Diary of a virtual Interact 96 conference attendee

Does attending a trade show online stack up to actually being at one? To find out, Computerworld US asked Brian Jaffe, a client services manager at a Fortune 100 company in New York, to "attend" Interact '96. His report follows:

April 12: I try to register, using Netscape's Navigator 2.0 under Windows 95. It runs on a Pentium PC, accessing the Internet via a T1 link. I get various error messages -- not terribly different from faxing a registration and getting a busy signal. But at least I can set a fax machine for redial. Online, I have to recomplete the form every time I restart Navigator.

April 14: From home, I use my CompuServe account, with a 14.4K bit/s modem on a 486SX PC with Windows 3.1, and finally register. It takes 25 minutes, and the registration process triggers nine junk emails, two of which crash my electronic-mail system when I open them.

April 23: I "enter" the show immediately, with none of the lines of a physical show. But I need to re-enter my ID and password as I move from area to area. The site is full of graphics and hot links, but I feel lost without a high-level map. The moderated conference called "Office 2000" is pretty interesting, but it takes too long to wait for the text to appear.

April 24: I get to the office early to take advantage of the light Internet traffic and the T1 connection. I jump between chat rooms labeled "Platinum Technologies", "Netscape" and "Microsoft," but they could all be called "Teen Talk". The attendees choose aliases such as Bugaboo and Sgt. Pepper and leave messages such as "Anyone out there?" and "When does this start?"

I attend a conference on "Integrating ATM in the Legacy LAN Environment", but technical problems keep the speaker from seeing anyone else's postings. I try "The Virtual Community" conference, but I don't have time to download, install and learn the required 3Mb Virtual Reality Modeling Language viewer.

I arrive late to the "Brand Equity in Cyberspace" conference, but I can scroll back and see everything said so far, an advantage over a physical show. The discussion seems lively, but response time is still too slow. I think about coming back later, printing the session and reading it on paper.

Later that day: If this were a real show, I'd be catching an early flight home. Making time in the office to log on for events seems harder than blocking out an entire day for a physical show. I've learned nothing from the vendor "exhibits" but have a better sense of what can be done on the World Wide Web.

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