Comdex moves beyond its PC roots

Forget PCs -- this year the trade show is promising 'wall-to-wall community, naked commerce and pure content.'

Until recently, Comdex, the world's biggest computer trade show, revolved around the personal computer. But this year, more than ever, it is going to be quite clear that the PC is fading into the background.

Visitors to Comdex, which opens Monday in Las Vegas, aren't likely to be bowled over by large exhibit booths devoted solely to PC hardware and software. Instead, the trade show will feature huge chunks of floor space dedicated to non-PC, Internet-centric topics ranging from networking, information appliances, and wireless devices to digital media and e-commerce. The broader focus has helped draw in several major companies that have never before exhibited at Comdex, including Telefon AB L.M. Ericsson and Nortel Networks Corp.

Even the official Comdex slogan this year shuns mention of anything so old-fashioned as a PC or computers of any kind. Instead, the trade show is promising "wall-to-wall community, naked commerce and pure content."

The evolution of Comdex mirrors that of the industry at large. With the rise of the Internet and increasing interest in simple devices that allow people to access information and services over the Web, the PC is no longer king of the technology hill.

While PCs are likely to remain an important part of the technology industry, many people expect that the real action is shifting to handheld devices such as Palm's (palm) organizer, wireless phones that can handle e-mail and some Web surfing, and a host of other, largely still-experimental, new gadgets.

"Comdex increasingly wants to keep up with the trends of the time," said Tim Bajarin, president of consulting firm Creative Strategies Inc. in Campbell, Calif., and a longtime Comdex advisory-board member. "The market was clearly changing, and the Internet was causing some real shifts. All the growth will be coming from other digital devices that can connect to the Internet."

Non-PC companies are certainly planning a big push at the show. Palm, for instance, is expected to announce a new content and access portal at Comdex that will make it easier for users to check out Web sites via wireless versions of its handheld device. The company also plans to unveil a range of new hardware add-ons such as MP3 players for its Palm handhelds, said a Palm spokeswoman.

Device makers are doing so much experimenting with new gadgets that few analysts can say which ones look most promising. "The industry is at the point where it is offering a pantheon of client types," says Roger Kay, an analyst at International Data Corp.

PCs still play a part None of which is to say that the PC won't still be a big part of Comdex. Intel (intc), for instance, will promote PC hardware and new software applications designed for its coming Pentium 4 microprocessor. On Sunday night, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is expected to use his keynote address to insist that PCs with fast processors and big hard disks are still important in the Internet world.

Microsoft (msft), which has hedged its bets in the information appliance area by promoting the use of PC-based "Web companions" and handheld Pocket PCs, is expected to demonstrate a new prototype for a future pen-based portable device. On the non-PC front, it also will show off a new operating system for cellphones and handheld devices that is code-named Stinger.

Dell (dell), too, plans to exhibit its "Dell Digital House," a mock-up of a residence whose inhabitants can use various Dell PCs and related networking technology to create home movies, play digital music throughout the house, and share files with each other. A bonus draw: Chairman Michael Dell and his mother will host a reception at the house one evening during the show.

'Technology Marketplace' The Comdex organizers have continued to make a deliberate effort to move the show's focus from its roots as a nerdy techfest to a slicker, better-packaged marketing event. This year, instead of touting the number of attendees and the range of computer manufacturers expected to attend, Comdex General Manager William Sell talks of the show as a collection of "segments," each with its own distinct "messaging context."

"We are trying to make sure Comdex fits the Old Economy as well as the New Economy," Sell says. "Our vision for the Comdex brand is to establish it as a technology marketplace, where buyers and sellers come together."

Kay and other longtime Comdex attendees say the show has undergone other significant changes as well. For instance, most truly new products won't be shown at floor exhibits, but in upstairs suites at a multitude of Las Vegas hotels so that manufacturers can make sure they aren't tipping off the competition or otherwise wasting their time, Kay says.

"In the past, [floor] traffic was mostly your customers, resellers in to see your stuff," Kay says. "These days, I like to joke that it is mostly gawkers, students, and industrial spies from your competitors."

-- Pui-Wing Tam contributed to this article.