Monday, Nov. 10, 1997 | 11:17 a.m.
One word strikes terror in the hearts of Las Vegans this time of year: Comdex.
The Computer Distribution Exposition -- shortened to the more simplified "Comdex" by those who delight in gadgety acronyms -- opens its doors next Monday to what amounts to a small city of delegates from around the world.
Attendance estimates for Comdex Fall '97 range from the conservative 190,000 forecast by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to the 250,000 hoped for by show sponsors Softbank Comdex of Needham, Mass. It's likely the count will be somewhere in between -- about 220,000 made it for the show last year.
More than 2,100 exhibitors will show off more than 10,000 new computer products from a list of companies heavily populated with names that incorporate the letters "net," "micro" and "tech," "tec" or "tek."
The heavyweights of the computer industry will be among those in attendance at Comdex, which is being staged at meeting facilities and parking lots of the Las Vegas Convention Center, the Sands Expo Center and the Las Vegas Hilton.
For the first time in the Las Vegas convention's history, the opening of the show will be preceded by a Sunday-night keynote address. Frequent Comdex speaker Bill Gates, chairman and chief executive officer of Microsoft Corp. and arguably the richest man in the world, makes his first of two Las Vegas convention appearances in two months Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Aladdin Theatre of the Performing Arts.
In past Comdex appearances, Gates has weaved his vision of the future of the computer industry with hype for the most recent software offering by Microsoft. Love him or hate him, Gates and his comments generally provide fodder for supporters and critics gathered on all sides of the Microsoft equation.
Gates has championed the "smart card" as an alternative to currency exchanges on some appearances. The concept is picking up steam in Europe and has a legion of backers in the United States.
But on another occasion, he talked about the importance of computer simplicity and unveiled Microsoft's Bob product. The software never got to the audience the company hoped to reach.
Gates kicks off Comdex and also will be a keynoter at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in January.
Other speakers making keynote presentations through the week for Comdex Fall '97: Eckhard Pfeiffer, president and chief executive officer of Compaq Computer, another repeat Comdex speaker, Monday; John Chambers, president and chief executive officer of Cisco Systems, Tuesday; and Eric Schmidt, chairman and chief executive officer of Novell, Wednesday.
While the word most closely associated with Comdex is "computer," other observers have their own favorites to describe the show.
For Heather Rockrow, vice president of Inkware Inc., a small Las Vegas company exhibiting at the show for the first time this year, the word is "Wow."
Rockrow has attended previous shows to keep up with technological innovations, but will set up a booth in the Sands Expo Center to show the company's Posterware dye-based inks.
Rockrow said her company has manufactured ink for large-format printers manufacturing billboards. The company is the exclusive supplier for Vutek Printers' UltraVu 5300 printer.
At a recent exhibition, Rockrow said she set up a booth that coincidentally backed up to a display by Hewlitt Packard.
"We both had displays and, by coincidence, we both used the same demonstration artwork, a woman in a yellow raincoat with a blue background," said Rockrow. "Only our pages came out noticeably brighter."
The next thing she knew Hewlitt Packard began negotiating to buy Inkware's products. She plans to market the ink at the show and hopes to hook up with a cartridge supplier that wants to distribute the company's inks.
"There are companies that are buying our ink in 500-milliliter bottles, buying cartridges separately, opening them up, dumping out their ink and using ours," said Rockrow.
Another Las Vegas company exhibiting at Comdex doesn't expect to make many business contacts at the show -- but is going for valuable insight.
"We go there and spend about $15,000 or so to set up, but what we're looking for is a 1998 perception of what's going on in the industry," said Pat Patterson, national sales manager for QVS Inc., which develops switching devices and other peripherals for computer networks.
"We're looking for new blood, new life in the marketplace," said Patterson. "A lot of manufacturers at this show are looking for public response. We get most of our ideas listening to what people need."
Listening to "suggestions from the computer nerds" led QVS to develop a switching system that prevented users from having to reboot their computers when a cursor freezes up a monitor. Patterson said the company also developed a "hacker-proof" switch box in collaboration with Gates.
For Patterson, who also will set up a display at the Sands, his one-word description of Comdex is "overwhelming."
Rob Powers of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority said the economic benefit for this year's show hasn't been estimated, but he added that Comdex benefits the city by demonstrating its ability to accommodate such a large gathering. He also noted that more media attend Comdex than the Super Bowl, giving Las Vegas an opportunity to shine for a global audience.
The one word Softbank Comdex Preview editor Ann Zevnik uses to describe this year's show is "net-centric."
Internet technology is high on the priority list for this year's Comdex program schedule, which runs Monday through Thursday at the show. Seminars and panel discussions on technical computer issues involving technology and communication are scheduled throughout the week.
Zevnik predicts that new products at the fall show will be faster, smaller and connected, "not to mention pretty cool."
Other words that capture the essence of Comdex:
* Party. Dozens of them are planned from the giants like Microsoft and IBM to the tiniest up-and-comers. One of the best promoted parties will feature an appearance by B.B. King at the Beach, put on by MGI Software Corp. Meanwhile, Viking Components is telling guests it will "show you the money" and deliver singer Eddie Money in a Beach concert event.
* Tightwad. Deserved or not, Comdex delegates get a bad rap in the gratuity department. Strip workers complain that those who attend Comdex shows traditionally are bad tippers. Resort execs say they don't gamble or spend money in the resorts. They compensate by charging the maximum room rates they can, often resulting in delegate grousing and some surprises for casual tourists who come to town not knowing the show is going on.
* Traffic. As is the case for all large conventions, it's recommended that motorists stay away from the convention centers, especially at trade show opening and closing times -- 8-10 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. -- to avoid being sucked into the vortex of the Comdex traffic jam. Taxis and buses handle much of the traffic and there are shuttles arranged between the convention centers and the resorts. But many delegates, particularly those from nearby states, bring their own cars. Most rentals were spoken for months ago.
* Charity. Not all Comdex delegates are cheap. The convention has a charitable event at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 18 at the Thomas & Mack Center. Sponsor Micrografx is cooking up chili and a live concert at the Chili for Children Cookoff to benefit causes to locate and recover missing and exploited children.
* Awards. The editors of PC Week magazine and Softbank Comdex will select the best new products of the show to be displayed in a special pavilion at midweek during the show.
* Sleaze. Another rap Comdex delegates get, deserved or not, is that they enjoy adult entertainment when in Las Vegas. Many showrooms alter their schedules to meet those tastes, capitalizing on the jiggle factor. Although not sanctioned by Comdex, the Imperial Palace is hosting AdultDex, a collection of adult software vendors.
* Websites. No story about Comdex would be complete without a website address. The Comdex site: www.comdex.com.