Latest COMDEX show was a shadow of its former self

LAS VEGAS — COMDEX was founded in 1979 as a showcase for the fledgling personal computer industry (COMDEX, as few probably remember, stands for Computer Dealer Expo).

A perspective by J.R. Wilson

LAS VEGAS — COMDEX was founded in 1979 as a showcase for the fledgling personal computer industry (COMDEX, as few probably remember, stands for Computer Dealer Expo). By 2000, it had grown into a behemoth, with 211,000 attendees and 2,337 exhibitors filling the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) and tens of thousands of square feet of exhibit space at other locations throughout the city. Even the parking lot was taken over by tents to house additional exhibits and registration.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 came only two months before COMDEX 2001 and led to a dramatic reduction in attendees (125,000) and exhibitors (1,685). No one fully realized then that 9/11 also might have helped those who wanted out of a huge end-of-year expense in an industry hard-hit by its own recession at a time when the overall economy had slowed to a snail's pace.

COMDEX in mid-November 2002 was a mere shadow of its former self, drawing only 1,100 exhibitors (a number some dispute as being overly generous). Los Angeles-based Key3Media, which runs COMDEX, claimed 120,000 attendees, but Las Vegas cab drivers, parking valets, bartenders and casino dealers — who have a pretty good eye for such things —begged to differ, pegging the number at well below 100,000.

"The industry we serve is in the middle of a depression," argues Key3Media CEO Fredric Rosen. "We can only be as strong as our clients."

While some attendees and exhibitors say the smaller size — the entire event was contained within the original two halls of the LVCC, with room to spare — made it easier to do business with the hard core who did attend, the main topic of conversation during the event was whether there would ever be another COMDEX. That possibility seemed heightened by Key3Media's admission, two days before the show opened, that they might have to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection or sell COMDEX (which has had a number of owners in its 23 years).

The problem appears to be more than simply bad times for the computer industry. According to the industry publication Tradeshow Week, while average attendance at information/technology trade shows dropped 14 percent last year, COMDEX was down 41 percent. And while the average number of exhibitors and floor space sold fell 6.8 percent and 5.6 percent, respectively, COMDEX sank by 27 percent and 32 percent. And last year was considerably better than this year.

Many of the companies that exhibit at COMDEX — and many of the attendees, as well — also can be found two months later back in Las Vegas for the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which now appears to have inherited the mantle of largest show in town from COMDEX. However, the orientation of the two shows – as the names imply — is sharply different. COMDEX tended to bring new technologies to the attention of manufacturers — CES brings new products to the attention of consumers.

The importance of this distinction to the military and aerospace community is that most of their electronics now come from the commercial marketplace and the loss or substantial decline of a major expo that has helped fuel those developments and cross-fertilized new innovations ultimately may be felt in terms of delayed or reduced capabilities available for the battlefield.

There are other shows and conferences, of course — and it seems likely someone will continue to produce COMDEX in some form in the future. But the speed with which that once mighty engine of the commercial computer industry faded sharply reflects what is happening within the industry as a whole. As with the overall economy, this may be nothing more than a breather following more than a decade of explosive growth. Or it may be indicative of a twist on Alvin Toffler's "Future Shock" concept — a need by manufacturers and end users alike to take stock of what already is available and what direction to take next.

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