The glory that was Comdex

In a decade of reporting on IT, I've never made it to Fall Comdex. I have been to Las Vegas, though, where the event is staged, in my pre-IT existence. It's the kind of place everyone should visit once, and I had, so there was no dragging me back.

In a decade of reporting on IT, I’ve never made it to Fall Comdex. I have been to Las Vegas, though, where the event is staged, in my pre-IT existence. It’s the kind of place everyone should visit once, and I had, so there was no dragging me back.

Each time a Computerworld colleague who’d made the pilgrimage recounted their exploits, I knew staying away was the right thing to do. The hype; the crowds; the bags of brochureware and vendorwear; and the hospitality.

Journalists in the course of duty are famous for ingesting quantities of food and beverages that would kill the less hardened. But sometimes there are close calls. I remember phoning one reporter in his Las Vegas hotel room at about 10am local time to find out when his Comdex coverage would start arriving. The voice that came on the line after minutes of ringing was so incoherent that I’m sure the call saved him from sinking into a fatal coma. He assured me when we talked again a few hours later that it was the worst jet lag he’d ever suffered. That, plus a case of food poisoning, no doubt.

But those were Comdex’s glory days. Even before this year, the event had begun to be eclipsed by CeBIT, which takes place in Hannover in March. If a trade show in an undistinguished town in northern Germany at the end of a European winter can be more popular than one set in the entertainment capital of the world, that tells you something about the decline of Comdex. This year, the gloom in the US IT sector helped deepen the trough.

Exhibitor numbers at last week’s show were down more than a third on last year, to about 1100. By our standards, that still sounds pretty phenomenal. But at the event’s peak, it had double that number. And CeBIT this March had about 8000 exhibitors. The German show drew about 700,000 visitors during its eight days, while Comdex’s organiser, Key3Media Group, was expecting about 125,000 (compared with 200,000 in its heyday).

Things are so grim that Key3Media may not be around to try to do better next year. The company lost more than $US300 million in the last financial quarter and, in an interview with Computerworld US just before this Comdex, said it might seek bankruptcy protection.

Boss Fredric Rosen was understandably touchy on the subject of why he thinks the show is losing popularity. Rosen still believes there’s a place for events like his, which range over a whole industry.

He gets annoyed when asked what he reads into the absence of IBM from the event, saying: “I am tired — and I don’t mind being quoted — I am tired of listening to IBM saying it’s proud of the fact it doesn’t come to Comdex. Then what is it doing in Las Vegas? And you can quote me. I want you to quote me. I’m tired of the hypocrisy of people in this industry saying they don’t come to Comdex because it’s not relevant — and then they’re all in Las Vegas.”

IBM’s in Las Vegas, all right, but holed up in a hotel suite rather than on the show floor. Rosen is reluctant to accept the decline in visitor and exhibitor numbers might be down to the fact that people have more sources of information these days. The internet, he’s sure, is no substitute for face to face information exchanges, and he is confident the trough the technology market is in will pass as the US economy continues through its cycle. He’s not the only one clinging to that belief.

Even if Key3Media isn’t around to run the show next year, Rosen’s certain it will be on. In the meantime, you might want to book your tickets for next year’s CeBIT, on from March 12 to 19.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Phone him with editorial suggestions on 09 302 8763. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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