Comdex fails small biz

From wireless advances to the changing face of application service providers (ASPs) to the non-story of Linux, these are the issues coming out of Comdex from the small business perspective.

Comdex, the country's largest computer convention, took Las Vegas by storm last week, but managed to underwhelm me, and, I think, almost every other small business person who attended. Looks like the 200,000-some people who attended Comdex can all be wrong.

Comdex may remain the place to check out new technologies, but increasingly it's sliding away from PCs and towards peripheral gear and esoteric gadgets: Cell phones, wireless PDAs, consumer products like digital cameras (seemingly available from every vender who ever heard of the word "lens") and touchpad-based Internet appliances do not a business trade show make. Maybe they should start calling it "Gizmodex."

In fact, for me, Comdex's hassles - the long lines, the lousy food, the NASCAR-trained cab drivers - outweigh the benefits. I think I'll cast a "no Comdex" vote next year.

But at this year's show, I did find three trends worth reporting and worth your time. From wireless advances to the changing face of application service providers (ASPs) to the non-story of Linux, they're the issues I came away with after leaving - in a hurry - Las Vegas.

Wireless weak for small biz

Wireless was the big buzz on the show floor this year, with over more than 500 companies pushing wireless products, plans, and services. From cell phones that link to the Web to handheld computers that tie in with corporate networks and e-mail, wireless products got the lion's share of attention. Cell-phone companies like Nokia and Ericsson exhibited at Comdex for the first time ever.

Wireless may have the hype, but it doesn't have much help for small biz. Cell phone e-mail? Nice for a sole proprietor - say, a consultant in the field all day long - but it doesn't bring anything to a retail operation. This ever-present availability of the Web and e-mail may make Fortune 500 life easier, but when small businesses are still unsure of the viability of e-commerce, wireless is a pipe dream that's years away for most.

One immediate application of wireless, however, can be used by small businesses: wireless networking in the office. Buffalo Technology showed off its AirStation routers and AirStation cards, which come in internal editions as well as a USB-based external model and are compatible with the Air Port wireless LAN hardware built into newer Macs. The benefit? Your business's computers can share one broadband Internet link (via DSL or cable modem) as well as share files and printers without you having to pull wires through walls.

My browsing of wireless gear at Comdex may have been nearly fruitless, but I spotted another trend that may play better in the small biz arena, and may make me rethink my anti-ASP stance. Click on to find out why I might eat crow.

I'm generally skittish about small businesses moving toward application service providers (ASPs) for their core software and computer-based chores. Loss of local control, reliability and longevity of ASPs, and security are all issues that make me nervous.

I may have to re-think my opinion. During Comdex, Microsoft announced that the next version of Office (named, at least for the moment, Office 10) will be available in subscription form by mid-2001. Here's how it will work: You will buy Office at retail, as in the past, but at a reduced cost (pricing hasn't been set, and will likely not be until Office 10 is released). You will receive all product updates for free during the year-long subscription period. When that ends, you'll have the option to renew the Office subscription. Pass, and Office goes dead (you can, however, still view, open, and print documents made with Office).

The ASP angle is minor here, but significant. By subscribing to Office, small businesses abdicate responsibility for updating Office - one of the crucial advantages of ASP-delivered software - since the suite will automatically download and install any new features, up to and including entirely new editions, as they become available. This may make some businesses nervous - those with formalized technology practices, in particular - but for the millions of small firms running on the tech savvy of the owner or an employee, it's a godsend.

Look, too, for ASP characteristics to infiltrate traditionally desktop-bound programs. I got a sneak peek at one well-known app, for instance, which early next year will begin to blend ASP traits, such as remote access to data via the Internet, with its existing desktop features.

Then, deep in the bowels of Comdex - nearly hidden in the secondary convention center - I found the Linux lineup. The location should have given me a clue as to this operating system's relevance to small business. My take follows.

Linux loses

Linux is an operating system suitable for small business. Sure it is. And Al Gore and George W. Bush are ready to kiss and make up.

I took a tour of the Linux Business Expo section of Comdex. It was a short tour. Frankly, there were as many people lined up at a couple of booths selling penguin plush toys (the mascot of Linux) as there were bobbing around the borders of major vendors like Red Hat and Corel.

Linux is a great server operating system, but other small business applications are still as scarce as polite conversation on a Jerry Springer show. Corel's WordPerfect Office 2000 for Linux remains the one must-have application, and from what I could see, it's about the only one.

Linux is a waste of time for 99% of small businesses. Stick with Windows or the Mac OS.

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