Big Show No More?

Is Comdex really a goner? And will anyone really care when it's gone? Last week, the IT industry's Really Big Show wasn't so big. There were half as many exhibitors as two years ago. Attendance was visibly down, even below last year's diminished post-Sept. 11 crowd. And Key3Media, which puts on the show, is considering bankruptcy protection.

But the worst news for Comdex has to be the grumbling among many corporate IT people that the show just isn't worth the trip.

Funny thing, though -- that's what they were saying 15 years ago, when the National Computer Conference was the Big Show.

Remember the NCC? You probably don't unless you've worked in IT for at least 20 years. But from the 1960s through the mid-1980s, the NCC was the IT world's premier conference.

Imagine the Comdex exhibition halls grafted onto a serious academic conference, complete with technical papers on chip design, operating system structure and database organization. That was the NCC: big iron meets ivory tower, footnotes and all.

Put on by a handful of technical societies and run largely on volunteer labor, the twice-yearly NCC peaked in 1983, when attendance hit 100,000. It was all downhill from there. Too big, impossible to navigate, not worth the trip, said attendees, claiming they wanted smaller, more focused shows and conferences. Vendors began to drop out. By 1986, NCC was shrinking fast. By 1987, it was a ghost town.

Meanwhile, a little commercial show for resellers called the Computer Dealers Exposition -- Comdex for short -- was turning into the place to be for everyone in IT, especially if you wanted to see what was new with those little boxes called PCs. By the mid-'80s, it was big. By 1988, Comdex was the Big Show.

So if Comdex really is on the way out, will something else replace it, the way Comdex itself replaced the NCC? Or is there really a need for a big IT show that smaller, more focused shows and conferences can't fill?

Sure there is. See, in the NCC days, corporate IT was about building. In an IT world where you bought what you had to (hardware, mainly) and built the rest, it helped to go to a Big Show where you could see everything there was to buy -- and also hear from experts how to build things like databases and operating systems.

Since the rise of Comdex, IT has been much more about buying, dealing and partnering. PCs didn't just teach us that small is beautiful. They also taught us the advantages of packaged software, hardware standardization and let-a-million-start-ups-bloom entrepreneurship. Comdex was about volume channels, vendor competition and venture capitalism.

But like the NCC, Comdex was also about something else. Analyst Will Zachmann dubbed it "Camp Comdex," a sort of techie reunion where corporate IT people came to rub elbows with vendor CEOs, Wall Street players, start-up wannabes and industry big names. Never mind that Comdex started as a show for dealers. It ended up as the Big Show for everyone in IT.

We need that, no matter how much we complain about the size and cost and lack of focus. We've got to have a place where the whole IT world comes together. That's why there will be a new Big Show.

What will it be? Comdex could merge with the Consumer Electronics Show, further blurring the line between corporate IT and consumer technology. Or the new Big Show might be the U.S. version of the huge German show CeBiT, which comes to New York next June -- and may reflect CeBiT's heritage as a huge industrial trade fair showing everything from telecom to tractors.

Or maybe what replaces Comdex hasn't shown up yet. But when it does, we'll all go. Because Comdex may be gone, but the Big Show must go on.

Frank Hayes, Computerworld's senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

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Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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