Jane Wakefield: Naked in Vegas

Las Vegas is the greatest show on Earth, Comdex isn't. Jane Wakefield finds out exactly what is meant by 'naked commerce'

When you get sent to Las Vegas to cover one of the biggest tech conferences in the world you are faced with one of those difficult choices. On the one hand, you have Las Vegas beckoning you from the desert with a blaze of twinkling beacons as if a particularly obsessive fan of Christmas had sprinkled fairy lights across the city floor. On the other you have the great and the good of the tech industry gathered in hotels and conference halls around the town ready to tell you how technology is about to change your life. As a technology journalist I had to choose Comdex, didn't I? Perhaps as a ploy to lure us away from the casinos and rollercoasters, the pre-publicity of the show had promised that this year Comdex was going to be all about 'naked commerce'. Curious as to what this might be -- HP boss Carly Fiorina giving a new meaning to the Las Vegas Strip perhaps? -- I started my time in Vegas determined to find out. Carly left her clothes on, doubtless disappointing the hundreds of nerdy delegates gathered to hear her pearls of wisdom. But if they were disappointed by her outward appearance I was even more disappointed by the so-called words of wisdom she distributed. According to one of the glossy American business magazines being distributed at the conference, Fiorina is the embodiment of the 21st century chief executive -- feisty, visionary and open to ideas. If visionary means taking a soundbite and turning it into an incomprehensible piece of business babble, then Fiorina has vision by the bagful -- and god help the 21st century if it is to led by such people. Apparently she told the board of HP at the end of her first year at the helm that the firm had 'reached the end of the beginning of its reinvention'. And rather than stand up and say "Er Carly what the ---- does that mean?" the board apparently cheered and clapped. Similarly in her keynote she told us that the Internet age was the second Renaissance and if we didn't work together we would find ourselves back in the Dark Ages. It was, she claimed, HP's role in this "Renaissance" was to find the intersection of e-services. Again, a mass of cheers. Suddenly I realised that perhaps I had found the elusive naked commerce promised me. Remember the guy that ran naked through the streets while everyone admired his beautiful robes? Perhaps Comdex 2000 was about to reveal that the Internet story was just a retelling of the Emperor's New Clothes. People eager to make their fortunes on the Net churning out 'we are changing history' soundbites, rather than admitting that they don't have a clue how to make money out of it. Of course the real emperor of Comdex is Bill Gates and he played to a capacity crowd at a mini-Wembley inside one of the Hollywood coliseums which Las Vegas calls hotels. The threat of the penguin and the Department of Justice were nowhere to be seen as the king of Microsoft bared his soul to his audience. If Carly wanted to be a visionary, then Bill, rather touchingly, was happy just to be liked. No soundbites, no visions, just a chat about his favourite topic -- software, a showing off of the latest device to carry his beloved software and a film of him and Steve playing in the park to prove that he knew how to have a laugh. (The image of an uncoordinated Gates running into the arms of the big, bad Steve Ballmer is one that will haunt my dreams for years to come.) But at least it was honest. Technology stripped down to the nuts and bolts with a pretty cool result -- a handheld device which you could write on in normal HANDWRITING. Now, that is naked commerce I can understand. There are only so many keynotes -- naked or not -- a girl can take before the lure of the bright lights overwhelms and after Bill and Carly I was just about reaching saturation point. My loyalty to tech has been questionable at the best of times and there is no way I was coming all the way to Vegas without taking in some Strip action. Sorry to disappoint the gonzos among you but I didn't do a Hunter S Thompson. (In fact, plagued with flu the only drug I took was paracetemol.) But in Vegas you don't need drugs: the town itself is drug enough and it had me hooked in seconds. I was also about to discover the real meaning of naked commerce. Sitting in the press room I had heard many journalists (even American ones) turn up their noses at Las Vegas. "It is so tacky, so awful, so AMERICAN," they complained. I didn't find it tacky at all. In fact I found it quite beautiful. The hotels loom out of the desert like monoliths to pleasure and each comes packaged with its own fantasy. So you have Treasure Island, complete with life-sized pirate boats, the Venetian with its gondolas and recreation of St Marks Square. It is one giant theme park dedicated entirely to the dollar. Las Vegas is a grown-up's playground but at its heart it beckons to the child in all of us. Who wouldn't want to stay in a hotel where penguins and flamingos also live, where rollercoasters wrap themselves around the building, where amusement arcades wait for you in the lobby? And beyond the hotels and the neon lies the American Wild West, the Sierra Nevada mountains, the desert and the huge meandering python of the Colorado river. Naked commerce and the nakedness of the huge American landscape, living side by side, just as it was when the first settlers sought out the American dream. I never did find out what Comdex really meant by naked commerce although I wonder if there was a mix up in the publicity machine. Running side by side with Comdex was a conference dedicated to pornography. Now that really is naked commerce. And, ironically, still by far the biggest money-spinner on the Internet. Take note, Carly and the dedicated Comdex pilgrims. Just as Las Vegas with all its modernity is little different from the America of the Founding Fathers so too is there little new in technology. You can dress it up as the "new Renaissance", but make no mistake the Internet and the technology behind it is just another way of taking your dollar. Photofest from Comdex
Click here for a photo essay showing some of the more unusual designs John Dvorak spotted during last week's Comdex show.
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