Comdex, the second biggest computer show on earth, last month proved that size really does matter. Well, it mattered to the residents of Las Vegas, who are estimated to have earned $600m from the show, as well as having their streets clogged for a week with 210,000 computer obsessives.
And to the delegates, of course, who traipsed around acre after acre of stand-clogged conference centres hoping to learn about cutting-edge products and technologies.
What's new online?
The real star of this year's Comdex was the Internet. The emphasis was highly practical: the IT industry wants to prove that companies can actually start to make money from their Web site and their Internet investment. A number of companies showcased Internet and Web-site management tools and, although there was an Internet pavilion, its presence pervaded almost every stand.
The Internet frenzy is partly to do with the fad for distributed computing, and the growing popularity of the thin client model continues to boost the fortunes of Java. Several seminar speakers claimed that the language would become a multi-billion dollar business, and Lotus made a great deal of fuss about the Java version of Smartsuite. Corel might have taken exception to this, having shifted all its program development efforts to Java for its own packages, but the real surprise was that Java's parent, Sun, was not at Comdex at all. Apple was happily endorsing new PowerPC Mac clones from the likes of Umax, and IBM had (the awfully slow) OS/2 in the press room - but Sun clearly felt it'd be better off staying away.
Microsoft has Windows in hand
Microsoft's big launch here was Windows CE. Six manufacturers (HP, Hitachi, Casio, Compaq, LG Electronics and Philips) were also launching handheld PCs based on the CE architecture. Business Computer World had hands-on experience of the Casio version. It uses a pen instead of a mouse, but retains all the drag-and-drop functionality of Windows. The keyboard was awful, but what do you expect from a wallet-sized machine?
CE's look and feel is almost identical to its desktop cousin and, although you lose some functionality, its ability to synchronise seamlessly with the desktop PC's applications via infra-red or serial cable makes it very useful. Its display of graphical Web pages impressed most who saw it.
But one question hangs over the PDA - or handheld PC (HPC) as Microsoft calls it: most people who want mobile computing get a full notebook; most people who don't, won't need a CE-based HPC. Creating the need for the product after the faddists have all bought it will be the real test.
Philippe Courtot, chairman and CEO of Verity Inc (see last month's Barometer) hitched a lift with Business Computer World to one of the many Comdex venues. Avid readers will remember Barometer's plea to Verity to get its act together to ensure its excellent search engine technology doesn't get overlooked.
According to Courtot, the company has a nine-month window, during which it hopes to establish enough partnerships and major clients to resist unwanted overtures from envious software giants. And working with Microsoft, Lotus and Netscape should ensure it stays at the cutting edge, although we all know what happens to successful software houses who work too closely with Microsoft. Courtot aims to make Verity the top information-retrieval company in the world. 'The volume and fragmentation of information requires (documents and files) to be categorised,' said the San Francisco-based Frenchman.
'We'd like to do for new information sources what Oracle did for relational databases a few years back, by making searching much more efficient,' said Courtot. Using categorisation - documents would be given several attributes as they are created - users will be able to drill down through information as if they were using a browser, eventually finding the exact document they need, rather than relying on hundreds of possibilities generated by a word search. Products should be shipping mid-1997, and information-overloaded executives should watch this space for further news.
Modems, DVD and Surround Sound
On the hardware front, new, faster modems (see November's Business Computer World) grabbed a lot of attention. But generating moving pictures was the hot topic. Bill Gates made great play of the need to create a richer visual environment on the PC, and several companies were showcasing fast graphics chips and even 3D sound. The real winner, though, was DVD, digital video disks.
Toshiba launched the snappily-named SD-M1002DVD-ROM drive, which is capable of using dual-sided, dual-layer versions of the 5in disks with up to 17Gb of storage, as well as home-oriented versions of the DVD player capable of playing 133 minutes of video with better quality than laser disk and incorporating full Dolby Surround Sound. In fact, Toshiba was making far more noise about the home entertainment market than business, despite the obvious application of DVD to corporate data storage needs.
If it replaces VHS in the home video market, that decision will be justified.
But that, in its way, is symptomatic of the other key issue debated at Comdex: convergence. Home and business technology are coming closer together with the growth in networking and distribution of information. Convergence was also evident in the way many technologies for business are coming together. The only issue IT planners will have to watch is which horses they choose to back.
The Internet has successfully straddled all barriers because it operates using a genuine, universally-accepted standard, TCP/IP. Other technologies on show here don't have that advantage. But if Comdex made one thing plain, it's that if you have one technology which doesn't seamlessly integrate with all the rest of your IT, ditch it fast. There's no room for individuality.
While that may be sad for a number of fun and interesting products and companies, most manufacturers and users in the IT industry know that, in business, there's no room for sentimentality.
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