Ghosts of COMDEX
Today, the AP reported that the COMDEX convention will not be held this November in Las Vegas.
In tribute to COMDEX, here is republished "Ghosts of Comdex", a jaundiced account of the show written six months ago. Love it or hate it, COMDEX was a right of passage to many people in their 30's and 40's seeking to sniff out the future of the computer history. Today's announcment will be interpreted by some to herald the official end of The PC Era, which began in 1982 when Time Magazine, for the first time made a machine "Person of the Year."
GHOSTS OF COMDEX
(originally ran November 13, 2003)
Years ago, hardly a November went by without my employers sending me to Comdex - the computer industry's largest trade show, held in Las Vegas, Nevada. I made many trips in the early 1990's, and my Comdex experiences always colored my perceptions of this industry. In a nutshell, I began seeing it as an overheated, hooting freak show filled with frantic marketing dweebs, incomprehensible acronyms, milling barkers, dancing show girls, fast-talking BPI's (Blonde Public relations Ingenues), mad-eyed Microsoft evangelists, and free-spending, heavyset IT "influencers" dropping expense account dollars into the $100 slot machines, all the while drunkenly slurring the lie that they had come to Vegas to seek out "an interoperable cross-platform solution".
I don't exactly miss Comdex, but when November rolls around, I can't entirely free myself from the mad, fugitive urge to hop on a jet, get a cheap hotel, and stagger around with hundreds of thousands of bespectacled geeks slavering for the latest and greatest in overdriven EISA motherboards. Fortunately, my current state of unemployment means that I will simply stay put on a hard wooden chair, let Comdex slump its way into another liquor-soaked conclusion 2,800 miles away, and dredge through some of the slippery sludge that past Comdexes have left behind on the Web.
Let's start with a moldy page left behind on Sun's servers entitled "Fun and Networking in Las Vegas" (a title that wryly plays on Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing..."). The page itself appears to be quite current, although the Comdex in question happened way back in 1999. On this and successive pages, we find reams of the sort of breathless, un-bylined prose that could only emanate from the keyboard of a well-paid corporate flack. The obvious thing about this page is that almost none of the links work anymore: if you attempt to download a copy of Star Office, attempt to inspect Sun's fleet of Formula One McLaren racing cars, or try to tune into Scott McNealey's streaming web keynote speech, you'll get a bunch of broken links. And is it my imagination, or have Scott McNealey's teeth been retouched to make them whiter than white? Looks like a case of historical revisionism in action!
Is it fair to expect Sun to maintain its links from a show that nobody probably even remembers? Well, maybe not. But if they don't want to do this, why can't they simply slap on a GIF that says "archival material: do not touch"? Maybe doing so would do something terrible to their J2EE.
Over at The Techzone, we're presented with a view of Comdex that's a lot more honest in terms of providing an actual view of the kind of nonsense that most Comdex attendees actually experience at the show. After a grueling day spent jostling in aircraft hanger-sized spaces roaring with noisy hoopla, young males sit together in low-ceilinged restaurants, eating tasteless food shipped from California in refrigerated trailers the week before. "Booth Babes" smile beguilingly at the digital cameras, quietly counting the minutes before they can go home. Speaking of "Booth Babes", the Web site of the J. Williams Agency, the company responsible for booking of many a trade show performer, is showing more than a few signs of bitrot these days (check out the broken buttons on the bottom). This is not a good omen for the future fortunes of the tireless crowd of dancers, magicians, stuntmen and leggy models once known to frequent Comdex in its salad days.
Too numerous to enumerate among our Dead Comdex Tour are the many outdated, but still visible first-person accounts written to commemorate one's own survival of the show. In fact, tales of "Comdex Trauma" probably represents the most prevelant, but most frequently overlooked form of computer culture writing of the last 10 years, and there are literally hundreds of these accounts dotting the Web. Each of these antique stories provides a variation on the classic, paradigmatic fable of the earnest geek, working for some 3rd or 4th tier software company who is marched off to Comdex at the behest of his employer with a mission to "get a good look at the latest, coolest stuff".
At the show, our cool-headed protagonist does in fact see a few cool pieces of hardware, but somewhere in the process - perhaps while trudging through the vast expanses of desert separating one pavilion from the next (because he can't get a taxi) - he suddenly realizes to his shock and horror that the gentle industry that he thought he was in bears no resemblance to the crass, howling, beast-hearted business that he's actually part of. After realizing this great eternal truth about America, Technology, and the Unbearable Shallowness of IT, he returns to his employer, broke, shaken, but indelibly transformed, a modern-day Orpheus restored from the Underworld. These "coming of age in Las Vegas stories" have been churning around the Web for a long time, and perhaps they deserve their own book (although I wouldn't want to be its copy editor). Meanwhile, they can easily be accessed by Googling on the terms "Comdex", "Diary" and "Geek".
I suppose I've added enough to the collective subliterature of Comdex in this note, except to say that, as Comdex's fortunes fade (its parent company recently declared bankruptcy), and the show shrinks, we'll likely be regarding these minor tales of woe with considerable nostalgia in coming years. The idea that one would seriously want to return to the world of 1993 or 1996 is actually a pretty sickening one, but it's understandable - at least we can say that we survived those years, and there are few guarantees ahead, either for Comdex, technology employment, the future of wearable hardware, or anything else in these uncertain times.
Let us not conclude this tiny tour of Dead Comdex Digimatter without referring at least once to Comdex's main page, located at http://www.comdex.com. No this page isn't exactly broken, but more than a few of its featured links are. Take a quick gander at the entries grouped under "Comdex in the News". At least two of them - the articles entitled "Show Changes Are Anything But Conventional", and "Venerable Vegas Tech Trade Show" are as grotesquely busted as an Enterprise Middleware Manager weeping after a poor streak of luck at the slots - they yield nothing other than Page Not Found error messages.
If this is the best that the IT industry can do to revive itself, maybe it ought to stay dead.