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Comdex attendance suffers

The IT industry's biggest annual trade show last week drew the smallest crowd in a decade. Organizers of Comdex Fall 2001 in Las Vegas reported a turnout of 125,000 to an event that drew 200,000-plus attendees in 1998 and 2000.

The organizers blamed a slow economy and travel cutbacks due to the terrorist attacks in September for not meeting the projected turnout of about 150,000. In addition, this year's edition of Comdex was a decidedly more subdued event. Long lines at multiple security checkpoints served to dampen the usual party atmosphere.

Rick Moore, a senior vice president of Comdex organizer Key3Media, said the number of exhibitors at this year's show totaled 1,950 compared to 2,300 a year earlier. "This is obviously a challenging year," Moore said. "Comdex is a mirror for the tech industry. At the end of the day, if the industry is thriving, they can afford to spend more money on these events."

The event did manage to attract an all-star lineup of keynote speakers, which included Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers, Oracle chief Larry Ellison, and eBay chief executive Meg Whitman.

Gates kicked off the conference by beating the drum for the future of his industry, dubbing the next 10 years "the digital decade." Gates said the Tablet PC and other advances will help ensure that technology remains relevant. "In the decade ahead, we'll provide more than twice the productivity improvements we did in the '90s," Gates said.

The Gates keynote included one of the conference's lighter moments: Microsoft's annual humorous video. Something of a Comdex tradition, this year's video spoofed the television show "Entertainment Tonight," and included a duel with Gates as fictional wizard Harry Potter and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer as Luke Skywalker. It also included scenes from a fictitious Xbox game, "Matrix: The golden years," and a remake of the infamous "Monkey Boy" video, in which Ballmer dances wildly to cheer on developers.

In his Monday morning keynote, Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers admitted that he didn't have much that was especially new to say this year. "This is last year's presentation," he said, "but understand the business results that go with it. Understand that it is about the networked virtual corporation in the future where you break away from your peers or you get left behind."

Chambers outlined his well-known vision of virtual global corporations and "the network of networks" that will link companies from around the world with their partners, customers, and suppliers. And he talked about the "mobile office" as a way for companies to increase worker productivity and save money amid an economic downturn.

Chambers considers wireless networking technology to be one of Cisco's high-growth markets. He said that businesses exploring wireless networking options could create new sources of revenue for the company.

Oracle chief Larry Ellison used the "bully pulpit" to build up clustering technology. With clustering, the power of several smaller, cheaper computers is harnessed together to replace a larger, more expensive machine. He said Oracle's 9i database, released this year, was built to manage such clusters more efficiently.

Ellison also took his customary jab at Microsoft. "Where reliability is important, an Oracle server is better than a Microsoft server any time," Ellison said.

Members of Ellison's audience received coffee mugs adorned with the keyword in Oracle's new marketing campaign, "Unbreakable." In another jab at Microsoft, the company also gave away cheaper, clear plastic cups that read, "Microsoft: Software for the fragile business. Caution: Does not work with Java."

Meg Whitman made her first Comdex appearance last week. She told attendees that she was on a mission to recruit businesses to sell products on eBay. Whitman said that eBay sells 2,000 PCs a day and is on track to sell $1.4 billion worth of computers and electronics gear in the United States this year. An estimated 40% of those sales are new products, 46% are used, and 14% are refurbished goods.

She also announced eBay's intention to allow wine sales on its site on a trial basis. The company re-launched the category a week earlier, after banning sale of alcohol two years ago because of complications associate with selling and shipping alcoholic beverages across state lines. The company will partner with New Vine Logistics and Winetasting.com, Whitman said.

Whitman also addressed the recent uproar over eBay's new checkout feature. Her announcement that the feature would be made optional on the site drew a round of applause.

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About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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