A Losing Bet: the Last Days of Comdex, Part 2

by Doc Searls

Editors' Note: Part 1 of Doc's Comdex coverage is available here.

I hadn't planned on being at Comdex this year. Even though Comdex is still the biggest computer show in the country (though not on Earth; that distinction belongs to CeBIT in Germany), it had dropped off my travel wish list by the early Nineties. My interest was revived only for the several years Linux Business Expo was in existence. LBE was kind of a show within a show. The Linux Journal crew had a lot of good times there, but it turned out to be, like so many other things in those days, a way for startups to burn VC money--to "brand" themselves and all that.

But a few months ago I was approached by some of the folks at Key3Media, the company that puts on the show, about participating in a new Comdex feature--a Great Debate. The bait was terrific: somebody had to take on Steve Ballmer of Microsoft. There might be a couple other people in the debate, I was told; but it would probably be something of a Microsoft vs. Linux thing. I was selected to hold up the Linux end of the contest. How could I refuse?

Later they asked me to recommend other folks for my end of the table, as they wanted to make it more of a panel and to make it as interesting as possible. I suggested Aaron Swartz, then 15 (now 16), who describes himself this way:

Aaron Swartz is a teenage writer, coder, and hacker. In 1999, he won the ArsDigita Prize for excellence in building non-commercial web sites. In 2000, he co-authored the RSS 1.0 specification, now used by thousands of sites to notify their readers of updates. In 2001, he joined the W3C's RDF Core Working Group, which is developing the format for the Semantic Web. In 2002, he became the Metadata Advisor to the Creative Commons. The rest of the time, he works on a variety of other projects...

Key3 took him on. Later, Ballmer fell off and some other guys came on. But I remained committed. Gary Beach, who sits atop the masthead of CIO and other publications, was slated to moderate the thing. Gary and I go back many years; I like him.

The final topic was "The Computing Re-Revolutionaries: Business, Consumers, or Both?" Aaron and I were joined by Gregor Bailar, Executive Vice President & CIO of Capital One Financial Corporation; Steve Lohr, Technology Reporter with the New York Times; and Patrick Moorhead, Vice President, Customer Advocacy with AMD.

To prepare us, Gary sent out an e-mail asking us to read an October 2002 column by Kevin Maney of USA Today. Here's how it starts:

Passion for technology wanes as industry's relevance fades

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Where did the technology industry go? I came here looking for it, but it's disappeared. Poof. Gone.

The industry has been hurting for a couple of years now, but suddenly tech is looking like a spectacular sand castle built yesterday at low tide. Now all that's left are a couple little mounds on the beach.

Gary specifically wanted us to respond to that last paragraph and told us we'd need to be ready for that at the debate.

I was up first. There's a difference, I pointed out, between how an industry makes its living and what that living is worth to the stock market. Tech is fine by the first measure, even if it looks tanked by the second. To illustrate my point, I told the story of something I had learned at a party back at the height of the dot-com boom, when I ran into a young guy I had met at earlier parties. He was still in his twenties but a self-described "serial entrepreneur", meaning he was a veteran of several startups. He was with yet another hot new company and very excited about it. I asked him what his company did for a living.

"We're an arms merchant to the portals industry", he replied.

When I asked what that meant (portals are an industry?), the guy replied with a torrent of generic marketing BS. Finally I asked what I thought was a rude question: "How are sales?"

"They're great", the guy said. "We just closed our second round of financing."

At the debate, I explained the vivid epiphany this conversation brought about. Every company has two markets: one for its goods and services and one for itself. In the boom years the markets for our companies completely overcame the markets for what those companies did for a living.

Technology, I said, isn't one bit less powerful or interesting or useful just because killer stock market opportunities have dried up. The market for goods and services is still there, even if there's less funny money to spend on it. I also said Kevin Maney's mounds in the sand had names like Microsoft and IBM. For better or worse, I said, those companies aren't going away soon. Even Sun Microsystems, we learned that morning, has $5 billion in the bank.

Because I was sitting on stage, I wasn't in a good position to take notes. So I don't remember too many specifics about the rest of the debate, which really wasn't one as everybody seemed pretty optimistic about the prospects for technology. Especially optimistic was Patrick Moorhead of AMD, who insisted that we're still at an early stage in the development of computing technology.

Oh, somewhere in there I also said technology was making consumers a dead species, citing my friend Jerry Michalski's line about consumers being "gullets who live only to gulp products and crap cash". The Net brought about a revolution in demand, not only supply, I said. Customers are far more powerful than ever before. Vendor emptor.

To close, Gary asked us to name, in as few words as possible, the technologies we thought would be most important five years from now. I remember Aaron said something about wireless and mesh networks. I said I thought there would be two things: one self-explanatory and the other much less obvious.

The first explains itself in two words: cellular broadband. Steve Lohr of the Times nodded as I spoke. Given smart antenna technology, there's no reason (other than telco stick-in-the-mudheadedness) why we shouldn't have broadband everywhere we can make a cell connection. The second was identity services, which allow commerce in the future to be built on strong Net-native identities controlled by individual customers rather than by outside authorities.

Although this debate technically wasn't one, the audience seemed to like it. And we had a truly hot debate the next day with "The Gold Rush for Intellectual Property: Hollywood vs. Silicon Valley". How could it not be with Richard M. Stallman holding up one end of the thing? I'll cover that one in my next report.

Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal.

email: doc@ssc.com

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