A Losing Bet: the Last Days of Comdex, Part 1

by Doc Searls

I had two missions at Fall Comdex. One was to participate in a Great Debate titled :The Computing Re-Revolutionaries: Business, Consumers, or Both?" The other was to see if it was possible to buy a Linux desktop of any kind from a major hardware vendor at the show.

I arrived in Las Vegas late Sunday, just in time to miss Bill Gates' kickoff keynote at the MGM Grand. My debate was scheduled for 4:30 Monday afternoon, and my plane left at 4:30PM on Tuesday. That still left plenty of time to carry out the second mission, one made easy by the absence of several big hardware players and the fact that Comdex has become a relatively small show. If it weren't for Microsoft, it would hardly have been a show at all.

On that last issue, cabbies were a key source of intelligence. See, Las Vegas is even more dependent on cab transportation than is New York. The bus system is handy only for running up and down the strip. The elevated tram only runs back and forth between a few hotels. So if you want to get around, cabs generally are your only choice. As one result, the cabbies of Las Vegas seem to know more about what's going on there than any other professional group. They're also more willing to talk about it.

I took cabs twice during my visit there, and both times I got the same story: 1) Comdex is in big trouble; 2) the show is shrinking away; and 3) Key3Media, the company that puts on the show, is going bankrupt.

Meanwhile, Microsoft seems as big and sturdy as ever. The company also is promoting the hell out of the new TabletPC version of Windows XP. As a bunch of TabletPCs made their debuts at the show, it was hard to escape the conclusion that Comdex in its twilight years has largely become a promotional peripheral of Redmond. In fact, it's hard to escape the same conclusion about some of the hardware vendors--even HP.

Carly Fiorina, HP's President & CEO, gave the opening keynote on Monday morning, the first day of the show. The vast room held thousands, and it was packed to the walls. The keynote was an hour-long infomercial. Fiorina's only smile came through when her microphone went dead and then came back on. I'm sure she welcomed a short break from the relentless promotional message-making.

She went on a great deal about partnerships with other large corporate entities and mentioned Linux only three times. Twice she said, "You want Windows servers. And UNIX. And Linux." And she said Cimarron was "the first all-Linux animated movie." Before that she talked about how HP had ported Dreamworks' proprietary animation software from their old workstations (presumably SGIs) to new HPs, under extreme deadline pressure to produce the movie Shrek. But she but made no mention of Linux, which was used to render the movie.

As the hour drew to a close, it became clear that no more mentions of Linux were forthcoming, especially after she began talking generic Solutionese about being "focused on delivering a consumer technology experience that...", followed by a series of boilerplate virtues. I was standing at the exit when she closed her talk by pulling out a Tablet PC and sending a handwritten e-mail to Steve Ballmer of Microsoft, who she said was in the audience.

Suddenly all her earlier talk about "partners" and "partnership" acquired a meaningful context.

The next keynote was at noon and featured Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems. This was much less well-attended--partly because it competed with lunch and partly because the audience had to go through a security screening process that was completely absent for the Fiorina keynote.

McNealy was relaxed, informative and--as always--funny. While his general message was no less self-promotional than Carly Fiorina's, there was nothing scripted about it. He kept his notes in a pile of blue cards and wandered around the stage issuing one quip after another.

He talked about real-world problems for the hardware business, such as the reluctance of CFOs to approve spending on stuff that doesn't pay pack in the same quarter. "The discount rate that they apply to future cash flow is virtually infinite", he said. "Put a two-way Intel server on your expense report", is one strategy he gave for coping with the problem.

He said security and complexity were huge customer problems, and he spread blame the blame for them not only on Microsoft but on Linux hackers inside companies as well. From my notes: "New strains of Linux...new kinds of servers everywhere. Departments are creating their own OS stacks. Everybody is now a sysadmin, writing their own software, building their own stacks, issuing their own releases."

He said big vendors offer three choices. Microsoft's is integrated: everything you want, glued together in one sealed-up mess. IBM's he called "unintegratable", adding "their best of breed is inbred. Lots of paint to make this sucker work... darken the skies with IBM global services plumbers and carpenters." Sun's choice, he said, is "integratable.... OSes, servers, microprocessors, storage, middleware, languages, tools, services support, consulting...", all "Lego pieces" you can plug together with stuff from other companies using open APIs and other open technologies.

He also said Sun's main competition was IBM, not HP. Why? "Because I don't think printing is at the core of your problem." He called Dell a company for people who like to buy 10-speed bikes, unassembled. Yet when show time arrived, Linux was front and center.

First he showed an appliance with a Linux UI. From my notes: "...running a GNOME windows interface, StarOffice tools...based on an open-source solution". He also called StarOffice the "biggest open-source effort", with over a million downloads of the source and 5.6 million downloads of the binaries, running on 11 platforms so far. "What other productivity suite runs on 11 platforms?"

Next he showed a box from Pirus, a company Sun recently acquired. It manages storage across heterogeneous servers, among other things, and its UI is Red Hat Linux.

I spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out with Aaron Swartz, the 16-year-old whiz kid who is the hacker-in-chief of Creative Commons, among many other things. Aaron and I were both participating in the Great Debate.

The debate went well, perhaps because it wasn't one. Everybody had smart stuff to say. I'll give you a full report next week, along with coverage of a Day Two debate that featured John Perry Barlow and Richard Stallman vs. three guys from the entertainment industry. As you might guess, RMS was irrepressible and things got pretty hot in there.

The rest of Day Two was devoted to a Great Linux Hunt that ended in futility. Two of the big three hardware vendors, Dell and IBM, weren't at the show. I'm told IBM was off in the Aladdin Hotel, but I couldn't find them even though I spent both nights there (nice hotel, by the way; cheap too). Nor was Sony present.

But Toshiba was there, along with HP, Acer and Fujitsu. All but Acer were within a short walk of the vast Microsoft pavilion, and all four were pushing their new TabletPCs.

It appears from this Microsoft release that IBM and Dell aren't making TabletPCs. Coincidence?

All the boxes I saw at all HP, Acer, Fujitsu and Toshiba booths bore the same sticker that read "designed for WindowsXP". When I asked a Toshiba guy if it was possible to get a laptop with Linux, he frostily said, "We don't do that." A Fujitsu guy told me the same thing but in more friendly terms. At HP a guy told me the company had recently set up a CTO (configure to order) system on the web site that would at least allow the customer to get a desktop or server system configured with Linux. But when he tried to show me the system at work, he couldn't bring it up. "I told those guys we needed it up this week!" he said, then invited me to look at the site after the show was over. He'd be back at the office by then and able to make sure it was done right.

(By the way, I was traveling incognito to these booths, wearing a badge that read "American Open Technology Consortium".)

For two consecutive Comdexes, Linux had its own big Linux Business Expo pavilion. Now it was nowhere.

But so was Comdex itself. After Microsoft and HP, the biggest booths were for countries and regions. Taiwan, Hong Kong, France, the U.K. and Korea were all well-represented but as dull as their own brochures. Another big booth was Mercedes', which was also giving test drives in the parking lots. (I just wanted to try the radios. They all sounded good, but one was crashed--it displayed a huge "wait"--and all of them had a fancy but user-hostile UI.) By far the most active booths (to my eyes, at least) were the ones for Palm and BenQ. Palm had a whole raft of new stuff to show and sell. And BenQ--a spinoff of Acer--had a nice assortment of flat-screen monitors and related peripherals. Olympus had some nice cameras; but the absence of Sony and Canon seemed even more conspicuous to me.

On Monday night, Aaron and I joined some friends at Showstoppers, where a small assortment of companies were showing off their stuff to press folks. With nothing better to do, we got some quality time with HP's new laptops, all running WindowsXP. These occupied the same table as the TabletPCs and seemed to be getting about as much attention.

Credit where due: Microsoft has done a very nice job with screen type; it's much cleaner than what either Aaron or I have seen from Linux or Apple's OS X. And although the UI is goofy in that consumer-oriented way (where you have to dumb yourself down a bit to guess what something must actually mean), it was pretty easy to figure stuff out. But sadly, it seemed the iron really is "designed for WindowsXP".

But that doesn't change my take-away from the whole show, which is that cheap rules. Pretty as a lot of this stuff is, the white boxes are winning. Bet on the generica. Even if it's not on the tables at Comdex.

Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal.

email: doc@ssc.com

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