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Swept away by Comdex

November 18, 1998
Web posted at: 1:15 PM ET

by Steve Ulfelder, columnist

(IDG) -- LAS VEGAS -- When people learned that I'd never been to Comdex, invariably and unhesitatingly they said: "You're lucky." Nevertheless, I needed to make the pilgrimage. I had to see what it was all about.

Well, here I am.

And they were right.

They tell you about sore feet, the lack of cabs and the danger of losing your money in the casino. What they don't prepare you for -- they can't, really, because words just fail you -- is the pulsing, organic throb of the show floor. The show floor teems. The show floor lives. The show floor has rhythms and textures and paces of its own.

I let myself be swept along. And along the way, I found some real winners, although these may be along the lines of Esquire's Dubious Achievement Awards:

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CHECKERED FLAG AWARD: Is this Las Vegas or Indianapolis? The place is lousy with race cars. Philips has a NASCAR Winston Cup Ford Taurus. Top speed? Call it 200 mph. Not fast enough: Computer Associates brings the McLaren, which the company co-sponsors on the Formula One circuit. Top speed? A no-sweat, 225 mph entry with the right gears. CA takes it.

Moreover, CA gets bonus points for allowing attendees to pose with a model in front of the car. They snap a digital photo and let you take the photo home on a diskette. I abandon all pretense of integrity and get my picture taken.

WELCOME TO VEGAS AWARD (PART 1): During the 3-block walk from my hotel to Bill Gates' Sunday night speech, pedestrians are offered no fewer than four brochures to nudie clubs. (Reportorial diligence dictates that I hang on to the source documents.)

COOLEST DISPLAY: Philips goes all out, using a sort of Middle Eastern oasis theme to pitch its Velo, TVs of the future and speech recognition products. Trappings include pillows on the floor for TV viewing. Nobody uses them -- obviously, show-goers think that sitting on the floor is less dignified than, say, putting an Afga box on your head (see below).

But Seagate Technology aces Philips out to snag this award. Seagate runs a cool, wide-screen, X-Files-meets-Sam-Spade 3-D movie that draws huge, nonstop crowds who are willing to put 3-D goggles on their faces.

LOUDEST DISPLAY: A monitor vendor called LG trots out a doo wopp quintet to sing the vendor's praises. The group proves that even a cappella, you can make enough noise to annoy people.

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE AWARD (PART 1): LG's booth is directly opposite Seagate's. So if you want to groove to the latter's 3-D film noire, you have to put up with New Marketers on the Block harmonizing in your ear.

MOST BANG FOR THEIR BUCK AWARD: Agfa snagged this one, hands down. The company is giving out these ridiculous little Agfa-box-on-your-head hats, and I must have seen 200 people walking around sporting them. You'll never go broke underestimating the willingness of people to wear stupid hats.

OMNIPRESENT CELEBRITY AWARD: Xerox presents an ornate multimedia skit in which live actors dressed up as Greek gods and goddesses interact with the actor who played J. Peterman on Seinfeld and who now stars in every third TV commercial.

RUNNING OF THE BULL AWARD: Ricoh's booth features a 6-foot-plus toreador who nearly ran me over, Pamplona style, on his way to the gig.

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE AWARD (PART 2): I am standing in the lobby talking to a woman. The woman is tall, thin and pretty enough to be a model but, in fact, she shines shoes. Just then, two goddesses and a god (from Xerox) walk by for a cigarette break.

WELCOME TO VEGAS AWARD (PART 2): The shoeshine woman makes it clear that this isn't her real job. Oh, and what's your real job? "I'm a dancer."

Since I've been in town nearly 24 hours, I know better than to ask what sort of dancer she is.

HOT AIR AWARD: Sanyo takes it in a three-dirigible race. Conexant has a hot-air balloon parked on the ground in front of the convention center. Tektronix boasts a tethered pseudo-blimp that floats about 40 or 50 feet in the air. But Sanyo has an honest-to-God blimp flying around -- as if Comdex were the Ohio State-Michigan game. Late in the day, a Fuji Film blimp joins the fun and chases the Sanyo blimp around in circles.

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