Internet, colour copying, handheld
computers big trends at Comdex 97- Feb 4 1997

Internet providers flanked the opening gates of the show,
in high-profile spots formerly occupied by hardware vendors

By Alan Zisman

An estimated 30,000 visitors to Comdex PacRim 97 at the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre got a firsthand view of the realignment of the computer industry at the first major computer trade show of the year.

While last year's attendees entered the main exhibition hall between displays from major hardware vendors IBM and Digital Equipment, this year, these prime locations were occupied by a pair of Internet providers--PSINet on the left, and iStar on the right.

It was indicative of a show where much of the prime real estate was occupied by companies offering a variety of on-ramps to the fabled Information Superhighway. Other prominently located large booths housed BC Tel's Sympatico Internet service, touting higher speed ISDN lines for home users; embattled information services such as CompuServe, America OnLine, and Microsoft Network; and local Internet provider Internet Direct. Most provided freebies--CD-ROMs or floppy disks offering free software to get new users connected. (In addition to the free software, iStar was also offering free bottles of iStar-labelled spring water, perhaps the most welcome giveaway in the hot, crowded hall.)

A related theme was extending Internet expertise in helping businesses develop in-house Intranets.

Joining the service providers were modem manufacturers such as US Robotics and Motorola, both offering faster-than-ever 56-kbs modems. Along with vendors of network hardware, they're just a few of the companies profiting from the Internet boom.

A secondary theme of the show was colour. It seemed as if colour printing and photocopying was being offered by a company on virtually every aisle. Major vendors such as Xerox, Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Epson, and Tektronix were giving out near-photo-quality samples, from printers ranging from high-priced network powerhouses, to under-$500 models aimed at home and small office users. Colour photocopiers as well were on display, much improved--and cheaper than ever.

If there was a third theme, it was "handhelds." These scaled-down computers come in small and smaller sizes and have got past the problems that led the initial generation, then known as Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), to be lampooned in Doonesbury cartoons. Notable models on display included the smallest of them all--US Robotics' Pilot, and the new version of Sharp's Zaurus, the only model boasting a colour screen. Microsoft was demonstrating handheld models from a variety of manufacturers, all running Windows CE, a scaled-down version of the Windows 95 operating system, complete with miniversions of Word and Excel. (No, they won't run Microsoft's new Office 97, released just in time to give a major lift to the software company's presentations and requiring a full-sized machine.)

And Apple was demonstrating a new and improved version of its Newton--the original PDA. Yes, Apple was back: while last year's show was perhaps most notable for Apple's low profile, this year, the company was again in evidence, looking forward to new technology to regain the hearts of the Macintosh faithful.

Amid these trends were hundreds of other booths--250 in all--many showing off local software and hardware companies, along with retailers, publishers, consulting firms, and more, spreading the displays over two floors of the convention centre.

There were also four days of conference presentations, spreading across the street to the Waterfront Centre Hotel, but closed to those attending with a free pass. Keynote speakers Ilene Lang of Alta Vista, Jeff Dossett of Microsoft Canada, and Scott Frame of Xerox Canada promoted their companies' views of the state of the technology industry, while over 40 other panel discussions offered a range of advice, from "The Real Costs of Distributed Computing" to "Designing Web Pages That Will be Viewed."*

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan