Late in the week before Comdex, I came down with a cold that had turned into a full-blown head explosion by Sunday. I arrived, bleary-eyed, in Las Vegas early Sunday morning--hours too early, in fact, to even check-in, so I left my bags at the claim desk at Excalibur and headed over to the Las Vegas Convention Center (a $15 cab ride, yikes) to pick up my press credentials. This was the first time in three years they actually had them waiting for me, and on an interesting technology note, this was the first time in three years I didn't try and register for Comdex on the Web (I used a FAX instead, go figure). Now I only had five hours to kill.
A couple of things have changed this year at the LVCC; most notably, the construction that hampered transportation around the center last year has been replaced by new construction that accomplishes the same snafu. Before the addition to the front of the LVCC, cabs had a clear, circular-type, driveway of sorts to queue up at, making for an easy way in and out of the show. For the past two years, however, they've been forced to take a circuitous route through the back streets around the convention center and, frankly, it's a mess. I walked over to the press tent to check my email and could already tell the place was going to be a disaster by the time the other quarter of a million people showed up.
Inside the hall, which was mostly shut-off until Monday morning, Digital Domain was selling computer books and vendors were rushing around with huge mounting kits trying to get their booths completed. I grabbed a couple of copies of the excellent Mr. Bunny's Guide to ActiveX (Web site), easily the funniest computer book ever published. I strongly recommend this title, assuming you do have a sense of humor (it's even better if you're a programmer) and I'll be reviewing it for WinInfo soon.
Killing some time, I headed back to Excalibur to eat, finally checked in around two, watched my beloved Arizona Cardinals lose a nail-biter to Dallas 35-28 on literally the last play (and, yes, that was pass interference, thank you very much). By the time the game ended (and my nerves were shot), I was ready to head out to the Gates keynote.
Bill Gates keynote address
The Gates keynote was the first of many serious problems with this year's Comdex, and it was an instant--and painful--indication of the way things were going to go. Maybe my throbbing head added to my perception of the problem, but if anyone from Ziff Davis and/or Microsoft reads this (which is virtually assured, these days) then here's a heads-up: You need to get your act together. Your treatment of people, particularly the press, has hit an all-time low. I'll provide some sickening details over the course of this show report. Consider the following:
Because of the destruction of the Aladdin, the Las Vegas Hilton hosted the keynote addresses this year. I arrived a good hour and a half early and moved over to a small crowd that was waiting in the press area. Normally, the press is allowed to sit in a designated area down front, and we're also allowed to go in early since the crowds at the Gates keynote are similar to what you'd see at a popular rock concert and it's easy to get knocked around in the mob. As time went by, more and more press and VIP types showed up and the time we were supposed to be allowed in came and went. No one provided any information why and no one had any information when we asked. Then, huge groups of people started rushing into the hall from another door. In all, three large groups ran into the hall, pushing each other like children diving on a pile of candy. The mumblings started. Questions were asked. No one knew anything. Finally, I asked a guy who looked like he was in charge what the deal was. He assured me that we had a designated section and we were all set.
Wrong again: When we were finally let in, our "press section" was way over on the side of the hall, and was already three quarters full. I'm still trying to imagine where all those people came from, but I grabbed a seat as close to the front as I could and sat down. Between my throbbing feet and throbbing head, I wasn't in the best of moods. I was beginning to doubt that anything was going to turn that around, but the keynote finally began and Gates arrived to a thundering standing ovation.
"Good evening," Gates began. "As you know, I'm simply the first of nine keynotes. In fact, at this Comdex you need a web search engine just to figure out which keynote you ought to go to."
Ugh. I started eyeing possible exits from the room.
"It's been full of a lot of neat events, and you might not even remember all of them," he continued. "So, I've put together a short video that captures some of these things that have gone on. Let's take a look."
Ah, excellent. This began a video segment similar to last year's, that included clips from Gate's grand jury testimony with Scott McNealy and Jim Barksdale, the pie-in-the-face incident in Brussels, Gates' "appearance" on the Claymation "Celebrity Death match," the DOJ announcement of the Microsoft lawsuit, and more. The best part was an updated spoof of the boys from "Night at the Roxbury," the two club-headed characters from Saturday Night Live, this time played by Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. The final segment included the Windows 98 crash at Spring Comdex earlier this year. Things were already getting better. Much better.
"Well, fortunately, everything you saw either has had or will have a happy ending. In fact, the bug that caused that blue screen got fixed that very night, and the person who helped me with that demo is still working for Microsoft," Gates said to laughter. In a rare George Castanza moment, I actually called out, "Of course, he's parking cars," which got even more laughs in my section than the original joke. It must have been the drugs.
Anyway, the actual speech portions of the Gates keynote were pretty boring and apparently involved something vague about the future of computing. I seem to remember "smaller, faster, cheaper" as a theme of sorts. It doesn't matter: As with all Gates speeches, the highlights of this one were clearly the demonstrations and video clips. And unlike most Gates keynotes, something was introduced that will, quite literally, change things in a huge way. Here's how the keynote progressed:
SGI Visual Workstation/1600SL flat-panel display
Silicon Graphics (SGI) senior vice president Tom Furlong introduced his company's upcoming Visual Workstation and 1600SL flat-panel display. The workstation marks SGI's entry into the NT market and, as you might expect, it's a sweet piece of machinery. The 1600SL is, well, gorgeous: 1600 x 1024 resolution, and proportioned like an HDTV panel. Simply beautiful. Furlong demonstrated some incredible real-time graphics that included mapping live video from the show onto a spinning computer-generated workstation.
"And then we've got our flat panel display," he said. "Now, going into that flat panel display, what you see is a video stream. It's you and I mapped onto that flat panel display. And for most companies, a demo like this really taxes the system. It would be, you know, the final grand finale, the piece de resistance. For us it's our screen saver."
And he wasn't kidding. To the astonishment of the crowd, he clicked a key and that incredible demo was revealed to be--literally--a screen saver. The place went nuts. SGI will be introducing the full system in January for under $4000. This includes a 32MB 3D video card and the works (including the flat panel display).
"Awesome, incredible," said Gates as the audience just ate it up.
ClearType was clearly (ahem) the biggest announcement at Comdex, period. It was also the most unexpected. When Gates started a segment discussing electronic books, I thought he was out of his mind. Anyone who's tried to read a book on a laptop knows what I'm talking about: It strains your eyes quickly and is basically impossible.
"About six months ago one of our developers sent me mail saying, what was the key challenge, what could he work on. It was Bill Hill. And I said to him, help us tackle the idea of readability [on the computer screen]," Gates said. "Let me know what we need to do to make this a reality, and don't pull your punches, really tell me when is the hardware and software going to come together? And even though it was only six months ago, they've actually made a breakthrough in this, and so I've asked Bill Hill to come out and show us tonight what he's done, and how readability is going to get dramatically better."
This little setup didn't really prepare anyone for the demo to come: Bill Hill, a burly bearded Scot, dressed in a traditional kilt, stalked onto the stage and discussed the technical hurdles of text onscreen display. He showed some text and how it was jaggy, and showed that anti-aliasing, which uses gray dots to clean up the jaggies, really just blurs the text, making it hard to read at small point sizes (8-12 point).
"See, the problem is that the pixel, the individual dot on a computer screen is far too coarse, we don't have the resolution. So it's basically like somebody asks us to paint a picture of the Mona Lisa, and they hand us a paint roller," he said. "So what we did was we started looking at this to see what we could do in software, and what happened really was something that happens very rarely in your life. You get a group of people together, and they all have different pieces of the puzzle, and then magic happens. We did some experiments, we had an idea and we did some experiments. And the very first piece of text we saw just stunned us. We couldn't believe what we were seeing. The great thing about it is it works with existing LCD devices, and basically what we do, the technique we use, triples the resolution of an existing LCD screen in software. "
Uh-huh. Sure, I thought, at the time.
And then he put up a piece of text. On one side, the standard jaggy text we've all come to know and love. On the right side, something?else?something?clean. It was almost perfect looking, like the text in a finely made book.
"Now, this is being displayed, actually, on a device of not terribly high resolution. This is a Windows CE handheld PC. And the resolution is 640 by 240. But, you can see here on the screen the before and after. If you look at the L's, for example on the left, you'll see they're jagged. They're much smoother on the right. Another interesting thing is you see the difference between 12-point type and 13-point type. Have you ever noticed when you increase the size of the type on your office documents, you get to a certain point and you think you've turned them bold? The pixel is the smallest unit that we have. If you look on the right, you'll see there's a very gradual transition in sizes, and that's the result of the increased resolution that we've been able to find, basically taking the paint roller and cut it size by a third, cut it size to one-third. So then you take this technology and you start to apply it to things like electronic books and documents. Here's a copy of your book, Bill. I thought you could do with a plug."
As the crowd laughed, I stared at the image onscreen. It was incredible, and oddly enough, it would only get better when I found myself staring at actual CE devices the next day that were using this technology. Folks, this is the real thing.
"The fact is that if we introduce this technology into the operating system?" Hill began.
"Which we will," Gates interrupted, smiling, to applause, as Hill pretended to take notes.
"WHEN we introduce this technology into the operating system, then all applications that use it will get to take advantage of it," he said, laughing. "That means Office documents, email, Internet content, everything. The beauty of this is that the work we've done uses the same true type font rasterizer that ships in every version of Windows, it ships in NT, it ships in Windows 95, and Windows 98, and it ships in Windows CE. When we change this piece of technology, every application that uses the operating system will get the benefit. So that's basically a magic switch. And we've increased the resolution of your existing hardware by 300 percent. We're pretty stunned by it."
Jay Leno video segment
At this point, Gates segued into a video segment featuring the Tonight Show's Jay Leno, who was interviewing people on the street. It was a take-off of a famous Leno bit that he does regularly, where he asks people about common events to see what they know and don't know. Most of the time these people have no clue, and while it's always good for a laugh, I've always found the stupidity of average people in America more sad than funny. No matter, I was lost in thought through most of this as I considered the ramifications of ClearType. One bit I did catch: Leno asked someone if he knew how rich Bill Gates was. He said, "Pretty rich, but not as rich as Oprah!"
Office 2000 and SQL Server 7 Demo
It wouldn't be a Gates keynote if he didn't plug the Microsoft products and this year, Office 2000 and SQL Server 7 were the big Microsoft events at Comdex. Microsoft's Andrew Dixon and Adam Blum showed a pretty complex demo (that was essentially re-shown at the Office Road Trip event on Tuesday night) where the various components in Office 2000 were used to create dynamic Web-enabled documents. It was pretty impressive, and the English Query feature in SQL Server 7 was shown off nicely. One of them performed the suddenly old-hat demo where the msword.exe file is deleted and then Office 2000 automatically reinstalls it when you try to load a Word document. This was exciting a year ago, but we get the idea now. We'll see how it works when I delete the entire directory next week as part of my own Office 2000 review for the Windows 2000 Supersite. Another suddenly common demo: Using multiple languages in the same document and--voila!--the spell checker works, based on the language at any given point in the document. Cool, yes. Over-demoed too.
Sidewinder Freestyle Pro joystick, Motocross Madness, and Combat Flight Simulator Demo
The final demo involved what was presumably an actor playing "Rusty Crank," the star of Microsoft's Motocross Madness game. Driving onstage on a dirt bike, Rusty was all good-humored attitude. I actually got a kick out of it, probably because I'm into the trash-talking myself (basketball, Quake, whatever).
"Rusty Crank, super cross super stud, here to tell you about a new PC controller called the Sidewinder Freestyle Pro, that I actually helped design for the Supercross tour. All right. I see a lot of you out there buying that, but I always say, super cross super studs, we do three things. One, we get big air off big jumps, okay, that's a given. Two, we love to hit on biker magazine babes, all right. We get our free time. And then three, we love to design state of the art PC game controllers that utilize sophisticated, solid-state motion sensor technology. No really, we do, it's pretty fun."
Rusty launched into a demo of the new joystick and Motocross Madness, both of which are actually pretty impressive (more so when used together). At one point, he had Gates try his hand at it as well, though he crashed his bike pretty quickly.
"OK. You stick to the PowerPoint presentations, I'll do the game demos," he said as the crowd howled.
"All right. Microsoft took Rusty Crank out to dinner last night in appreciation for everything I've done for them, obviously," he said. "And they're like, Rusty, we know you're Supercross Super stud, but we want you to demo our new Flight Simulator product. I've got a reputation to uphold, right? What kind of stunt can you do in Flight Simulator? Vegas control tower, this is Rusty Crank, I'm flying with one hand." (laughter) "How lame is that? But then they told me the thing is going to revolutionize flight simulators for studs like me. They put guns on the planes!"
The crowd laughed as Rusty launched into the World War II era game.
"All right, here we go, Combat Flight Simulator combines the realness of the flight simulator product, with intense World War II aerial combat action. We are right on the bogey right ahead of us. Oh, oh, there he goes?I'm sorry, did Rusty Crank just shoot down the first plane he saw? I think he did. When Rusty is in the sky, you fly you die."
Rusty showed how any of the Flight Simulator scenery and planes could be used in the new game as well, outfitting a Lear Jet with rockets.
"No Lear Jet would be complete without a couple of rockets. So, we're going to add some rockets, one click, run schemes, Flying Temple of Pain is ready. And we're in a Lear Jet in the middle of World War II. If you don't believe me, there's the Lear Jet, a little custom Rusty paint job," he said, showing a custom modification to the flying plane. "And last, but not least, and the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting--all right. Vegas, you have been phat. Bill, you are the man. I am Rusty Crank, and I am out of here."
And with that, Rusty jumped into the crowd for some high-fives and the keynote ended.
"We can make computers that are more powerful and yet simple enough to respond to plain English commands," Gates said. "We can connect millions, even billions of people together, and yet maintain their privacy. I have no doubt that the best is yet to come."
Post-keynote press event
After the keynote, Microsoft hosted a press get-together in a private room at the Hilton. Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer worked the over-eager crowd while a Blues band played softly in the background. They had the typical mountains of food going and while I briefly attempted some half-hearted conversation, my head cold got the better of me and I quickly headed home to bed. Unfortunately, with the rush of people trying to get cabs after the keynote, I ended up walking up to Circus Circus to catch a cab. The whole crowd problem had already gotten to me and it was only going to get worse.
Monday, November 16, 1998
I figured that I'd sleep in Monday, but I actually woke up early--really early--with a throbbing noggin and nothing to do but head out into the city of Sin. I wandered down to a store in the hotel and bought a monster-sized bottle of Dayquil and hit the road with the nasty taste of orange syrup in my mouth. Ah, Comdex.
The only thing I was really looking forward to on Monday was the various SQL Server 7.0 launch events, which would begin with a Steve Ballmer introduction speech around 1 p.m. (or so they said: Like everything else Microsoft did this week, it started really late). I headed over to the Las Vegas Convention Center after missing two busses (grr?) and noticed a huge crowd of people waiting around the closed internal doors to the show floor. Outside, huge balloon boxes of Office 2000 Premium and SQL Server 7.0 greeted the quarter of a million show-goers. Finally, at 10:30, the doors opened and the crush of people began siphoning in.
Microsoft at Fall Comdex 1998
The gigantic Microsoft section was once again positioned right inside the doors to the main show. Microsoft was pushing SQL Server 7, Office 2000, Windows 2000, and Visual Studio 6.0 as its major attractions this time around. In a bold but foolish move, the company replaced printed maps to its massive section with a set of computer terminals that offered electronic help. Needless to say, the handful of terminals wasn't up to the task and after waiting long minutes to get on one (and they required you to login with your Comdex badge, the shame!) most people just gave up. I'm not sure what they were thinking.
As usual, Microsoft had several theatres set up for presentations. The main theatre provided demonstrations of the recently released Office 2000 Beta 2, SQL Server 7.0, "the Road to Windows 2000," Windows CE Enterprise Solutions, and, later that day, a satellite broadcast of the SQL Server 7.0 launch at the Bellagio that I'd be attending. I actually sat through the Road to Windows 2000 demonstration, which basically discussed why Windows NT 4.0 was a smart buy now because it would be easier to upgrade later. In fact, I was a little put off by the sudden change in the way Microsoft was describing the upgrade from Windows 95/98. In the past, the company suggested that it would be a little harder upgrading 95/98 than Windows NT, but now they're acting like it will be a mistake to do so. They'll "support" that upgrade, but the differences in the Registry and the way third-party programs install DLLs and other files is going to be a huge problem. I think I'll go out on a limb right now and suggest that upgrading Windows 95/98 to Windows 2000 is going to be a total mistake for most people, so start planning.
Speaking of Windows 2000, Microsoft's numerous "Windows 2000" booths were actually using Windows NT 5.0 Beta 2 to demo the new operating system. The fact that Microsoft was using a two month-old version of NT 5.0 for these demos is telling. This says (to me anyway) that Windows 2000 will be late and they're having problems getting it right. I've never seen Microsoft not use an interim build at a trade show until this.
In the Office/BackOffice theatre, Microsoft was doing demonstrations of FrontPage 2000, Office 2000/BackOffice integration, Data Warehousing with SQL Server 7.0, Exchange Server 5.5, Microsoft BackOffice Small Business Server (due for an upgrade in early 1999), and the infamous "Road to Windows 2000" (aka "Use Windows NT not Windows 98).
The Visual Studio theatre was showing demonstrations of Visual Studio 6.0 integration, Visual Basic 6.0, Visual InterDev 6.0, Visual J++ 6.0, Visual C++ 6.0, and Office 2000 Developer Edition. The lack of a FoxPro demo should tell you something (if you're one of the six people using FoxPro, it should tell you, "give it up," for example).
Elsewhere in the Microsoft booth, a slew of Windows CE 2.0 devices could be seen, including the excellent Vadem Clio, which was everywhere. If you haven't seen this marvelous little notebook replacement, check it out now. I hate to say it, but it's the iMac of portables design-wise, but of course it's actually useful too, running Windows CE 2.1 Professional. Very slick. ClearType was on display, running on a desktop system with that awesome SGI flat-panel display, a couple of Windows 98 laptops, and various CE devices, including the Clio, some HPCs, and some Palm-sized PCs. ClearType is even better when you see it up close. Folks, this technology is simply amazing.
Windows NT Terminal Server (WTS, which will be wrapped into Windows Server 2000, the next release of NT) was prominently displayed as well. Microsoft even had an iMac in the WTS booth (one of only about a dozen at the whole show) running the WTS client for the Macintosh. Incredibly, Microsoft even had various thin client boxes in their running WTS clients, including some that looked like Linux boxes.
Also seen in the Microsoft booth: various new hardware devices, such as the Microsoft portable phone and a new Harmon Kardon remote control (both useless and needlessly expensive). The Sidewinder FreeStyle joystick was ready with Motocross Madness and I could tell from the open mouths that Microsoft had already made a couple of sales to would-be gamers.
One odd little change from last year: The Windows 98 booth was about as prominent as the Visual FoxPro booth (that is, not very) and not very big. With the push to a Windows 2000 (nee NT) future, Windows 98 is getting no backing at all. There wasn't a single Windows 98 show in any of the Microsoft theatres either. I guess time moves on and quickly. Windows 98 is officially in maintenance mode already and it's kind of sad.
After wandering around the Microsoft booth for an hour or so, I decided I had better get moving over to Bellagio to pick up my tickets for the exclusive SQL Server 7.0 launch. Given the traffic around the Las Vegas Convention Center that day, I didn't think it would be easy.
SQL Server 7.0 Launch
Wrong again. Because of the early hour, there was actually a massive line of taxis available and I arrived rather earlier at the opulent new Bellagio Resort (don't even try to call it a hotel). I'm not a big fan of themed hotels/casinos (that is, Vegas in general) but the Bellagio is simply beautiful, with priceless works of art, literally thousands of fountains and pools, and gorgeous accommodations. It's a beautiful place, a literal jewel in the rough of Las Vegas. Feeling distinctly out of place in my shorts, I rushed through the massive place, heading down countless huge corridors toward the Grand Ballroom(s) where the SQL Server 7 launch would be held.
Somewhere on the sixth level of Dante's Inferno, I finally arrived at a simple registration desk, where I had to do absolutely nothing since my invitation had arrived a week earlier by mail. So I waited outside some huge gold doors to be let in as the crowd grew.
And waited. And waited.
One o'clock came and went and the swell of the crowd caused the hotel management to fear a fire problem, so we were ushered into a huge room with no chairs where we could wait some more.
And wait. And wait.
Microsoft really dropped the ball again, in my opinion, putting us through this, but the doors to the Grand Ballroom finally opened and we sat down to listen to Microsoft President Steve Ballmer pour through all the goodness that is SQL Server 7.0. The theme of the event, "turning information into results," is pretty apt, I suppose and Ballmer is an effective speaker (I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've heard him speak, though I did meet him last year on the Comdex show floor). Apparently, Ballmer had earlier launched the product internationally via satellite, so this was his second pass through the speech, but the first with a live audience.
As Ballmer said, SQL Server 7 is "so rich, we'll never be able to do it justice," offering a host of new features that are all based on customer feedback. These include Windows 95/98 support, mobile support, replication features, row-level locking, heterogeneous querying (that is, the ability to query non-relational sources of data), data transformation, an integrated OLAP engine, and better performance. If you're looking through that list of features, shaking your head, head on over to the SQL Server Web site for more details.
Ballmer even brought up Bill Gates' "Digital Nervous System" theme that Gates himself had curiously ignored in his own Comdex keynote the day before, noting that SQL Server was the back-end engine that would make this dream possible. Some excellent demonstrations, including one by Britt Mayo of Pennzoil, highlighted a surprising large number of corporate customers that implemented SQL Server 7 on production machines during the beta and instantly noticed massive speed improvements vs. SQL 6.5 across the board. The requisite SQL Server/Office 2000 demonstration came off surprisingly well because they used Excel 2000 and its pivot table feature, rather than Access 2000, as the Office component. Very interesting.
The only odd note from the launch was Ballmer's comment that SQL Server should be ready by "January": Most people had thought that the code had already gone gold. While the crowd murmured about this, Ballmer explained that he wanted to get feedback from his top SQL customers that everything was right. If it was, the current code could very well be the "final bits." If not, they'll do what they have to do to fix it. I suppose that's laudable, but when Microsoft announced a Comdex launch for SQL Server 7 over the summer, everyone thought that was it.
After the speech, Microsoft hosted an invitation-only Q & A session for the press that featured Ballmer and the product manager for SQL Server. We were all given some nice SQL Server backpack bags (with some odd gadgets inside, like a scooping night light from Compaq and a SQL Server stuffed animal). There were a bunch of questions about Larry Ellison's keynote, which featured a provocative $1 million challenge to Microsoft and the threat of an operating system-less database that could reside "right on the metal." Ballmer said that Microsoft "agreed 100% with Larry about simplicity" but that "Microsoft has a complete Internet solution whereas Oracle only has a database (Oracle 8i). Ballmer said that integrating a Java Virtual Machine (JVM) into the database, or Oracle has done with 8i, is ridiculous: Microsoft supports database development "with any language you choose," making SQL Server more versatile than Oracle.
As for marketshare, Ballmer said that SQL Server was already ahead of Oracle on NT and would "surpass UNIX and Oracle on all platforms within twelve months."
"PC servers shall inherit the earth," he said. "We're not doing a UNIX version [of SQL Server]. We're focusing on the platform of the future [Windows]."
Some interesting questions about Linux came up, and Ballmer wasn't afraid to discuss the sudden challenger to Windows.
"Linux is a threat, " he said. "We've got competition in the industry. We happen to have good marketshare [right now]."
When asked whether Microsoft would ever develop software for Linux, Ballmer said "Never say never, but no, probably not. Microsoft is about moving Windows forward in response to customer needs. We don't have [business] customers asking us to develop Linux software." Ballmer said that the only reason Microsoft developed software for the Macintosh, back when it first came out, was that it offered features (GUI, etc.) that Microsoft didn't have. Linux has no such advantage, and interestingly, neither does the Mac today. In fact, Ballmer didn't say it like that but his mentions of the Mac were all in the past tense. This was subtle but, I think, telling.
One odd little note: When asked about the next (post 7.0) version of SQL Server 7, both Ballmer and the product manager looked at each other confused. They claim to have no thoughts about this because the current version answers all the complaints and suggestions that customers have.
"There are no holes in 7.0," he said.
After the press Q & A, Microsoft scheduled an invitation-only SQL Server Partner Press Reception but this, too, was running way behind schedule. As I headed out of the Q & A toward the reception and the crowds just kept getting worse and worse, I decided to bag it and head back to the hotel. My head was throbbing (health-wise, this was my worst day) and the only thing I really had to look forward to was the Cirque du Soleil showing of "O" at 7:00 p.m. that night (also at the Bellagio): I had picked up the ticket when I showed up at the SQL Server 7 launch event registration desk. That gave me a few hours to crash, so I headed to bed.
Cirque du Soleil "O"
The Cirque du Soleil ("Circus of the Sun") performance was the only thing that happened on time this whole trip and that's only because Microsoft didn't have their hands dipped in it. When I showed up at the "O" showroom a little early for the show, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was set up like any ordinary show: We had been given regular tickets, at random, and Microsoft's meddling hands were nowhere to be seen. It was a rare happy moment, as I could sit down and relax, rather than stand around for over an hour wondering why everything was behind schedule again.
And what can I say, O (literally, "eau" or "water") was a masterpiece. I saw Cirque du Soleil's other Vegas show, Mystere, two years earlier at the Windows CE launch and this was just as magical. Billed as an "aquatic celebration of life, love, and death," O features an incredible acrobatics performed in, on, and above water that filters through a rising and falling floor, making for various water depths and incredible staging. It literally defies explanation, so I'll leave it at this: O is wonderful, and if you must travel to this horrid city, you owe it to yourself to see the show. I sat in what had to be the best seat in the house (again, literally): The first seat on the second floor, right above the stage and next to the orchestra. It was magical, or it would have been if I hadn't been hacking up a storm, trying to muffle it into a handkerchief. Actually, it was still magical.
After the show, there was a SQL Server Celebration Party featuring Big Bad Voodoo Daddy that I was also invited to, but once again the throbbing head and massive crowds kept me away. By this point, my ill will toward Microsoft crowd control was at an all-time high. I passed Bill Nye the Science Guy on the way out and could only wonder. I found out later that Bill Gates had shown up but couldn't have cared less. It was off to bed, and an attempt to shake some of this cold.
Tuesday, November 17, 1998
Something wonderful happened Tuesday morning when I woke up and no, it wasn't the rumbling sound of construction trucks right outside my window that would have otherwise been a problem. My head had cleared up dramatically: I wasn't well yet, per se, but I was "better," if you know what I mean. As the construction vehicles moved earth around, I got ready to see the rest of the show, knowing that I was over the hump cold-wise.
After a quick pass through the hotel buffet, I grabbed a bus over to the Las Vegas Convention Center. This time, I actually made the first bus, another good sign. And I arrived at the LVCC just as the doors opened. Rushing past the crowded Microsoft booth, I decided to check out the other companies in the hall and immediately came across a nasty blast from the past: Despite the numerous complaints last year (indeed, Softbank asked them stop at one point), Iomega was giving out annoying little "click" toys, apparently in celebration of their Click Drive. For the rest of the day, annoying geeks joyfully clicking their toys provided a sad background song for the LVCC.
Scurrying past Iomega, I noticed that Toshiba was occupying IBM/Lotus' old spot on the floor, a massive slice of prime real estate. Sony, meanwhile, was showing off their audio-video (AV) equipped PCs and slim 505-series sub-notebooks. The 505s are a thing of beauty but too small for my sausage fingers. I requested that Sony make a laptop-sized box with a normal-sized keyboards and the slim form factor of the 505 but received only empty stares or vacant smiles from the booth pseudo-employees. I was about to screw out of there when a booth babe snagged me and asked me if I wanted to take a look at Sony's new Mavica digital camera. This little guy does still frames and MPEG movies, saving them to a floppy disk. It's slick (and the pictures of me on this page were taken with it) and clearly a pointer to the future.
Frankly, there wasn't much else going on in the main hall and I was a little surprised by how quickly I got through there. I headed over to the north hall (part of the new construction at the LVCC) and didn't see much there either. "Club Cyrix" was pushing the new MII microprocessor, an alternative to Intel's Pentium II. Play was present with tradeshow queen Kiki Stockhammer (geeks used to lust after her in the Amiga days; She's still around, pushing Play's PC/video products). PowerQuest was showing off Partition Magic 4.0, which adds Linux partition resizing and a nice batch mode for use in Windows. Partition Magic is still best of class and highly recommended. I bought the first version right after seeing it at the first Comdex I attended years back. Franklin was demoing their Rex and Rex Pro credit-card sized PIMs. I wanted one last year and I want one now (the regular one, not the Pro, which adds a useless data entry feature and $50 to the cost). 3Com had a Palm III booth set up with all kinds of add-ons, third party software, and other good stuff. The Palm still kicks Windows CE right where it hurts. Novell had at least three booths at the LVCC and were doing their free Web-based email thing again, garnering big crowds. Less interesting were their actual products, NDS for Windows NT and Netware 5.0.
Sands Convention Center
After my surprisingly short visit at the Las Vegas Convention Center, I grabbed a shuttle bus over to the Sands. The Sands is typically the bargain basement stuff, with a few exceptions, and this year was no different. On the top floor, Kennsington/Gravis were displaying all kinds of Mac and PC hardware, while an interesting USB Pavilion kept me stationary for a few minutes. The best part of the USB Pavilion, incidentally, was a couple of those cool new Intel pyramid PC prototypes with the CD-ROM mounted on the top. They feature three USB ports right on the front and that's about it for external, obvious ports. Very nice looking.
Creative Labs had a massive booth as usual and was showing off a vast assortment of video cards, sound cards, speaker systems, and other multimedia hardware. Note to CL: You have TOO MANY different kinds of video cards, and it's confusing. They have cards based on the Voodoo 2, Voodoo 2 Banshee, RIVA TNT, and a variety of other chipsets. It's too much. Way too much.
Other than that, there was an assortment of LCD displays, Plasma displays, DVD/home theatre systems, and a surprising number of steering wheel controllers on the top floor of the Sands.
And then there's the basement. I realize they probably don?t bill it as such, but the bottom floor of the Sands is for the truly cash-strapped. All kinds of Asian CD-ROM vendors litter the basement selling their cheap wares (and probably making a killing). There's also a lot of mom & pop-style hardware joints, featuring everything from cables and ports to motherboards, generic sound cards, and the like. It's kind of ugly.
But hidden in this mess were a few gems. Be Inc. was indeed showing off their Be OS Release 4, a stunning upgrade to an already elegant OS. Gone are the bizarre Mac-isms from previous versions, replaced by Windows-compatible keyboard control and all kinds of great new hardware support. The configurable deskbar can now be dragged to the bottom of the screen to resemble the Windows taskbar, complete with Start button. The new OS is 30% faster and more reliable. It's worth a look: I'll be reviewing it for the Alternative OS series on the Windows 2000 Supersite.
One site I'd been interested to check out was the Linux Pavilion, which was hidden in the exact center of the Sands basement. I guess I was expecting far more than there was, because the "pavilion" consisted of 10 or so of the smallest "booths" (cubicles?) Comdex has to offer. Red Hat was showing Red Hat Linux 5.2, which is clearly the best Linux out there (I'll be reviewing various Linux distributions for the Windows 2000 Supersite as well). VA Research was showing off pre-configured Linux computer systems. Caldera was sitting by its lonesome on the edge of this mess hawking Caldera OpenLinux 1.3. Applix demonstrated their ApplixWare office suite, which is Office 97 compatible but a throwback to pre-Office 4.x days otherwise.
Other Linux vendors included Linux Journal, which is a Linux magazine, and Linux International, which was giving away old builds of Linux on CD for $1 a piece. I grabbed a couple of CDs and gave them some cash: What the heck, I appreciate what they're trying to do. The CDs they were giving out were at least one major version number out of date, but they're still usable. Overall, however, the Linux presence at Comdex was more than pathetic. I really did expect more than that.
And aside from that, there really wasn't much going on at the Sands at all. I went up to the press room to check my email and witnessed an excellent scene with author and ex-Byte columnist Jerry Pournelle, who was stopped by over-eager security women on his way in. It turns out that Pournelle--who is pretty damn famous when it comes down to it--had neglected to get his press credentials.
"Honey, I've been to more Comdexes?" the crotchety Pournelle began booming, turning every head in the room. Eventually, they figured it out and the words, "Sorry, Mr. Pournelle," repeated for a few minutes. It was pretty damn funny. Ironically, I had a Jerry Pournelle book in my bag at the time (Fallen Angels); he's a great writer. Which was convenient, because I ended up needing to read the rest of it.
Office 2000 Launch
The thing is, I had some time to kill: My next (and last) appointment was at 5:00 when Microsoft would officially roll out Office 2000 at the Harley Davidson Caf? (HDC) on the Strip, at an event titled the Office 2000 Road Trip. That was more than a couple of hours away, so I ate a bit, read some, and then finally figured I'd just head out. The afternoon busses began running at 3:30 and I was on one of the first ones. I planned to get dropped off at a hotel right up the street from the HDC, and walked the rest of the way. It turns out I was the first one to arrive, so I formed a line (so to speak) and waited. Soon, the invited geeks started arriving and the line swelled.
A bit after 5:00 p.m., they let us in and I checked my bag and surveyed the situation. Members of the Office team were available for discussions and the standard Microsoft buffet food/free beer was available. I dove in. What the heck, I was finally feeling a little better. After an hour or so (and about an hour later than they planned), the show began. People filtered down to the seats to watch, and a rather pathetic "road show"-themed event ensued. The Office 2000 demo was nicely done, using a bunch of the Office components in an amazing integrated scenario that was probably pretty unlikely though no less impressive because of it. There's something about Office that Microsoft has always done right: You can complain about the way they add features to Windows through Office (because they do) but Office is just something special. After the demo, I decided to split, since they announced that we'd be getting some freebies on the way out. This consisted of the Office 2000 Corporate Preview package (on 10--TEN!--CDs), a nice Office 2000 bag, and a nice model car and stuffed animal for the baby. Not bad. I grabbed two of each for good measure and headed out, somewhat beat.
Since the Excalibur was only a few blocks up the Strip, I walked back, lugging all the Office crap and my regular bag: I probably looked just like the Comdex goers I always make fun of. Ah well.
And that was pretty much it. The next morning, it was back to Phoenix, and life. In the next, and final installment of this review, I'll look back at Comdex in sweeping terms and pick my favorite products from the show.
See you then.
Bill Gates and Bill Hill demonstrate ClearType during the Gates keynote.
Obviously, it's not all bad: I wouldn't keep going if it wasn't worth it in some small way. Remember, this is the big kahuna of computer trade shows; there's Comdex and then there's everything else. That could change however. IBM, Intel, and a bunch of other companies finally boycotted Comdex this year and maybe this is a positive trend for the future. What Ziff Davis really needs to do is keep people out of Comdex. All those people who aren't part of the industry or the press should be kept at home where they belong: There are just too many people going to Comdex.
OK, enough grumbling. As always, there were some interesting products and technologies at Comdex this year. Here are the things that stood out in my mind.
A big THANK YOU!
First of all, I simply must extend a hearty "thank you" to the guys at WUGNET--Larry McJunkin, Joel Diamond, and Howard Sobel--who put me up for three nights in Vegas at tremendous expense despite the fact that they weren't even coming to the show. Thanks, guys! I really do appreciate it.
Best of Comdex
Microsoft ClearType was obviously the most impressive technology at the show. Folks, this is real: It triples the resolution on LCD panels, providing crystal clear text. Simply amazing.
Worst of Comdex
No new build of Windows 2000? Guys, give me a break! Windows NT 5.0 is old news. This tells me that Windows 2000 is going to be even later than you think.
Linux? What's Linux? This was supposed to be the coming out party for the operating system that put the final nail in the coffin of the Macintosh but the so-called "Linux Pavilion" looked like a bad yard sale on Sunday night. On the other hand, the Macintosh was even worse off: There were less than a dozen iMacs at the whole show.
Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 is everything the company says it is: A best of breed database that scales nicely from mobile laptops running Windows 95 all the way up to massive multi-processor/multi-machine data center servers. Bravo. Oh, and you can kiss Access goodbye after Office 2000: I don't care what they say.
The Vadem Clio runs Windows CE 2.1 Professional and lets you work with it in a variety of ways with its unique design: as a standard laptop, as a writing , or as a presentation panel. This is the "gotta have it" gadget of the year and it does everything that 99% of mobile workers need. At $1000, it's a steal. Check it out today.
The product manager for Terminal Server started a rote speech about the wonders of Java and I said, "God, that was almost believable." We just started laughing.
During the Gates keynote, Bill mentioned that the employee who was present with him during the infamous Windows 98 demo crash in April was still working at Microsoft. This got some laughs, but not as many as when I yelled out, "Of course, he's parking cars!"
Those damn Iomega "click" toys need to be stopped. In fact, I'm contemplating never buying an Iomega product again because of it. Shouldn't be hard: If their yearly results are any indication, I'm not the only one ignoring them. Note to Iomega: This is not the way to make friends.
Best private party
Despite the long waits and awful crowds, the Microsoft parties for SQL Server at the Bellagio--especially the incredible Cirque du Soleil showing of "O"--were obvious highlights. Though they're losing their touch on crowd and time management, Microsoft still knows how to throw a party. And heck, the big guys (Gates and Ballmer) always show up.
Worst private party
Press reception after the Gates keynote. Granted, I was sicker than a dog but forcing a bunch of geek reporters to stand around staring at a blues band they wouldn't possibly dance to is just mean. On the other hand, Gates and Ballmer showed.