So Long, Comdex, Rest In Peace

The passing of the event is a moment worth noting. For years, Comdex was the place to be in November--de rigueur for anyone hoping to make a splash in IT. It was where Microsoft co-founder and chairman Bill Gates set the industry on its ear and where the titans of the business wined and dined their best partners and customers.

Truth be told, however, the show never recovered from the dot-com crash and the events of 9/11. Like a boat on its final voyage, Comdex clearly was an event about to be mothballed last November. Whereas Comdex once filled every room and every venue in town, the event barely filled half of the Las Vegas Convention Center. Yes, the headliners, including Gates, came into town, but only for a few hours and not without stifling security demands and strict handling guidelines that sucked all spontaneity and anticipation out of what they had to say. And another red flag: Gone were the notoriously long cab lines that used to extend for hundreds of yards.

Over the years, the event managed to survive a series of blows that would have crushed other events. One year saw a taxi strike. Others were overshadowed by rainstorms and vendor pullouts. Intel's not coming! Compaq is gone! IBM is blowing it off! Where's Apple? Rumors of companies withdrawing and then subsequently lending their support to the event added a buzz to the show, but ultimately fatigued it beyond repair. Then there was the debilitating effect that "Shadow Comdex" had on the show. Shadow Comdex was what industry insiders referred to as the practice of setting up in a hotel suite away from the show and luring Comdex attendees away from the floor. That happened more and more as the core event lost its luster and hotel rooms, once impossible to secure, became available for the asking and for very low prices. The Shadow Comdex was the literal embodiment of the old Yogi Berra line, "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded."

Truth be told, macroeconomics worked against Comdex, which started off as an event for dealers where vendors would show off their latest wares. (Comdex is actually shorthand for the Computer Dealers Exhibition.) The event soared to record heights when there were six or seven computer companies, eight or nine software giants and scores of storage options all vying for attention. But as the number of rivals narrowed, so, too, did the need for bringing an industry together all in one place. When that realization began to settle in, vendors began putting more money in their own events and others that appealed to less mature market categories. Witness the recent success of the Consumer Electronics Show, which is also held in Las Vegas.

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Surely, the event everyone loved to hate will be missed. The crabby cabbies whose favorite joke was, "You guys come to town with $20 and one suit, and don't change, either," is one I'll personally miss. Ditto the free food and drink lavishly provided at parties, buffets and dinners.

As much as anything, Comdex was a place where great things big and small happened. It's the venue that elevated Compaq to tier-one status and the place where Lotus fell further and further behind Microsoft. It's the place where HP lifted the laser printer to mythical status and where plucky software companies, including WordPerfect and Borland, tried in vain to hold onto crumbling franchises.

And, boy, did they and others spend lavishly to hold onto what they once had. WordPerfect used to set up waterfalls and stage elaborately choreographed presentations on the hour. Borland set up a spaceship to demonstrate a new spreadsheet. And one Japanese computer giant once embarrassed itself with one of the most curiously conceived events ever: a slave auction that involved the selling of live women for a night. Honestly. There were other oddities that made Comdex--booth bunnies and jugglers, contortionists and porn stars. One software vendor once went so far as to try to marry a fashion show with a product demonstration. (I don't remember the software, but the crowd was standing-room only.)

As fun as it is to remember, it is important not to forget that the industry remains without a flagship event. There are contenders for sure, including TechXpo New York, which my company hosts. But will it ever live up to the original? Ha! Comdex will be missed.