Uston at Comdex.
Uston At Comdex
I write this report on Fall Comdex, 1983 with much trepidation (i.e., terror). Now, I do know something about computers, and I feel I did a pretty ambitious job of running around the three hotel-casinos and two convention hall floors filled with hardware and software of every imaginable type. But after a week of hearing about imaginal storage, LED's stacked in parallel, Application Advisory Support, and Digital Classified Software--to say nothing of Micro7400s, RS-232 cables, two platter CG912s, and Blis/Cobol--I am suffering from an acute case of Techno-shock.
I also read the press releases and tried to sift through them to understand what it is that we are likely to be buying next year. This process can be tricky because companies have a tendency to float "trial balloons'--that is, to announce products that may never see the light of day either because some other company came out with something better or because of lukewarm reception from show attendees.
The process of separating the wheat from the chaff seemed quite difficult, if not impossible, even (or especially) after interviews with company spokesmen.
What further confuses the whole issue is the sheer magnitude of the show-- 1400 booths, 11 miles of aisles, and 1 1/4 million square feet. Fortunately for us (but not for the people manning the booths) the show extended for five full days (from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.). But consider this: the most ambitious of attendees had about a total of 35 hours in which to see the show, which means that to do a complete job, he would have to visit 40 booths per hour, allowing him a scant 1 1/2 minutes per booth--no mean task what with the crowds, the five separate locations, and the difficulty of collaring company representatives.
Covering Comdex has become a physical feat as well. One show daily offered advice on how we should take care of our feet; Softsel, the software distributor, gave away inner soles (yes, they were called Softsoles), and in more than one case I spotted designer dresses, and Brooks Brothers ensembles rounded out with good, comfortable running shoes. I wish I had brought mine.
What did it all mean? Who were the winners and losers? Who will be back next year? Who won't?
The most obvious winner is also the one with the least competition.
That would be Sheldon Adelson, the entrepreneur who dreamed up the idea of Comdex back in 1979. Adelson grossed tens of millions of dollars this year (IBM alone spent $1 million on the show), and although many exhibitors may not be around next year as they become shakees in the ongoing shakeout, there is no doubt that Adelson's Comdex will be. Comdex, has doubled in size every year since it began in 1979, and it is still growing.
There was another big winner at Comdex. That is us--that is, those of us who want to find out what is going on in the industry. Where else in the world could we possibly learn about all the significant new computers, new software packages, and new peripherals all laid out in a single location, so we could try out the products and directly question company personnel?
Imagine in a single day being able to see and learn about Lotus 1-2-3, Microsoft Windows, Visi-On, and Ovation; find out what is new at Apple, DEC, and Radio Shack; fool around with half a dozen new portable computers; and get hands-on experience with the IBM PCjr. All of that happened to me in one day.
Lots and lots of new software was introduced, and it's no wonder. Future Computing has estimated that $11 1/2 billion of microcomputer software will be sold in 1987 (if you don't think that's a lot of money, consider that it is twice as much as the value of all the quarters kids of all ages put in coin-op machines in the peak arcade year, 1982).
The Buzzwords in new software at Comdex 1983 were integrated and windows. Integrated refers to the ability to do more than one job on a computer at a time. The most popular integrated package to date is 1-2-3, which incorporates spreadsheets, databases, and graphics. 1-2-3 which has been at the top of most business software "charts' over the past year. (Lotus received the only "hat trick,' that is, three awards at The First Annual Softsel Hot List Awards Ceremony, which was held during Comdex.)
Windows refers to having more than one function appearing on the computer screen simultaneously. The most notable window programs are VisiCorp's Visi-On, and Microsoft Windows.
Interestingly, the software is placing demands on hardware manufacturers. New packages require more computer memory, hi-res monitors, and hard disk drive storage. As an example, the Ovation windows package requires 256K of memory, and a hard disk is recommended.
Among the key software houses which joined the integrated/windows fray:
MicroPro, the makers of the famous word processing package, WordStar (700,000 copies sold), showed an integrated package called StarBurst, which allows the use of several software programs at the same time. MicroPro exhibited a series of new programs, all ending, as might be expected, with a familiar suffix: Plan Star for complex financial modeling; Chart Star, a graphics package; and Project Star for project management, including critical path analysis (CPM).
MicroPro has enhanced CalcStar to allow more cels and living color (so that unprofitable, but automated companies will literally be able to see the red ink, just as in the days of the eye-shaded accountants).
I had the unusual experience of watching a Microsoft employee give a demonstration of the new Windows program with a Lotus executive standing next to me. She explained that Windows is an extension of an operating system that allows you to run several different programs all at the same time and to see the results on the screen simultaneously through separate windows.
With Windows, you can process words with WordStar, calculate with Multiplan, store information with dBaseII, and design graphics all at the same time. I asked whether we would be able to transfer data from one program to another.
The demonstrator hedged. "Not yet.'
The Lotus executive watching with me, said, "Windows allows co-existence, not true integration.'
Just then a Microsoft executive, spotting my press badge, rushed over to contradict, quickly adding, "We'll have true integration.'
As I left the booth, the two company executives were discussing the true meaning of co-existence versus integration. (I proffered, "Separate, but equal windows,' but nobody laughed).
Anyway, Windows is unusual in that it has the support (or at least tacit cooperation) of many in the industry. When it was announced just prior to Comdex, representatives from nearly two dozen hardware manufacturers and a half dozen software companies (including Lotus) were at the press conference.
VisiCorp once again displayed their Visi-On operating system, an integrated window system which allows multiple jobs to be performed simultaneously.
There is an interesting industry battle going on here. When I first saw Visi-On at a computer show many months ago, industry wags were predicting that it would diminish the potential of Lisa, since a mouse system for the IBM PC would be so much cheaper than the Lisa, which was then priced at $10,000.
Then Microsoft announced Windows, and people started to question the viability of Visi-On. Next, VisiCorp publicized at Comdex its agreement with IBM, in which Big Blue agreed to distribute Visi-On. The VisiCorp people claim that this will put them way ahead in the field.
We shall see.
Ovation Software allows users to work on several different functions at the same time, instructing the computer with 30 English language commands. The programs are linked, so that changes made in a spreadsheet, for example, are automatically reflected in a word processed report or a graph.
Ironically, Ovation may have accomplished exactly what competitor Bill Gates of Microsoft was quoted as saying was sorely needed: fewer commands in plain English.
When I see a sales brochure that reads, "America applauds the most important business tool since the personal computer,' I become skeptical. In this same promotional piece, we find that Ovation package is endorsed by the contestants for Miss America, Albert Einstein ("it crunches numbers almost as fast as I can'), and Napoleon. Don't get me wrong. I think that Ovation may have a fine product--perhaps even a unique innovation.
Lotus is one of the most dramatic industry success stories of 1983.
The company went public during the year as a result of the enormous success of its 1-2-3 package. The net worth of its 33-year-old president, Mitchell Kapor, has recently been reported at around $50 million.
Prior to Comdex, Lotus had announced that it was developing 1-2-3 for the TI Professional computer. At Comdex, Lotus has both good news and bad news for Apple II owners. The good news: 1-2-3 will be available for Apples. The bad news: to run it, Apple owners will need a Rana co-processor, which has 256K and two disk drives and costs $1795. Add $495 for 1-2-3 and you have almost reached the price of an IBM PC system.
What's coming from Lotus in the future? I can tell you this: when a Lotus spokesman accepted an award at the Softsel ceremony, he said, "Thanks for helping make 1-2-3 the success it is. I look forward to being here next year to do the same thing--with 4-5-6.'
This company displayed a software integrator, which allows you to use, for example, Louts 1-2-3, WordStar, and DBase II, all at the same time, with each having it own window.
Mosaic exhibited an integrated package, Integrated 6, which incorporates a database, word processor, spreadsheet, graphics, inter-computer communications, and a mainframe link. It competes with Lotus, Context, and VisiCorp, among others.
What with the huge move toward MS-DOS and IBM compatibility, a big open question, it seems to me, is what is going on with CP/M and its producer, Digital Research.
The story is widely told (whether it is apcryphal or not we do not know) that when IBM was looking for an operating system for its PC, they sent several three-piece-suiters out to Pacific Grove to talk with Gray Kildall about CP/M.
The story goes that Gary was out flying his airplane and that the three-piece-suited IBM'ers, not accustomed to the whimsical postponement of business meetings, left and took the next flight to Seattle to see Bill Gates. As a result, the story goes on, the IBM PC comes with MS DOS rather than CP/M.
Well, at the Digital Comdex booth, we were told about Concurrent CP/M, which allows different CP/M-86 programs to run concurrently on a CP/M system.
Obviously, the folks at Digital are giving much thought to a variety of subjects: to MS-DOS, to coming up with something new to perpetuate their prosperity, and perhaps to taking steps to ensure that Gary gets to all future business meetings on time.
What Does It All Mean?
OK. I am sold on VisiCalc and the new improved spreadsheet programs. They make financial analysis very easy to do. I have worked with electronic spreadsheets and have joined the coterie that can't imagine doing it any other way.
I also buy 1-2-3. The charts (line, bar, or pie) are fabulous, and if I were a financial VP, I would want them to make my graphics.
But I admit to being quite skeptical about this window stuff. I have spent a few years consulting and have written dozens and dozens of business reports which incorporated tons of figures, charts, and graphs.
At almost every integrated software booth, we were shown how easy it is to put a calc sheet right in the middle of text, or to insert a little pie chart between two paragraphs. At first blush, this seemed to make sense.
But then as I thought about how I write reports I began to wonder. When I work on a project, I usually first work out the figures to see what they show. Then I decide how I want the charts and graphs to be organized to emphasize the points that should be highlighted. Then, and only then, do I write (or dictate) the report.
So I am a bit bewildered by all this fuss about windows--about the crying need to insert spreadsheets in the middle of the text, instead of including them on separate pages. Besides, most spreadsheets I have seen not only fill up an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet, but often have to be reduced so they can fit on one.
Now, I may be biased; at Harvard Business School they insisted we display our figures as separate exhibits. But let me just raise the question:
Could windows be a solution in search of a problem?
Where is software going in the future? We were given clues to this from two of the keynote speakers on the first day of the show. Bill Gates, chairman of the Board of Microsoft, noted in his keynote address that it currently takes about 150 commands to make five typical programs work. He feels that this should be reduced to about 20 commands and that the commands should be in plain English. Another keynoter, Jack Scanlon of Western Electric, predicts far more standardization of software and foresees that programs will be usable on any computer, whether micro, mini, or mainframe.