The Practical Mac

The Sad State of the Tech Sector

- 2002.09.17 - Tip Jar

I have just returned from NetWorld + Interop in Atlanta. This year, it was NetWorld + Interop + Comdex all rolled into one. In my 5+ years of attending this show, I have never seen a sadder site than what was presented at the Georgia World Congress Center last week.

There are two large exhibit halls on the main level of the GWCC. For the last several years (last year's show opened on Sept. 11, 2001; I was en route and turned back when the terrorist attacks of that day occurred so I never made it to that show), both of these exhibit halls have been lined wall-to-wall with booths, and the aisles are usually lined with people. This year, about 2/3 of one hall was taken up with booths, and I had no problem maneuvering around the place.

When it was announced earlier in the year that both Novell (who confounded NetWorld several years ago and traditionally the largest exhibitor) and Microsoft had pulled out of this year's show, I knew we had problems. Several other smaller vendors declined to exhibit as well.

The vendor with the most floor space this year was Computer Associates. There is nothing wrong with that. CA usually has a large booth, and they have some great products.

However, the second largest exhibitor was Mercedes-Benz - the car company. No, they have not branched out into the technology sector. They were simply showing off their automobiles. Theirs was actually the most intriguing presence there. Any attendee who showed a valid driver's license and filled out a short form was taken by bus to a lower parking lot where they could test drive any or all of several different Mercedes vehicles. Sadly, it was about the most interesting thing going.

The fact that a company with absolutely nothing to do with technology was the second-largest exhibitor at NetWorld + Interop says a lot, and none of it is good. The economy in general has taken a downturn in the last couple of years, but the technology sector has been especially hard hit. Companies no longer have unlimited budgets for marketing and trade shows.

Three years ago, the free T-shirts flowed like water. I am not exaggerating when I say that you could walk by a booth, hold up your hand, and they would toss you a shirt or hat. This year, I left Atlanta with a grand total of one shirt (for which I had to sit through an interminable magic show) and one hat (which I got for driving a Mercedes). There really is no such thing as a free lunch, and judging by the T-shirt bellwether, marketing budgets are being severely pared.

No one is selling because no one is buying. If manufacturers thought that more marketing dollars would translate into more sales, they would continue to spend. But the harsh reality is that IT budgets have been cut across the board.

Another thing that struck me about this year's show was the almost complete absence of any truly original products. There was nothing in the exhibit hall that made you say, "Wow! What a great idea!" Innovation is dead, and it is not completely Microsoft's fault.

The Monopoly That Roared has done more than its fair share to stifle creativity over the years, but they are not alone. Dell, Intel, Compaq, Gateway, and other smaller players have, to varying degrees, tried force a "one size fits all" mentality on the public.

Apple has stood virtually alone in the arena of innovation. It is no coincidence that they also stand virtually alone in the arena of profitability. When asked about how Apple would weather the economic slump, CEO Steve Jobs replied, "We will innovate our way out of it." He also gave essentially the same statement when asked what he would do to return the company to viability upon his return to an Apple ship that was on the verge of sinking in 1997. It worked the first time, and it continues to work.

With the maturation of OS X and the introduction of Xserve, Apple has a winning combination for the enterprise. The challenge is letting the enterprise know. Apple needs to take their road show to NetWorld + Interop next year (if there is a next year for this show).

Xserve

In Atlanta, several wireless access points were set up throughout the GWCC. You could bring your own 802.11b-equipped notebook, and HP had provided several Compaq laptops for attendee use. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate these a flop. Connectivity wavered on and off, despite the access point being mounted just a few feet above the table of computers. Many users could not get connected, for no apparent reason. The frustration level of those trying to do something as simple as checking their email was high.

In the past, Novell had provided a huge area of wired computers with Internet access, all for the free use of those attending the conference. With Novell's pullout, apparently HP and a wireless vendor which I shall not name (mainly to protect the guilty) were left to fill the void as best they could.

Now, fast-forward to September 2003. Imagine AirPort base stations scattered all over the place. AirPort is industry-standard 802.11b, so PCs as well as Macs and Linux boxes could connect. Instead of black iMacnotebooks completely devoid of personality, how about iBooks or even flat-panel iMacs provided for public use?

If Apple's goal is to give a large number of hard-core technologists hands-on experience with Apple products, this is the time and place to do it. Make sure all Macs have a desktop shortcut to a terminal window, and make sure you are prepared to take orders onsite. Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe that if you build a better product, the buyers will come. Apple has a better product, and, with enough exposure, the sales will surely follow.

Best Advertising Award Goes To...

On the inside front cover of the Sept. 9, 2002 edition of Network World is the best ad I have seen in a long time:

What Windows Does for the IT World,
The Sun LX50 Server Undoes

The LX50 appears to be a 1U rack-mount server complete with operating system (your choice of Linux or Sun's own Solaris) and unlimited user connection licenses that costs $2,795, slightly less than Apple's Xserve, which is also an all-in-one solution. Let's see, a complete hardware and software bundle which will support hundreds of users for less you would pay for a 25-user license of Windows 2000 Advanced Server (hardware sold separately).

Thank you, Sun. Thank you, Apple. LEM

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Steve Watkins is the Vice President for Information Technology for a mid-sized bank, an attorney, and an Army Reserve JAG on extended active duty. He has been a Mac user for about 12 years. He has owned some PCs along the way - but always came back to the Mac. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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