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At Comdex: More Focus, Less Fun

By Jay Greene There was a time when the massive Comdex computer trade show seemed more a circus than an industry event. Just three years ago, more than 200,000 techies made the annual pre-Thanksgiving pilgrimage to Las Vegas as much to party along the Strip as to see the latest gadgets. But what Comdex was gaining in glitz, it was losing in luster.

Tech pros found the convention increasingly unwieldy, disjointed, and irrelevant. So this year, when Comdex opened its doors on Nov. 16, it was a far more sedate affair. Organizers say just 50,000 made the trek to Vegas this year. And the products they saw and speeches they heard focused on only one thing -- technology for business. Gone are the nontech outfits such as Mercedes-Benz (DCX) that gave the show some of its flash. And gone, too, are zippy consumer gadgets, such as digital cameras.

NEW NAME, NEW MISSION. Before this year's four-day show, Comdex itself was almost gone. In February, its parent, Key3Media Group, filed for bankruptcy protection as the event's relevance waned. In July, Key3Media emerged from bankruptcy with a new name, MediaLive International, and a new mission to scale back Comdex.

One of MediaLive's first orders of business was to refund $45,000 to eight consumer-product players that had registered for the show. "When the tech bubble burst, the rules changed," says Comdex vice-president and general manager Eric Faurot. He says he's convinced that a more focused Comdex will restore its must-attend status.

That may take some doing. This year's event has been far from a smashing success. One of the best gauges of a trade show's size are cabbies -- and they universally say they're dubious that Comdex even hit 50,000 attendees. Three years ago, lines at cab stands reached 45 minutes. This week, cabbies say they often idled in line for 45 minutes to pick up a ride.

NO HOOPLA. It was no different inside the convention hall. In its heyday, the exhibition floor spanned both massive halls at the Las Vegas Convention Center and spilled over to the convention floors at the nearby Hilton and Sands hotels. This year, Comdex barely filled just one hall at the main convention center. And other than a few major tech outfits, such as Microsoft (MSFT), Dell (DELL), and AT&T Wireless (AWE), the floor was dotted with no-name concerns hawking cables, computer cases, and electronic training programs.

Even the opening keynote by Microsoft Chairman William H. Gates III, his 20th Comdex speech, lacked the pizzazz of years past. Instead of rotating Hollywood-style sets to show off whizzy new Microsoft technology, Gates spoke from the largely unadorned stage at the Theatre for the Performing Arts at the Aladdin Casino & Resort. His big demo: Breakthroughs in antivirus protection and spam-filtering software. "We believe these new approaches will shift the tide," making it harder and harder for hackers and spammers to succeed, Gates explained.

Big announcements have been few and far between. In addition to unveiling the new security software, Microsoft announced plans for an updated version of its Windows operating system for Tablet PCs (slates that let you enter and store data in handwriting). Sun Microsystems (SUNW) CEO Scott McNealy announced plans to build servers using Advanced Micro Devices' (AMD) Opteron high-performace chip. And McNealy disclosed a separate deal with the China Standard Software, a consortium of companies supported by Beijing, to use Sun's Linux desktop software on as many as 1 million PCs next year.

Most trade shows would love to have 50,000 attendees. And Comdex' brand name in the convention world means it's unlikely to disappear in the short term. But MediaLive's commitment to tailoring Comdex to corporate technology means the show might never regain its former flash. And judging by this year's event, it seems unlikely to restore its must-attend status anytime soon. Greene is BusinessWeek's Seattle bureau chief

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