I just got back from Comdex, the computer biz's gargantuan trade show in Las Vegas (Viva Las Vegas!) where I walked the floor, got pinned by marketing types who pretended to know my name, and took too many ganders at too many products. And I'm tired. Tired of lines, tired of bad food, tired of tired blackjack dealers with personalities so puny that I wondered if they were cardboard cutouts.
But I'm also feeling a different kind of fatigue, brought on by the crummy state of computing. I've been using a personal computer for almost two decades, and frankly, I expected more by now. Sure, technology's made operating a small business a easier, but there's still a long, long road ahead.
I'm tired, I guess, of waiting until the tech industry wakes up and turns their attention away from glamor and glitz, and addresses these five issues relevant to the small business community.
Comdex brings out the best, and worst, of computer and computer gear pricing. Some stuff, mostly low-end machines and entry-level software, is cheap these days. But the new gizmos, the ones with a sky-high sexiness quotient, are priced way up in that stratospheric range, too. And some of them would make good sense for small business, if only they were affordable.
Flat-screen LCD monitors — those textbook-thick screens that are just a fraction of the weight and footprint of traditional tube-based monitors — are a prime example. Plop an LCD monitor on the counter as a point-of-sale screen, and you still have room to bag goods or keep your credit card swiper. In a small business office that's physically small, they let you assemble smaller workspaces for your employees. But they cost too damn much. Even 15-inch LCDs run two or three times as much as similarly-sized 17-inch tube monitors.
The "small" in small business does not refer to our brains or aspirations. I can't tell you how many programs I saw with "Small Business" somewhere in the title that were simply feature-castrated versions of more capable top-of-the-line editions. Software publishers need to address our needs — like fast setup and copious customization, like integration with the Web and our essential productivity programs — without sacrificing power.
Overhead while walking the Comdex show floor: "You wouldn't believe how much I squeezed out of that client." His badge identified him as a computer consultant. At Comdex there are thousands of people like him: Web designers, e-commerce and network consultants, freelance information technology administrators, and computer trouble-shooters scouting for the newest and latest. Some are looking out for their own best interests, not their customers. They'll go back home and pitch the newest software or hardware to clients solely on the fact that those technologies are new, not because they're a good fit in the business.
There's no question it's possible to handle more of computing's complexities than ever before — for instance, setting up an e-commerce store on the Web at places like Bigstep.com. But there's still huge swaths of computing that's so difficult for the average small business owner that she calls in consultants. Network installation, network upkeep, upgrading, even simple customization of accounting's invoices and input forms — these technologies should be focused on the needs of small businesses, not the people who are selling it to us.
Bill Gates warmed up the Comdex crowd with a pre-show presentation that didn't directly mention the fact findings of Judge Jackson in the government's anti-trust case against Microsoft. (Though he did engage in a bit of self-deprecating humor by posing as a defendant in Judge Judy's court room.) Bill Gates also didn't mention the thing most small businesses would like to change: the way Windows works (or doesn't work).
Microsoft's humongous booth was, of course, based around Windows 2000, the operating system scheduled to ship in February, 2000. But I didn't see a lot of evidence to convince me that this next-generation Windows NT would make small business owners weep with joy. Sure, Win2000 packs in Plug & Play, the peripheral setup scheme long used by Win95/98. But will this new OS be simple enough to deploy without a gaggle of consultants?
There are alternatives to Windows, of course; Linux was the most common alt-OS across Comdex. But if you took as evidence the crowd composition — lots of goateed engineers and tech types — and the smallish crowd at LinuxWorld (a separate exhibition hall at Comdex), you'd be worried about this operating system's viability in the real world of small business. I sure was. It reminded me of nothing more than computer trade shows I attended in the industry's earliest days, when nobody but eager-beaver enthusiasts "got" personal computers. By the time Linux comes up with enough good reasons to use their OS — and provides the good day-in-day-out software that small business demand — I could be in another career.
All sizzle, no steak
Like any trade show, the hottest hot buttons at Comdex were the products that sounded sexy — but were useless to small business, or would be for a long stretch because they were far from ready for prime time. Bill Gates' conversation about the Personal Web, where the computer "learns" which information Net crawlers need most, was one example. A resurgent buzz about "Internet appliances," single-purpose devices for connecting to the Web, was another.
Such products and trends are interesting conversation pieces, but at industry gatherings like these they shoulder more important issues out of the conversations. What about the lousy state of customer service on Web e-commerce sites, and how can small business solve that problem for their own storefronts? How are we supposed to compete on the Web? Can we really integrate our existing business, based on brick-and-mortar locales and face-to-face service, with the Web without destroying that bedrock? Those are the things small business wants to know, not that the new computer models will be offered in turquoise, teal, and Tahiti-green.