Comdex show report: day two (Monday)

Monday morning we did the lemming thing and stood in line for an hour or so to catch a bus to the Las Vegas Convention Center, which is the main hall for Fall Comdex. We met up with the Wugnet guys--Larry, Joel, and Howard--in the press tent, made plans for lunch, and then Joe and I headed into the fray. As usual, Microsoft's massive booth dominated the front third of the main convention center, with numerous theaters, product centers, and a huge partner pavilion, that used to be housed outside in a separate facility. The Las Vegas Hilton, which sits next to the Convention Center, is undergoing massive renovations and additions, which are causing some problems for the show. Microsoft took this opportunity to move its partners inside, causing it to even more clearly overshadow the rest of the hall.

Microsoft's booth was so huge, in fact, that we saw nothing else before lunch. The main theater was showing Internet Explorer and Windows demonstrations all day, drawing standing-room only crowds. The booth was packed, as it was right inside the front door, and getting around was difficult.

Microsoft was showing a new keyboard, the Natural Keyboard Elite, which will be available in February. This new keyboard is 18% smaller than the original one, and includes USB and PS/2 ports. Also on display was the new Intellimouse Trackball, which is now available. I'm quite taken with this trackball, and will buy one when I get home. A new joystick, the Sidewinder Force Feedback Pro is something to behold, and compatible games offer an experience above and beyond normal gameplay. This is a must-have for any serious gamer, though it's expensive at $150. I'll be buying one of these as well; It's available now.

Outlook 98 was on display, with junk email filtering topping the gotta-have-it list. We'll have a full review of Outlook 98 on the Nexus soon; it's a winner.

I had a chance to meet Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's executive vice president of sales and support. The number two man at Microsoft, Steve was wandering the show floor just like anyone else, and is a cool guy.

In a second theater, Microsoft was performing BackOffice, Office 97, and Small Business Solutions presentations. Small Business Server, with its Web-like front-ends for common administrative tasks, looks great. This is the first version of BackOffice that normal humans can actually use, but its inability to upgrade past 25 users is a serious limitation.

Overheard on the tradeshow floor: Microsoft Internet Explorer has eaten into Netscape's lead again. According to DataQuest and Alta Vista, IE's share of the browser market has jumped to 39.4% while Netscape's has fallen from 73% last year to 57.6%. Dataquest predicted that Microsoft would surpass Netscape in mid-1998. Interestingly, Microsoft says its share is even higher: a survey it conducted in October found its share to be 41% while Netscape's were only 50%.

Microsoft was also showing off "Hydra," which is now officially known as Windows-based Terminal Server 4.0. Beta 1 will be available soon, though the test field will be small. Microsoft is promising a larger test, possibly public, for beta 2. Interestingly, they showed a Macintosh client for Hydra, in addition to a Windows 95 client.

Windows CE 2.0 devices were seen throughout the booth and, indeed, the entire convention. CE 2.0 looks good, with color support and numerous different types of hardware.

Other theaters showed Visual Studio 97 demos, and we sat through Exchange Server and SQL Server presentations. Exchange Server 5.5 was officially released today, and Microsoft dropped the bomb during the announcement that NT 5.0 would be delayed until the second half of 1998, not mid-1998 as previously thought. Exchange Server 5.5 includes Outlook 8.03, though Outlook 98 will be available for free when its ready in early 1998. A Web-based version of Outlook was particularly impressive. Unfortunately, the SQL Server demo didn't include any information about the next version.

We met up with the Wugnet guys at Piero's, a great Italian restaurant that was offering up free tortellini, shrimp, and other fine food for the press. It was a good chance to relax and rest the feet. Everyone at Wugnet had gotten a 3Com PalmPilot and the testimonials rolled in. Maybe I should get one of those too, and ditch the almost useless CE machine I use.

Show note: I wore my new South Park "Oh my God! They killed Kenny!" t-shirt and was quite a hit. Apparently, I'm not the only one with a sick sense of humor: People were pointing at me and begging me to tell them where I got it, but it was a gift. Thanks, Jeff!

After the throbbing in our feet had subsided a bit, Joe and I headed back into the crowd at the main convention hall. Philips had an impressive booth, showing everything from beautiful 52" plasma flat-panel displays and 20" LCD computer monitors to Windows CE 2.0 and WebTV Plus devices.

Hitachi is offering a Libretto competitor called the Vision Book Traveller. This Hitachi mini-notebook measures only 9.2"x6.8"x1.3" and weighs only 2.7 pounds with two batteries, but offers a Pentium 133 MMX CPU and Windows 95.

Umax was showing off its NC-300, which is an Oracle-style NC that offers Windows terminal emulation through Citrix. The Umax system offers a nice, simple user interface and is clearly enough computer for most people. Netscape Navigator 3.03, email, address book, calendar, and word processing capabilities are built-in.

Lotus and its parent company IBM were hawking Domino and Notes Internet solutions, while a Lotus theater promised a preview of its upcoming eSuite for Java NCs. We missed the eSuite demo, but will try to catch it tomorrow.

In the bowels of the Hilton were other booths, made all the more distant by the construction. After finally figuring out how to get over there, we were surprised that Netscape was nowhere to be seen; they've been at the Hilton for the past few years. CompuServe was sporting a new "C" logo and touting its new 4.0 software. Intergraph was showing off new graphics workstations and incredible 3D video cards. They promised to ship a Voodoo2-based 3DFX video card early next year.

By this time, it was just about 5:00 p.m., so we headed back to the media tent to rest our feet again and check our email. Meeting up with George Beekman, a computer book author and college instructor from Oregon, we headed out to the Stardust ballroom, where Multi-tech hosted an incredible free buffet dinner, with a stage show. No one seemed to know who Multi-tech was exactly, but this was one of the best meals I've ever had, with tables heaped high with shrimp, prime rib, meatballs, cheeses, fruit, and more. We kept waiting to get thrown out but no one else seemed to understand why this was being given away either. We stuck around and listened to the live music, which consisted of mostly-80's songs for the Comdex crowd. It was quite the get-together.

Tomorrow, we'll be heading to the second site at the Sands Convention Center

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