The long, and recently strange, trip of Comdex

November 14, 2003
2003 Rich Stillman, Waystation Partners

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In the face of what seemed to be long odds eleven and a half months ago, Comdex Fall 2003 opens in Las Vegas this Sunday for its customary one-week run. Comdex week, normally the cause for a great deal of breathless anticipation, appears this year in greatly diminished form, sponsored by a bankrupt organization (MediaLive International, formerly Key3Media).

Much has been written during the past year about the demise of blockbuster tech trade shows in favor of smaller events, focused on particular technologies or vertical markets. I wrote two articles in the past year detailing the trade show's troubles and proposing some solutions. The continued success of January's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas - the 2004 show is being advertised as the largest ever, with 2000 exhibitors - argues against the death of these one-size-fits-all shows. CES and Comdex allow attendees to survey the state of the industry top to bottom, to investigate new products and talk directly to developers, and to make the kind of unplanned discoveries that can only come when surrounded by several acres of everything that's new in high technology. The huge trade shows bring together a critical mass of marketers, engineers, buyers, trade press and industry analysts to do business and share ideas in ways that would not otherwise be possible. Between the trade show and the sponsored parties, Comdex really has been the place where the deals got made in high tech.

For most of the past fifteen years, I've reported Comdex in some form, through nightly dispatches written after prowling the show floor and seminars or from monitoring the amazingly content-rich Comdex web site from the comfort of my home office. I was prepared to do the same this year, in spite of the show's reduced circumstances. I wrote away for my free exhibit-only pass, giving me access to attendee web sites. I got ready to plan my online marathons, which in the past have been almost as grueling as actually walking the show floor (Yes, Comdex is painful, but I do it for you.)

Things change, however. Projections of attendance for this year are round 50,000, less than twenty percent of the 1999 peak. A more concrete measure comes from the exhibitor list. From a high of between 2000 and 3000 exhibitors, this year's list shows fewer than 450 registered as of ten days before the start of the show. Worse, many of these exhibitors are the kind of low-end, commodity equipment manufacturers that used to be shunted off to the Sands Convention Center, a half-hour bus ride from the main trade show. Some others have such tenuous relationships to high tech that I was surprised the list didn't include Ginsu. I'm sure there are discoveries to be made on this show floor, but the number of surprises per square yard is undoubtedly much lower than in past years.

So I'll be breaking with my own long-standing tradition this year, and not offering a real-time look at Comdex. I will still monitor the web site, although not as intensively as in past years. If anything big happens, you'll hear from me, probably in the form of a post-Comdex wrapup. I hope Comdex continues to exist, although I think it's more likely that aspects of its role will be taken over by the more end-user oriented CES, a healthy show that covers much of the same ground, and by some of the larger specialized shows . In a show of true optimism, the Comdex site is already advertising the dates for Comdex Fall 2004 - November 13-18. The next week should determine whether there's a need to think about next year's plane reservations.


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2003 Rich Stillman