because there literally are no extra seats on later flights, no matter how many frequent flier miles you have. It's wait a week or walk. I know because I've done both. You can't even rent a car to get out of town because there aren't any cars available.

One of the most peculiar parts of Comdex are the keynote addresses. These speeches, generally by boring CEOs of big hardware and software companies are odd because there are so many of them. How can an event have more than one keynote? Comdex has a keynote per day and sometimes two. And what's the point of a keynote address at a trade show, anyway? It's like giving speeches at a farmers' market. Beets are big this year, they say, and don't forget to check out the corn.

This year everything is about low-cost computers, high-power computers, or networking. Last year was pretty much the same except there wasn't so much emphasis on low-cost hardware. That's it -- now you know all about this year's Comdex. And next year's. Trust me.

Okay, here are a few more things I noticed. Java was curiously missing. There were lots of little applets, gimmicks to add tickertapes to your Web site, but red-blooded, fully-grown Java applications were nowhere to be found. Almost three years into the Java phenomenon, isn't it about time we actually saw some applications written in the language?

PC-TVs and TV-PCs are big, literally. The hardware companies seem to think we all want 32-inch displays that look almost as good from across the room as the 17-inch display on my desk does right now. Compaq, Gateway, Samsung, and a mess of other companies had these in abundance.

Internet phones -- standalone phones that connect to the Internet -- were all over the place, too. This is a product category that was clearly destined to appear. Make a local call just like normal with these devices, but dial a long-distance number and these puppies call an Internet Service Provider and connect over the Net. Or try to, since the ones I saw didn't really work all that well. Maybe next year.

Network Computers were a no-show except for IBM's, Uniden's (a radio scanner, CB radio, cordless telephone, and radar detector company -- their NC qualifies the category as the Next Big Fad) and a bunch of prototype NCs running Windows.

One product I really loved was the Philips DVX8000 Multimedia Home Theater, a $5000 PC-TV that didn't bother to include the TV. It requires a separate video projection system. There are two things I loved about the DVX8000 -- the quality of its video and the clever politics that the machine represents. The DVX8000 is a 233-Mhz Pentium-II PC and DVD player built in a video receiver box. You can use it as a PC to surf the Web or do your taxes, but most people will use it to drive their super-expensive home theater systems. There are apparently about 50,000 die-hard home theater fans in the U.S. who will buy literally anything that improves their home enjoyment of Jurassic Park. The DVX8000 does wonders for Jurassic Park.

Connected to the right video projection system, the DVX8000 will throw what's on your computer screen up on a wall. When showing DVD movies, it not only throws the video on the wall, it also increases the apparent resolution by doubling the number of lines in the already-better-then-broadcast DVD picture, creating new lines that interpolate between the lines above and below them. This is not new, but combining DVD and a line-doubler in one box IS new. Content providers like television and movie studios are scared that DVD will allow pirates to steal digital masters of their movies and shows, so they require that DVD drives have only analog outputs. This means you can take the video out of your DVD player and into a line-doubler and then to a video projector, but to do so means converting from digital to analog, then analog to digital, then digital to analog before the picture finally gets on-screen. The result of all this back and forth is generally a less than perfect picture. But the DVX8000 relies on a loophole. By putting the DVD player and the line-doubler in the same box they can share a digital interface, producing a better picture.

Maybe I'm making too much of this product, but the savvy packaging makes me think there will soon be lots of other integrated digital devices. Put a DVD drive and a removeable disk drive of the same capacity together, for example, and that looks to me like the home VCR for the next decade -- the digital TV decade. But where are you going to get a 5 gigabyte removeable disk drive with media costing less than $10? You'll see one next year at Comdex, coming from a Silicon Valley startup called Flextor. And that's another reason who people go to Comdex -- to share techno-gossip.

Techies love to gab about each other. Take those new Apple TV commercials, for example, the ones with Picasso and Einstein and Muhammad Ali. Who would have thought that Apple, in its haste to broadcast such cool ads, would forget to buy the right to use Ali's image? Apple had to fork out seven figures to the Champ because of this oversight. Still, the ads are great.

Comdex is a family show, by which I don't mean that there are kids allowed on the show floor, but that X-rated software was thrown out of the show a few years ago. At the time I predicted this would create a business opportunity and suggested setting-up an alternative show called PornDex held at the same time as Comdex, just across the street. Well, this year somebody did it, and AdultDex 97 is a big hit at the Imperial Hotel, complete with naked young ladies of every size and state of implantation.

That should have been my show! I am such an idiot.

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