COMDEX Chicago?, Part 1

by Wayne M. Krakau - Chicago Computer Guide, May, 2001
The question mark in the title is indicative of my own opinion of the repositioning of what was a national exposition and trade show known as Spring COMDEX, into a local show, now called COMDEX Chicago. Chicago, it seems, just got demoted.

In fact, the much larger Waste Management Expo show across the lobby dwarfed the computer show. The buzz at COMDEX was that those products that didn't generate enough booth traffic would be fed to the giant, 3-story high garbage-eating machine that was visible from the COMDEX registration area, in kind of a computer industry survival-of-the-fittest. (All right. I admit it, That's a lie. It was actually my own silly fantasy. However, I'll bet I could get a good price for the TV coverage of the event!)

Exhibitors complained and the media commented on the failure of marketing for the show. I call it doing a Novell. Just as doing a Lewinsky has taken on a meaning related to a specific action, I feel that doing a Novell represents taking a world class product and running it into the ground via major and repeated marketing misfires. Even other members of the press joked about the possibility that the COMDEX marketing folks actively recruited former Novell marketers.

My big hope is that, as the show is gradually downsized (sarcasm intended), it will reach some sort of equilibrium with its audience. After some frank talks with management, that hope was renewed. The managers that a gaggle (for want of a better term) of reporters accosted with both questions and suggestions returned not the hostility or defensiveness that one would have expected, but actually welcomed the discussion. This was a new team that acknowledged its errors and solicited and intelligently discussed suggestions. They recognized that Chicago was being under served by trade shows and potential big-name exhibitors, and they planned to remedy the situation. I think they have a serious chance of succeeding.

And now on to the show! It wasn't either awe-inspiring or even particularly surprising. It was, however, a good meat-and-potatoes trade show. The first thing you noticed upon examining maps of the trade show floor was that the largest and most centrally located booth was not occupied by a major computer company. It was inhabited by a car company, Mercedes-Benz USA!

Their exhibit gets the "I wouldn't want to be the insurance agent for that one" Award. After explaining at a press presentation that at Fall COMDEX in Las Vegas, the public was allowed to test drive Mercedes full line of vehicles on a closed test track, the Mercedes manager explained that they were unable to arrange a closed test track in Chicago. There was a palpable sigh of disappointment from the gathered press, just before he revealed that they would allow the test drives to occur on regular, unprotected streets! Geeks with very expensive wheels that they don't own - now that's a scary thought. It gave me visions of someone trying to reenact the car chase scene from The French Connection.

The "Close but no cigar" Award goes to an unnamed vendor. The fact that I still can't remember what the company name was and I never figured out what they were selling is indicative of the "no cigar" portion of the award. They started out with what may be the perfect marketing mix for a computer show - women in flashy dresses and the ultimate techie gadget, a Lamborghini. However, they didn't have anything displayed in their booth to indicate what they did!

I have a lot of sympathy for the pair of women at the booth. They didn't quite catch on to the dynamics of the show and seemed to be hurt by the attitude of the crowd. That is, the attendees were annoyed that the women were blocking their view of the car! The women didn't realize that the crowd at COMDEX probably makes the fans at a Star Trek convention look downright suave and sophisticated in comparison. (Just kidding guys! Live long and prosper.) I think it's something about seeing all those tight and/or revealing costumes on the female aliens.

The other odd thing at the show was a double row of employment booths, with a guard of sorts warning people to stay out unless they were really trying to find a job. That the double row of booths was a dead end aisle was somewhat disconcerting from a symbolic point of view. The fact that an employment area existed at a computer show during this major technical stock collapse was, however, a bit heartening.

While there was one booth taken by an H1-B (technical employee immigration) legal specialty firm, most of the employers were actively recruiting people who were actually U.S. residents. This is encouraging, given the recent studies showing how the increase in H1-B workers is directly depressing the salaries of resident technical workers, and, at least by implication, aiding in the discrimination against technical workers over 40. As a U.S. resident technical worker over 40 years old, with lots of friends and acquaintances (of many different nationalities, national origins, and races) in the same category, my opinion on this subject should NOT be considered unbiased. Just because I'm getting older (and slightly more decrepit every day) doesn't mean I can't learn new technologies!

Next month, I'll cover the "meat" of the show (as opposed to this little appetizer). It's a bit lean, but still quite tasty. Meanwhile, I want to put a stop to all those rumors that the only reason I go through the effort to get my press credentials for this show was because of all the free food the press gets. That is definitely not true. Well, at least not completely. Burp!

©2001, Wayne M. Krakau