As far as personal computing is concerned, this is a most depressing Consumer Electronics Show.
There is virtually nothing that ranks as innovative, nothing that addresses why computers should be used in the home; and nothing that offers a glimmer of hope for this industry's future.
Commodore International, the troubled home computer company, didn't even take a booth, preferring instead to rent a suite in a hotel. Exhibit space allocated to home computer companies has dropped nearly 40 percent from last year's level.
The brutal conclusion I'm tempted to draw is that there is no such thing as a consumer market for personal computers. They just aren't like VCRs, compact discs or other gismos for electronic entertainment. Those other technologies deliver genuine and recognizable value; personal computers are simply a superb technology that now offers little in the way of entertainment or utility.
In fact, I'm beginning to worry about the future of this column (fortunately, PCs are a cornucopia of business applications).
That's not to say nothing is going on here: There is some news. Jack Tramiel, who once vowed to sell his Atari "Jackintosh" 520-ST computer through mass-market outlets -- announced he would do just that.
Accordingly, the 520-ST's price is being cut by $100 to $299. A Jackintosh 520-ST system with a 3.5-inch disk drive, a mouse and a black-and-white monitor should now sell for under $700.
To make up for what it snatched away from the computer retailers, Atari has introduced a 1040-ST, but it's fair to say that the retailers who had carried the 520 sealed the trade. Nevertheless, you may soon find a high-powered Atari Jackintosh at a K mart near you.
Commodore, which has seen more than its share of problems, is showing a new operating system for its workhorse Commodore 64 that makes the machine look like an Apple Macintosh. Well, not really, but it's the thought that counts. Developed by Berkeley Softworks, a bunch of ex-video-games designers, this new GEOS (Graphic Environment Operating System) tries to get the most out of the 64's limited computing power. Actually, this operating system looks very interesting and could allow the C-64 owner the opportunity to begin doing high-quality desk-top publishing if equipped with the appropriate printer. Berkeley Softworks says that it will begin shipping GEOS for $59.95. Reportedly, the company is also negotiating with Commodore for its help in distributing the software. Commodore needs all the help it can get to rekindle interest in its older machine.
Another interesting, innovative -- but not particularly relevant -- technology is from Cauzin Inc. Its "Softstrip," which can store thousands of bytes of data on a strip of ordinary paper, requires a special optical reader to load the information into your PC. The reader costs $300, and Cauzin hopes that it will transform paper into an important medium for software distribution. It's nifty, but it's not consumer -- but more on the Softstrip in a later column.
Speaking of software, there's not much of it here. What's here isn't new. Moreover, what's here virtually guarantees that there's little software capable of igniting consumer demand or creating a consumer market.
Amid this gloomly scenario, you'd think that the Japanese would be coming in with a clever way to generate demand for a home computer product. But they, too, are conspicuous by their absence.
Is it the light at the end of the tunnel, or is the home computer industry simply a bottomless pit? Based on this show in Vegas, I'm putting my money on the latter for the time being.
By the way, due to a seizure of dyslexia, a column on the Swyftcard from Information Appliance incorrectly stated that it was available for the Apple IIc. It is available for the IIe. My apologies for the confusion.