Networks Telecom: And the bland played on

Peter Judge: At the Networks Telecom show in Birmingham, the shattered networks industry woke up and faced reality. No more glamour -- it's time to get on with the job of making networks that work. And about time too.

At the Networks Telecom show in Birmingham this year the networks industry was in a state of misery.

There is a lot to be miserable about of course. Telecoms providers are collapsing like dominos. High profile service providers are in trouble. KPNQwest is on the verge of shutdown and, during the show, US-based service provider Worldcom sent the world's markets reeling with a revelation of possible fraud.

The echoes of the telecoms crash are resounding, and a lot of people who were involved should be keeping a low profile now. Market researchers ran alongside the boom, feeding the illusion by predicting the kinds of revenues that vendors and venture funders wanted to hear -- in return for a cut of the VC money, of course.

But the money was all loaned, and "real" money did not arrive in the quantities required, so it all collapsed, taking the vendors -- who gave out products in exchange for equity -- downwards with it. There is an awful lot of high spec, only-slightly-used switch gear out there for rock-bottom prices now.

So product vendors' share values are plunging and the old switch vendors have little or nothing to add to their portfolios. And the effect is shown well beyond the blighted telecoms sector. Former stalwarts of the network industry like Novell were noticeable by their absence at the show, and Microsoft could not be bothered to take its place.

All of which means that the Networks Telecom show, which only the nerdy could ever have found glamorous, was terminally dull this year. At previous shows, every stand was hyping up a new product, but this year there was none of that.

This year, there was no bar in the press office and little booze on the stands. It might just have been inept schmoozing on my part, but I did not get a free lunch either. For the first time in my life, I went to the Networks Telecom show and did not hear the pop of a single champagne cork.

But strangely, I warmed to the experience. I couldn't bring myself to join the industry hangers-on in grumbling at the lack of canapés. We still have our jobs. Thousands of others do not.

In that perspective, the quiet in the exhibition halls was fitting. There were still visitors, and the stands still had products. A walk round the show still uncovered things I had not seen before, and people with new ways to solve old problems.

Voice over IP was there, but by stealth, hiding under the covers of many a product designed to make networks more cost-effective, or work better. Migration paths and legacy integration were the watchwords. Perhaps I'm alone, but this strikes me as a good thing, better than the way vendors of old brandished their leading edge technologies without much thought for the users they expected to implement them.

As always there were a bunch of ideas for better network management, but this year they were all about getting enterprise networks to work better, rather than trying to cash in on trendy ideas like the ASP (application service provider) craze of a couple of years back. Again, I think this is a good move.

The new network tools, too, are cheap and functional ways to get the job done, not flashy badges of honour and status for techs growing too big for their boots.

Companies generally are making incremental additions to their product, not coming out with huge new ranges. Where once a vendor might have thought nothing of making its existing products obsolete every eighteen months, now that vendor has to realise that users can't junk what they have that often.

To take one example, firewall vendor Netscreen was very hesitant to talk about a new product near the low end. By adding a four-port switch to a single-user firewall, and boosting its capacity from 10Mbps to 70Mbps, the company has created a small office firewall.

This is a straightforward product change, and even that was theoretically under embargo -- though plainly visible on the stand. It was also useful, but about as dull as a network announcement can be. But this year, dull is in.

And next year, from the announcements on the show site, it will be even more of the same. The "telecoms" tag is gone from the show, and the title is now "Networks for Business". Partly this is the exhibition running like hell from the poisonous blight on the telecoms sector, but also it is about making it worthy, making it dull.

I challenge anyone to come up with a duller, worthier title than that. Well, apart from "Microsoft Networks for Business", "HR Networks for Business" or "Networks for Business in Milton Keynes".

The components of next year's show are confused at this stage, as you might expect. The whole industry in ruins around us, so how can anyone make sense of it? I have no idea how the organisers distinguish which topics fit in the Enterprise, Infrastructure and Network Solutions sections of the programme, but the word "Solutions" is one more sign that they are building for a worthy, dull experience.

If all this means that the show focuses more on what businesses want to do, and meeting real needs, then I am all for it. Too much booze and canapés are bad for you.