A losing bet: the last days of Comdex, Part I

Linux kept a low profile at Comdex this year. But maybe that's because Comdex itself is failing away, and Microsoft using what's left of it as a promotional vehicle.

I had two missions at Comdex Fall 2002. 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 at 4:30 Monday afternoon, and my plane left at 4:30 on Tuesday. That still left plenty of time to carry out the second mission, which was made easy by the absence of several big hardware players and the fact that Comdex had 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 New York. The bus system is only handy for running up and down the strip. The elevated tram just runs back and forth between a few hotels. If you want to get around, cabs are generally 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 is also promoting the hell out of the new TabletPC version of Windows XP. Since 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 those same 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 only mentioned Linux 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 Shreck. 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 email 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 2-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 spread blame not only on Microsoft, but on Linux hackers inside companies. From my notes: "New strains of Linux... new kinds of servers everywhere. Departments are creating their own OS stacks. Evereryboyd is now a sysadmin, writing their own software, building their own stacks, issuing their own releases."

He said big vendors offered 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 of paint to make this sucker work... darken the skies with IBM global services plumbers and carpenters." Sun's, he said, is "integratable.... OSes, servers, microprocesors, 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 showtime 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 eleven platforms so far. "What other productivity suite runs on eleven platforms?"

Next he showed a box from a Pirus, a company Sun recently acquired. It manages storage across heterogeneous servers, anong 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 versus three guys from the entertianment 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 harware 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 -- and cheap too). Nor was Sony.

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.


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, on the next Monday. Then he'd be back at the office and able to make sure it was done right.

(By the way, I was travelling incognito to these booths, wearing a badge that read "American Open Technology Consortium" -- not "Linux Journal.")

For two consecutive Comdexes, Linux had its own big Linux Business Expo pavillion. 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'. The company was also giving test drives in the parking lot out front. (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, too; 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: much cleaner than 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 a 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.