Beer and Coding in Las Vegas

The purpose of Las Vegas, as near as I can tell, is to give Los Angeles the illusion of cultural depth. And the purpose of COMDEX, apparently, is to drive members of the computer press to nervous exhaustion, preferably with drinks in their hands.

For a full three weeks before the opening of this show of shows, the majority of my mail and phone calls had been invitations to come see the future at one booth or another. It soon became obvious that an army of Lincoln Spectors couldn’t see everything that someone felt I couldn’t miss.

On the Thursday before opening, my phone at PC World rang once too often. "No, I don’t want to see you at COMDEX!" I shouted at it before picking up the receiver and saying, in a much more civilized voice, "Lincoln Spector here."

"So, you don’t want to see me at COMDEX, huh?" came the reply on the other end. My blood ran cold before I realized that I was talking to someone whose cubicle is only a few yards from my own.

I grew up in Hollywood, went to college in San Francisco, and eventually settled in Berkeley, but nothing prepared me for the weirdness of Las Vegas. Entering a hotel there means navigating a bewildering maze from which you may never escape. Those who never have are all around, endlessly dropping coins into strange machines for the privilege of watching badly-drawn pictures of fruit.

I have been told that these unfortunate creatures are having fun. If so, why do they all bear the expressions of 19th century sweatshop employees? Perhaps their frustration comes from an inability to get tobacco smoke into their lungs fast enough, a task they work at as hard as they feed quarters into the machines.

The concept that non-smokers have rights, by the way, is as foreign to Las Vegas as the idea of conservation of electricity. Or that there are differences between adult and family entertainment. My first night there, I ate at a pizzeria in Circus Circus that had, for the most part, a family coffee-shop ambiance. The decor was red, green, and white stripes, the waiters and waitresses wore Dennys-line uniforms, and a trained dog act was performing outside. The place was obviously catering to guests with children, and many families were in evidence. But every so often, drinks would be served by a young woman wearing a dress that could more appropriately be used as a sash.

The COMDEX keynote speech was something of a circus, itself. Sheldon G. Adelson, the CEO of The Interface Group and the founder of COMDEX, was introduced in reverential tones: "Some people call him Shelly; to others, he is Sheldon; and to still others, he is Mr. Adelson." Wow! What a multifaceted individual!

Adelson, after bragging about the size of his show, introduced the keynote speaker, IBM’s George Conrades. Conrades’ theme was that the industry was driven too much by technology and not enough by customer needs. To illustrate the point, he showed us some exciting multimedia technology IBM is developing, that someone may one day find a use for. He also showed a clip of Inglebert Humperdink singing a hymn to vaporware ("Please release me/Let me go,"), brought out a real user, and proved himself a passable rock ‘n’ roll drummer. I think IBM’s trying to change its image.

Somehow, with all my meetings, I managed to spend a little time on the floor. Floors, actually. There were, all told, eight different COMDEX locations around Vegas. But the enormous Las Vegas Convention Center and the adjacent Hilton were where the important booths were. At least if you can use the word "booths" to describe immense complexes, some larger than Eastern Seaboard states, that were as hard to get out of as the neighboring casinos.

Many of these complexes had entertainment–using a liberal definition of the word. Techmar used an Elvis impersonator to sing the praises of their products. Okidata dressed some women in gunslinger outfits for the "Shootout at the Okidata Corral." Hewlett-Packard had a dramatization of two HP salesreps convincing a corporate buyer (while all three carried microphones) that they had everything he could ever need. As they talked, an unseen celestial choir sang "Oh, Hewlett-Packard" until the corporate buyer broke into song, himself. All told, I had not seen so much bad acting since my last 50’s sci-fi movie festival.

The booths all had numbers, of course, but that didn’t mean you could necessarily find the one you were looking for. I missed one appointment with a small publisher, for instance, when, going to where their booth number should be, I found myself in the middle of Everex’s gargantuan complex. Two days later, I stumbled upon the booth in a small room no one ever entered.

No COMDEX would be complete, of course, without parties. In the four nights I was there, I went to six of them. The food ranged from seafood, fruit, bread and cheese at one party to seafood, fruit, bread and cheese at another. The music ranged from bad maharachi to bad big band to bad rock ‘n’ roll. I even heard "The Look of Love" for the first time since Casino Royale was in first run. The alcohol, of course, was plentiful, except at WordPerfect’s party, a gentle reminder that that company really is based in Utah.

In the end, COMDEX left me with more questions than answers. Does anyone ever get to the small exhibits at Bally’s? What goes through the minds of spokesmodels as they rattle off technical jargon they don’t understand? Did RIX Software have anything important to announce at their "Champagne and Vintage Wine Press Conference?" Does Peter Norton use a ruler when he loosens his tie before going out in public? And perhaps most pertinent of all: Can’t they find another city with enough hotel rooms?

COMDEX is supposed to give you an idea of where the computer industry is heading. From what I saw, liver and lung ailments appear to be on the horizon. In terms of technology, I’d say we’re going to see ‘486-based EISA laptops running multiple, OS/2-based SQL database servers. We will also probably see bigger booths at next year’s show.

I should mention that the snack bars at the Convention Center sold two dollar croissants and dollar fifty Cokes. In that sense, at least, COMDEX really gave us a vision of the future.

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