After a rather exhausting series of meetings finally ended late Monday, I headed out from the Las Vegas Convention Center toward the Hilton. It's a lot colder than usual in Vegas this year, but that's appreciated, as it's usually unbearably hot, especially when you're carting around a laptop. I stepped into the side entrance of the Hilton and saw some commotion coming, along with security guards brushing people aside, yelling, "step aside, step aside." So what I see in the middle of this mess is a very bemused Larry Ellison, who seemed slyly happy at the reaction this was getting from the bystanders. An Oriental woman was whispering something important in his ear as they flew by, but Ellison just looked out over the gaping onlookers, smiling. And then they were gone. Weird.

Anyway, Monday night was Showstoppers, which has grown almost out of control. The concept is a good one: Smaller companies tend to get lost in the klaxon call that is Comdex, so a group of these companies gets together, rents a hall, and then invites the press in for free food, drinks, and product demos. Predictably, we're all over this, like flies on a bug light. Most respectable journalists aren't into cheap freebies like t-shirts and cheap plastic gadgets (ahem), but throw some shrimp and beer in front of us and we'll claw at each other like teenagers trying to get into a Brittney Spears concert. It's sort of humiliating, to be honest.

No matter, Showstoppers is good stuff and like I said, this year, it was bigger than ever. It was held in the newly reopened Alladin, which is now yet another modern themed casino on the strip. Belkin was on hand with some cool products, including a USB 2.0 card that will ship next Spring: This features five 400 Mb USB 2.0 connections (one internal), all fast enough to drive a hard drive or CDRW. Good stuff. PhotoWorks (the former Seattle Filmworks) was on hand as well and I highly recommend their services for digital and traditional SLR camera users. Stardock unveiled Object Desktop 2001, which combines their successful WindowsBlinds product with an amazing object-based desktop replacement that can make Windows look like just about anything. And ZoneLabs was talking up ZoneAlarm and ZoneAlarm Pro, a must for broadband users.

A couple of big companies such as Compaq and Intel were on hand as well, but I don't appreciate their presence at an event like this; it's like they're bullying their way into a kid's clubhouse or something. Companies like this can afford real booths the size of a city block, and of course that's exactly what they've got at the Convention Center, so it's unclear why they're here as well. What I'd like to see here are companies like Borland and Corel.

I spent some time talking with Linux Today's Michael Hall at Showstoppers. He's a cool guy, and I promised not to reveal the company's name, but I did watch as he bailed this unnamed company out of a jam by hacking into one of their Linux boxes to get their demo up and going again. Michael asked me if I had gotten any nasty emails from his readers, and I have (hey, the OS wars are still in full swing), but I told him that came with the territory, no problem. He seemed genuinely bothered by that, and told me he was sorry. Class act. We talked a bit about the evolution of Linux and where it's going. I hope I surprised him by not being a complete Windows sycophant, and I honestly do try and stay up to speed on the latest Linux distributions. One interesting side-note: In the middle of his successful Linux rescue attempt, Alex Pournelle, son of famed sci-fi author and computer industry pundit Jerry Pournelle, and a writer in his own right, stopped by to offer technical assistance. It was only after he left that we realized that he was actually there for that reason. Michael and I sort of looked at the floor wondering what to think of this, and he finally said, "I guess he has to work somewhere."

After that, I finally went back to the room and crashed. The next morning, I woke up at 5:00, sat in front of the window in darkness finishing up WinInfo, and watched the sun come up. I'm not exactly a morning person, but the three-hour time change was working in my favor. I spent most of Tuesday morning running around the convention center, looking at exhibits. Franklin was showing off their new eBookman, which they hope to ship by the end of the year; it looks great. Intel had a tremendous Pentium 4 booth with lots of cool stuff, and I saw a wide range of future PC designs that showed some promise. Gateway surprised me with some cool new laptops that I wish I had known about three months ago. Iomega had a huge presence and was showing off its new Zip devices.

But in the main Convention Center hall, Microsoft is it. I actually sat through a few shows ("Top 10 cool hidden features in Office 2000," which was OK, and "Introduction to .NET," which was bloody awful and almost anti-informative). Crowds were thickest at the PocketPC booths, and the hands-on lab was continuously packed. I happened to stroll behind one of the PC-based hands-on labs and was bemused to see dozens of PCs all being rolled back to a pristine state with Norton Ghost. I guess the days of Microsoft not supporting that product are officially over.

Tuesday afternoon, I picked up the code for Office 10 from the Microsoft press room, found a corner somewhere, sat down, and installed it. I'll have a review later this week, and some cool showcases after that. I'm really excited about Office 10, and I think that this may be an upgrade to look forward to. I also inquired about Visual Studio.NET, but they're going to be sending me that later on, as the code hadn't arrived yet from Redmond. I'll be reviewing that as well. I sat down with some Small Business Server 2000 program managers late Tuesday: That product is just about done, and they're only waiting on ISA Server. Microsoft expects both of those products to go gold by the end of the year.

The one thing that's a bit odd about this year's Comdex is that there weren't any major product announcements at all. Microsoft is basically between products, so to speak, and the only release to speak of is Netscape 6, from AOL, and I haven't heard anyone speak too positively about that.

And that's about it. I have a couple of events I could've attended Tuesday night, but my flight leaves oh too early in the morning on Wednesday, and I've got some work to do. I'll have my Web report of the show--along with photos--when I return