Comdex is the place to see and be seen. It's the place for gurus of the PC industry to hobnob and see the latest gewgaws in an exclusive, albeit informal, setting. Actually, judging from the crowds, most of you know that from first-hand experience. Maybe that's a bit cynical. The computer revolution is supposed to make life easier for everyone, so I shouldn't kick if everyone shows up. But the crowds were past unnavigable and straight into unbelievable, so you'll have to pardon me if I remember with a certain wistfulness when Comdex had only 75,000 participants.
To get to the main show floor once they got past the registration tent and inside the front door, the teeming masses had to pass through a 30-foot doorway broken up by pillars that led to the Microsoft booth. I refer to it as the "portals of Microsoft." (If you detect a certain subtext here, you're not alone.) The booth itself covered fewer acres than, say, your average suburban mall, but it had more stores...well, "boothettes." Each boothette had a Microsoft Marketing Partner demonstrating the company's wares. About a quarter of them were showing BackOffice or Windows NT products.
Microsoft's presence at Comdex was nothing short of huge. There were people all over the show floor with Kelly-green "MS Crew" T-shirts and radios on their hips who were assisting the Microsoft solution providers. Computerworld estimated that Microsoft paid almost $1 million in booth rent alone, and the company couldn't have brought fewer than 500 employees. Even for a company legendary for its marketing savvy, this was a major effort.
Windows 95 was the main product focus of all that Microsoft promotion, but Windows NT wasn't hard to find in the mix. Even more than at SIGGRAPH, products were sporting the "95 and NT" label. Fewer vendors looked blank when I asked them about NT-compatibility, and more mainline companies had at least planned testing under NT.
There were some great products hiding out in the boothettes: A company called Legi-Tech showed off its Advanced Legislative Online Tracking (ALOT), a program that tracks legislation as it winds its way through committees, markups, amendments, and passage. ALOT is a classic downsizing application that is pointed directly at a market niche occupied by minicomputers. Of course, it uses BackOffice to file and organize the prodigious amounts of data generated by the lawmaking process.
In another boothette, Octopus Technologies demonstrated its Octopus 1.5, a real-time data protection product for all versions of NT and Windows 95. You need to investigate this product if you run an NT network that has to be reliable. Basically, the Octopus copies data from one server to another in real-time. Unlike the Replication Services feature of NT, it copies only the changes in files, and it can copy data to any server in any domain. It's a software-only solution and runs on whatever disks you have. Although you need at least two servers--a host and a target--if you want to run Octopus, neither is dedicated to the task. The program also needs a link between the servers that's at least fast enough to handle the volume of data. Paying $2000 for two servers is a bargain compared to having a whole department sitting on its hands while you rebuild the system.
Another all-platform NT product is Executive Software's Diskeeper, which defragments your NT system's hard disk while it's still running. The Comdex representatives explained that NT's filing system almost guarantees disk fragmentation, even when you are copying files to a new drive.
NT was on the rest of the show floor, too. NEC and several other companies were running around pitching NEC MIPS-based RISC servers as high price/performance NT solutions, especially as database and transaction-processing hosts. All of the big NT-based server applications are available, but there aren't many desktop applications for the MIPS, Alpha, or PowerPC chip that runs NT--and that's still the drawback for NT computers not using Intel or compatible processors. I saw one man from the graphics department of United Parcel Service's (UPS) airline trying to decide if he could design and write multimedia applications on a non-Intel NT platform. What he wanted just isn't available.
What about the future of MIPS when the Pentium Pro seems so powerful? Will people move their applications? Watch this space, the NEC guys told me: The MIPS R4400 chip is getting a new big brother, the R10000, which will answer to Intel quite well (see "MIPS/NT: Allied From Birth" on page 22). I heard rumors about backroom displays of machines based on the new chip, but not even a demonstration model made it to the show floor. One manufacturer of NT workstations with changeable CPUs told me he couldn't even get one MIPS R10000 as an engineering sample.
Digital Equipment was trying to hedge its bets in a different way: The company had Alpha-based workstations and servers aplenty, right next to the equivalent Pentium computers Digital also sells. Representatives spoke of big plans to cluster NT Servers the way VAX servers will cluster now, and they hinted at other marriages between Digital's high-end technology and NT. This has caused no little concern among the company's UNIX and Virtual Memory System (VMS) supporters, who wonder if Digital will put all its eggs in the Microsoft basket.
Over in the Digital Semiconductor booth, I was able to catch a preview of the FX!32, a software-only Pentium emulator for Digital's Alpha chip (see "Digital Makes Alpha-based PC Clones with FX!32" on page 11). Demonstrators were showing the Windows 95 pinball game, unmodified, running under NT on the Alpha at a speed claimed to be 70% of what it would have if it were recompiled. That's pretty impressive. You can run all your old applications at a good clip and run Alpha-specific ones even faster. If FX!32 ships during mid-1996 as planned and Digital drops the price of the Alpha microprocessor significantly, Intel might see a run for its money in the NT market.
Even IBM was trying to cover all its bases. The company's AS/400 division recently announced it was considering retargeting the AS/400 chip toward microcomputer use. Is this a bet on the success of the PowerPC chip? Oh, representatives still pushed the PowerPC. They had the "PowerPC Pavilion," which was a tent out in the parking lot that was full of hardware and software based on the Apple/IBM/Motorola chip. Hardly any of it was NT-based, and the pavilion was much less impressive than the one IBM had last year: Then, the company had seemed so full of hope to create a non-Intel, non-Microsoft standard.
Tied to Teamwork
NT needs to support more than one mouse-like I/O device if it's going to be a serious contender in the graphics department. Preferably, it should support as many I/O devices as the user wants. And, tucked away in an obscure room was a way for NT to achieve this goal: Intel's Universal Serial Bus (USB). It's basically the PC world's answer to Apple's GeoPort and Data Bus (ADB) standard. USB strings up to 127 devices together--keyboards, mice, bitpads, trackballs, flight yokes--to the PC through a single port. For example, Northern Telecom showed how Public Branch eXchange (PBX) manufacturers can use the USB to connect their telephone switches to PCs.
The USB can connect modems and even the monitor's setup port to a PC. It provides power to connected devices, too, eliminating a lot of toy transformers. USB is fast at 12 megabits per second (Mbps) and uses a simple self-locking connector. If it becomes popular, it'll be a stroke of luck for homebrew builders: You won't have to hunt for a spare interrupt for your third serial port anymore--just hook the device to the USB chain and go. It's not clear that the USB will become universally accepted, despite the industry firepower behind it.
The NT operating system will require a minor rewrite to support a variable number of input devices if all this is to matter to NT users. Microsoft was showing off mice, trackballs, and keyboards using the USB in the USB demonstration room, so you can expect to see this support quite soon, perhaps as early as NT 4.0. As a bonus, it means you can run even more cool games on NT once USB (digital) joysticks and the like are available. Then, the final step into the mainstream will depend on when PC manufacturers put a USB port on the motherboard.
Speaking of NT 4.0, Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) is eagerly awaiting that operating system update. CTI representatives showed quite a few applications for integrating phones and computers on Windows 95, and they promised the company would move to NT as soon as Microsoft's CTI application programming interfaces (APIs) arrived in their storerooms.
I saw plenty of peripherals at Comdex: The biggest trend was all-in-one fax/scanner/printer/copiers that don't yet have NT-compatible software. The biggest add-on hardware news for NT users was that we'll see proper 32-bit scanner drivers from Microtek, UMax, and Hewlett-Packard really soon. This has been another stumbling block for NT's move toward graphics design.
Still on the subject of graphics, Deneba Software announced that Canvas 5.0, its high-end drawing and image-editing package, is slated for Windows 95 and all four platforms of Windows NT. This is a new move for Deneba: Up to now, the company has been a powerhouse only in Macintosh drawing packages that are aimed squarely at Corel Draw's market.
Because Canvas and Autodesk's 3D Studio Pro aren't yet shipping, the killer NT graphics application at Comdex was Lightwave, the 3D modeling package that started out on the Amiga and now sells a lot of Alpha workstations. Well, maybe it was the co-killer application along with Speed Razor Pro 3, the NT-based video editing system.
Still lacking for NT was any kind of remote workstation takeover product, such as a Remote Access Service (RAS) or Laplink that lets you work on someone else's computer. Oh, sure, you can use NT's built-in RAS to copy files between computers, but there's no substitute for running a program on another computer. All the big players were silent on this topic, although they did say it's a lot of work.
There was more: I saw new graphics cards based on the S3 3D chipset, others using the GLINT 300SX from 3DLabs, National Computers Plus's (NCP) new Viper workstations with the newest Alpha microprocessors, FirePower workstations.... A full report would take many more pages than I have, but it's fair to say that NT products are firmly on the map and have changed computing for good.
Digital Equipment * 800-354-9000
Deneba Software * 305-596-5644
Executive Software * 800-829-6468
in:sync * 301-320-0220
Intel * 800-628-8686
Legi-Tech * 916-447-1886
NEC * 800-709-3434
Octopus Technologies * 800-919-1009