A report on the biggest IT conference

When I last attended the fall Comdex conference in 1989, I swore I'd never go again. You can choose from a million things to see and learn, and you can meet and learn from nearly a quarter-million people. However, the lines, the crowds, and the venue (Comdex is in Las Vegas) made me vow to skip the conference in subsequent years.

But then the conference's organizers asked me to speak at Comdex/Fall 1999, and I conceded to attend one more time. Granted, I wasn't filling in for Bill Gates' keynote address, but the prospect of speaking to hundreds of Windows NT fans was exciting.

As I'd hoped, the crowds were big and eager. You know that people want to hear about Active Directory (AD) when they show up for an early session first thing on Thursday morning, after the Wednesday-night parties.

Attending Comdex gives you an instant feel for where the industry thinks it's headed. (I say thinks because sometimes the industry is wrong. For example, walking around at Comdex in the fall of 1988 would have convinced you that everyone would be using pen-based portable computers by 1989. But the 8.5" x 11" portables of the late 1980s never caught on—although a different kind of pen-based computing did catch on in the mid to late 1990s, with palmtop computers.) As I walked around at Comdex in November 1999, several things struck me.

First, I didn't hear the term Y2K once. I wondered whether the industry simply wasn't worried about the Year 2000 problem or whether the attendees thought they were properly prepared. By now, we know how prepared everyone was, but in November the silence about the end of the millennium was deafening. Perhaps those who were worried about Y2K weren't at Comdex because they were busy making their systems Y2K-compliant. I learned from several regular Comdex attendees that the conference was less well attended that fall than in previous years.

Another trend I noticed was the proliferation of cheap, single-function information appliances that aren't PCs and don't run a form of Windows. One company offered a wireless, touch-sensitive color LCD panel, about the size of those pen-based computers from 10 years ago, that lets you surf the Web from just about anywhere in your house. Another firm offered a dedicated Web-browser terminal for about $200—potentially the perfect kitchen PC.

The Linux folks had their own show floor separate from the rest of the Comdex show floors, which was a first for Linux and evidence that the business community is noticing the OS. I was amused talking to firms such as Corel, who'd put together some nice distributions of Linux, only to give them away. I asked the companies how they planned to make money on the distributions, and they said they planned to sell support. Because Linux is reputedly fairly reliable, I assume that by support, the companies meant installation and configuration help. So, if Linux becomes easy to install, these firms will be out of business. I questioned the companies' reasoning, until I thought about what I've been saying for years—if computing ever becomes easy, I'll be out of a job. And I'm not worrying about unemployment anytime soon.

Finally, one of the things I like best about attending Comdex is that I often run into old friends that I haven't seen for years. In November, I bumped into a database named Pick that I worked with more than 15 years ago. I'd thought the database and its parent company were long gone, but Pick Systems is still around and was displaying its wares on the Linux show floor. I was pleasantly surprised to see that in addition to the Linux version, the company offers an NT version. I might have to give the NT version a spin the next time I need a database.

Attending Comdex is an interesting experience. All the big players are at the conference, as are the players the industry thinks will be big. In just a few days' time, you can immerse yourself in the industry's current events and expectations for—or delusions about—the future. Love it or hate it, Comdex is a conference you can't ignore.