COMDEX 2010: Virtual Fear and Loathing of Las Vegas

A one-time megaconference comes out of its coma

When we last saw COMDEX, it was dying of old age.

The former champ of the tech trade-show business, born in 1979 as the Computer Dealers’ Exposition, had triumphed for a quarter century as the personal computer’s annual main event. In 2000, as many as 200 000 IT soldiers tramped to the Las Vegas Convention Center for their annual marching orders on how to conquer the world with hardware and software. My own fondest memory of COMDEXes past featured the rollout of Microsoft Windows 95. The firm I worked for then, Ziff-Davis Publishing, rented several floors of the MGM Grand. The likes of Gladys Knight performed at our parties, which featured enough liquor to float the Treasure Island pirate ship.

The dot-com bubble burst, however, and COMDEX with it. The 2004 show was canceled—excuse me, postponed. Six years and a couple of ownership changes later, the old-school confab returned last month as COMDEXvirtual, an online-only forum. If you’re an old-timer like me, you’re probably hoping that this experiment, courtesy of United Business Media (UBM), achieves some measure of relevance.

COMDEXvirtual, held 16 and 17 November (and available on demand for six months), was devoid of high jinks and cool parties but rich in opportunities to get up to speed on the state of the IT sales channel now. In today’s spartan, high-unemployment times, that might be all we can expect from a virtual trade show.

UBM claims that more than 12 000 people joined COMDEXvirtual live on the Web, where they could "attend" 48 speaker presentations, gather information from 27 exhibitors, and hang out with other attendees in chat rooms. Keynote speakers included such industry heavyweights as Intel CEO Paul Otellini and Juniper Networks CEO Kevin Johnson. Special guests included comedian Tim Gage of "Saturday Night Live" and (my event favorite) Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and a onetime value-added reseller who turned a string of start-ups into gold mines back in the good old days.

Cuban noted that an economic downturn is a perfect time for solutions providers to launch new businesses. "Technology is always changing," Cuban said. "You go through lulls, where everything seems to be static for a while, but all of a sudden something’s going to zig, and your customers want to know that when the technology zags, that’s where you’re going to position yourself."

"How do you kick your own ass?" Cuban asked. "In business, other people are always trying to kick your ass; I learned it as a reseller. So you have to understand where you have a competitive edge to stay ahead." He predicted that cloud computing, social gaming, and other emerging technologies would create new opportunities for small-business entrepreneurs. "Where there’s uncertainty, that’s an opportunity for an integrator," Cuban said.

Cloud computing was indeed the hot COMDEX topic. In a perhaps-unintentional pun, speaker Jeffrey Kaplan noted that it would soon gather into a "perfect storm." Kaplan, managing director of THINKstrategies, an IT consulting firm based in Wellesley, Mass., told listeners that macromarket trends, enabling technologies, and shifting customer attitudes would propel cloud computing services, particularly for software development, into a "user-driven phenomenon" stimulating a looming market shakeout. In other words, you can take the conference out of the physical world, but you can’t take the jargon out of information technologies.

When I asked Kaplan via e-mail what he thought of COMDEXvirtual as a platform for expressing ideas, he was diplomatic about the experiment: "I don’t think virtual events will replace traditional conferences entirely, but they offer an additional way to learn about topics and promote solutions."

As a forum for IT professionals, the COMDEX brand could become a significant player in the trade-show business again, as long as it can promote communication between like-minded individuals who would not otherwise find one another. That is, after all, the whole point of social media events.

About the Author

Kieron Murphy, a frequent contributor to IEEE Spectrum, is a former managing editor of developer.com, Java Report, The C++ Report, and The X Journal.

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