by Wayne M. Krakau - Chicago Computer Guide, June, 2000
Yes, it’s that time of year, again. The trade show season is upon us, and the first, and biggest, (at least for Chicago) is Spring COMDEX.

As usual, Spring COMDEX was held at McCormick Place, that Chicago wonder whose design begs the question, "Did the architects of this place own stock in shoe companies?" If Chicago is considered a city of neighborhoods, then parking, individual seminar rooms, (not to mention the Press/Media Room) and the main exhibit area for this show seemed to be in several different neighborhoods.

All limping aside, the first impression that I got from the exhibit area was "Where did everybody go?" Except for the fact that the concurrent Linux World show filled out a lot of empty space, the show floor looked very sparse, indeed. Chicago’s long time (and deservedly applied) reputation within the computer industry as a bastion of computing conservatism has led to a chicken versus egg situation.

After years of being told by vendors of PCs, LANs, and related products, that their sales are fantastic on the coasts, in the south, and in every other Midwest city except Chicago, I have finally heard that Chicago sales of such products are starting to take off, especially for the more esoteric and difficult to justify products such as document and image management and network telephony. Worshipers of mainframes and minicomputers are finally losing ground. IBM might even have to cancel their plans to dedicate a shrine to their local AS/400 sales people! (That’s a joke, but not far from the truth, considering Chicago’s spectacular AS/400 sales record.)

Now, computer related companies have to decide on whether to wait for Chicago sales to catch up with the rest of the country’s before exhibiting here, or to jump in right away to help kick-start those sales. So far, they seem to have given up on us, as evidenced by Spring COMDEX. Maybe those cows on parade didn’t help our image in quite the right way. I do hope that, by next year, these companies catch on to the opportunity that they are missing in this former cow-town and start exhibiting in Chicago.

The second impression I got at Spring COMDEX was a far better one, and may bode well for Chicago’s reputation. I attended a press conference, called at the last second by Mayor Daley, covering the new Chicago Education Technology Integration Plan. As a professional cynic (at least that’s one of the most common repeatable things that a lot of people call me), I was genuinely shocked by what I observed.

Initially, there was the image of a politician and his associates keeping their act together in the face of a hoard of potentially hostile media in a political press conference, that unique cross between an old-fashioned Revival meeting and an Old West ambush in a box canyon. I’m more used to the far less interesting computer industry press conference. The only thing of interest in those is the anxious wait to see if some overenthusiastic entrepreneur is going to pop a blood vessel during his excited attempt to explain his new breakthrough in the C language programming for toasters or some other terribly exciting technical innovation.

The really amazing thing was the presentation of accurate, well thought out, and well-documented information in a field - computer technology planning - which is rife with opportunities for inaccuracies and outright lies. This, in a field in which I am, nominally, at least, an expert, and could, in theory, detect most of the aforementioned deviations from fact. (Oops, I’m starting to talk like a politician!)

With some help from personnel of marchFirst (their spelling), who donated more than $750,000 worth of time to this project, the Mayor (Da Mare?) outlined a cooperative venture of the Chicago Board of Education, the Chicago Roman Catholic Archdiocese’ Office of Catholic Education and the City Colleges of Chicago to coordinate their efforts in getting computer education up to speed in Chicago.

This cooperation will include the computing infrastructure of both LAN and electrical (AC power) cabling, the acquisition and maintenance of computer hardware and software, and most important, the curriculum needed to effectively use all of this technology. This last item is what impressed me the most. It is quite rare for a politician, especially a self-proclaimed beginner in computing, to fully understand the difference between using computers in education and training future computer professionals. Computers are useful as training devices for basics such as math and reading as well as a myriad of other subjects. They are useful as tools for many academic and business situations (think wordprocessors, spreadsheets, etc.). Finally, they are useful for that small percentage of people with an aptitude and an interest in to becoming computer specialists. The Mayor obviously understood the subtleties of this situation.

Finally, when both his own staff and the marchFirst folks were peppered with questions on the lack of primary emphasis on donations for used computers, Mayor Daley took over the podium. It was obvious that the civilian (non-computer) press wasn’t quite getting the idea, so he succinctly summed it up by explaining the hazards of blindly accepting donations of used computers.

An educational organization accepts a computer that was discarded due to obsolescence. The donating company gets a tax deduction and avoids the expense of disposing of hazardous waste. The computer is too old to run the software used at that institution, so it is stashed in either a closet or a warehouse. Some time later, it is discovered by someone else and is finally thrown out. Meanwhile, the educational institution has wasted money (directly or indirectly) on storage, and now has to pay to dispose of the computer as hazardous waste.

The Mayor rightly emphasized that the review of proposed donations by appropriately qualified computer professionals would be required prior to acceptance. This would protect the schools from the scenario that he described. He left this cynic slack-jawed in amazement at the sight of a politician not only telling the truth, but actually knowing what he was talking about! (Oh, and by the way, the civilian press still didn’t get it.)

It was also interesting from a personal point of view to recognize a lot of TV news reporters there. Up close and personal, I noticed that one of them - I’m not naming names - looked to be the original inspiration for Waldo of "Where’s Waldo" fame. This is not to say that he wasn’t reasonably good looking - as a TV reporter must be to survive - it was just that I swear he was a dead ringer for Waldo! This resemblance just doesn’t come through via the TV screen. I’ll have more on Spring COMDEX next month, after I check the Web for Waldo pictures.

�2000, Wayne M. Krakau