Pessimism, pragmatism and cynicism are useful qualities to bring to Las Vegas any time of the year; but they're especially valuable when Comdex -- the world's largest computer trade show -- is in town.
Pessimism, pragmatism and cynicism (also known as "Oh No!," "Oh Really?" and "Oh Yeah?") offer the best filters to view what was simultaneously the most disappointing and most hopeful Comdex to date.
Why disappointing? Because, despite the conference organizers' best efforts to put a good face on, attendance was significantly down. The aisles resembled the Great Plains; exhibitors talked to each other, not to customers. There were no undercurrents of tension or excitement; Comdex had all the atmospherics of a town library.
The thrill was gone. People yawned not because they were tired, but because they were bored.
Why hopeful? (Down pessimism, down cynicism!) Because, this show might prove that, even in the pit of a recession, the industry shows enough innovation to ensure that significant growth can continue.
In other words, the doomsayers who contend that the boom in computer buying is over are somewhere between probably, and definitely, wrong.
While past Comdex shows were marked by a menagerie of me-too products, this Comdex at least offered both price and product differentiation.
One area jammed full of new entrants is nonimpact printing -- i.e., ink-jet and laser printers. Apple computer is dropping the price on its high-speed laser printer, and the Japanese firms are all moving on both the laser and ink-jet fronts. Clearly, the concept of "desktop publishing" is taking off. The idea that for under $10,000 one can create one's own high-quality, high-speed printing press is irrestible to many small businesses and business departments (not to mention many individuals).
These printers, with their ability to integrate charts and pictures on the printout, may become the fastest-growing segment of the peripheral market by next year. And, unlike other products in the personal computer arena, they are filling an identifiable need -- the production of high-quality documents -- rather than ending up as technological solutions in search of problems.
Secondly, people are recognizing that it will be software -- not hardware -- that shapes the usefulness of a local area network of personal computers. Some companies, like California-based Nestar, now bundle in software with their LANs that enable users to share spread sheets, data bases and electronic mail over the network. As of yet, however, no one's come up with a software package so exciting or useful that it just has to be part of a LAN. Given that the number of LANs is growing by tens of thousands a year, the software potential for that market is enormous.
Third, memory continues to grow cheaper and cheaper -- and not just the 256K DRAM and one-megabit chips, either. Maxtor, Eastman Kodak and others now offer high-density drives at prices that purchased only a single-density, floppy disc drive 18 months ago. For under $300, one can now buy more than three megabits of drive storage.
But the surprise of the show? Unquestionably Atari. Jack Tramiel's company had a huge boost with more than a dozen software companies exhibiting at least 70 new programs that will be available for the ST by the end of the year.
In all, it seems that this Comdex, while offering more than the usual reasons to be both a cynic and a pessimist, gives some meat for those pragmatists who remain in the industry. It's still unclear when the buying cycle will begin to come back, but it is certain that the products will be there when it does return.