It?s not life as we know it Jim. If the 250,000+ delegates who attended Comdex/Fall more often resembled Spock than the captain of the Starship Enterprise, that will be no surprise to the taxi drivers, croupiers and sundry 180,000 people who regularly work the grandly called Strip in Las Vegas. The show has changed a lot in the past 10 years, but to the locals, propellor-heads are still geeks and dweebs.
You could tell many of the computer delegates were new to Comdex just by the aimless way they wandered around the different stands and booths. At the Nieman Marcus mall, bang next door to Treasure Island, your correspondent spotted a group of 20 or 30 people looking at high-powered laser pointers - all with Comdex delegate badges on. The shop assistants obviously saw them coming, with one or two even going so far as to move from shop into precinct to tempt in the visitors.
The local paper, the 'Las Vegas Review', ran a front-page story that featured many taxi drivers saying computer geeks didn?t tip enough or spend enough. Odd then that Bill Gates, head of Microsoft, is fond of gambling and was seen in a casino even before the show started.
He kicked off the show on Sunday night. After eating an indifferent meal in a place called The Mirage, about 400 people, all wearing special Microsoft CE press badges and carrying bright party balloons, rushed past your correspondents to cheer Bill on at his spoiler gig.
The four notes of the Intel Inside jingle is familiar to many, but was embellished by the thousands of slot machines with similar tunes at the entry to the Intel keynote on Monday morning. In the grandly named Aladdin Theatre of the Performing Arts, Andy Grove performed a magic trick by getting 10 large men to wheel a coffee shop on to the stage and then using Intel?s videoconferencing genius to connect a chap standing next to him (who owned the coffee shop chain) to his two-year old daughter on the West Coast - the occasion being her birthday.
We saw the mother and child wave frantically at dad and say hello and thanks, and Grove even made the 7,000 attendees shout ?happy birthday?, but no one was on hand to ask the question how videoconferencing could possibly substitute for the real experience. There is no copyright, after all, on emotional property.
Just a few yards away, Gates was watching avidly as dozens of photographers took snaps of him, which no doubt blinded them as well as the rest of us, as the light bounced off his glasses. Later we learnt, talking to a couple of Intel communication gurus on the bus that took us down to the Convention Centre, that Intel will not stand all the pain of building future fabs alone. It has already secretly signed a deal with Sony to help build next generation chip plants. Not surprising, then, that Sony is just about to get into the PC business, over here as well as over there.
Day two of the show saw similarly glazed delegates from Comdex/Fall walking in groups around the Forum Shopping Arcade next to Caesar?s Palace Casino, a mall full of designer shops but with pretend blue skies above, dotted with little white clouds. Many delegates gave Bill Gates a miss. They had to go to the Sands convention centre, which is now the secondary place in Vegas to spy out the up-and-coming technology.
If the Network Computer ever takes off, Comdex is dead meat. While there was a hefty mass of Internet companies all a little miffed by the fact that local communications were down, there were many more purveyors of adaptors and other peripherals that surely depend on the PC remaining the primary communications tool of choice.
We met a poor delegate who had taken a trip up the 1,000-feet high Stratosphere Tower the night before to experiment with the roller coaster, built since this time last year on the very top of the tower. He said that the experience reminded him of a time at school when several of his pals had whirled him round and then let him go but that the only thing that happened this time was that one of the lenses of his spectacles dropped out.
His companion, who worked for a memory distributor, said he feared his suppliers would take him that night to a further extravaganza developed just off the Strip where two people were strapped face-down, dropped several hundred feet, and then swung to and fro like so many yo-yos. After these experiences, few attended Gates? keynote; an avuncular sort of event where he finally seemed to be settling into fatherhood.
Tuesday night was a good night for taxi drivers. Various delegates, dazed from funfair rides, bright neon badges and carrying strange sticks they had recovered from the main hall at Comdex, took to the wilds of Fremont Street, full of wedding chapels, old casinos and the rest.
Wednesday was a little like Tuesday, apart from a largely irrelevant speech from Jim Barksdale of Netscape, who had been thoroughly outflanked on the Sunday night by Bill Gates. Walking from our eyrie in the strangely named Excalibur hotel, with its famous Little John eaterie, we noticed more and more delegates seemed to be spending their time and money on slots, craps and cards. You knew it was them because they were still wearing their badges.
If there was a theme to the show, it was networks, but the definitions were loose and often woolly. We heard all of the leading stars of Comdex/Fall use the term but if you tried to tease a tighter definition out of them, their mouths clamped up.
The truth, if there was a truth in Comdex/Fall, is that the Internet has shaken their existences so much that no-one seems to know what the future may bring. Rather worryingly for the PC sector, Gates, Grove and many other traditional PC pundits are wavering in their views.
Will they be there to ride the roller coasters on brand new casino New York, New York when Comdex/Fall starts in November next year? It?s a gamble, but both Grove and Gates love risk-taking. The New York, New York roller coaster could put both of them in freefall.
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