Shrinkage at big computer show

Once it was the grandest, most exalted annual party a glamour industry ever threw for itself. Now, however, National Computer Conference (NCC) -- which was being held in Chicago this week at the barnlike McCormick Place -- has devolved into a mere convention.

It is still bigger than most, but it's afflicted with the same maturing process that has beset the computer industry itself.

The computer industry has added to the slower pace of the NCC by splitting into a number of small industries: personal computer, mainframe, telecommunications, software, computer graphics, data processing, training. Each has its own show; some have three or four.

``Ten years ago NCC was the computer show. NCC was the big communicator for the company that wanted to announce a product,'' said Don Berglund, general sales manager for the OEM (original-equipment manufacturing) international division of Control Data Corporation in Minneapolis.

``But now, we're not limited to making an announcement just at NCC; there are several vertically oriented, specialized shows we can go to.''

The malaise has not hit all equally. While mainframe manufacturers, peripherals suppliers, and especially personal computer companies showed evidence of a growth slowdown, software vendors reported brisk business at their booths and some questioned that a malaise existed at all.

``As Mark Twain might have said, the reports of the demise of the computer industry have been greatly exaggerated,'' said conference head Karl Martersteck. ``We topped 80,000 registrations and were still counting on Tuesday morning [the second full day of the conference], which is a record pace for the NCC.''

``I'm surprised at that 80,000 figure -- I'm not sure where it came from,'' said Michael Reagan, trade show coordinator for Cincinnati's Cincom Systems Inc. Cincom's traffic has nevertheless been satisfactory, and whatever may have befallen hardware vendors, his software company is prospering, Reagan said.

``Cincom is continuing to grow and expand. We continue to install a large number of data-based systems and network control systems, and there is still a strong demand for our applications software.

But David Kuhn, communications manager at Control Data's OEM division, noted, ``Clearly, people have stopped ordering, or they're spreading their orders out. We expected this to be a down year, with possibly an upturn late in the year.''

``Instead of running headlong into the computer market,'' another Control Data manager, Louis Lundberg, said, ``people are stopping and assessing what they're going to get for their money. The result has been a slowdown and a shakeout.''

Some NCC exhibitors objected to a Chicago newspaper report that quoted vendors as complaining that most of their traffic was from other vendors -- ``tire kickers,'' one called them.

``I'll bet what happened is that the reporter showed up late, about 4 o'clock, when things were winding down, so she didn't get a good reading,'' said Thomas L. Brown, Chicago sales manager of Advanced Systems Inc. (ASI), a vendor of packaged training.

``Sure, there's a slowdown in hardware sales, but that's to be expected. The cost of hardware has been going down for years, while the cost of people has been going up. That's why we're doing well; it takes training to make expensive people productive.''

Another ASI representative, Wendy Osterling, conceded that ``the reason the show seems dead is because nobody's coming up with anything new. There aren't a lot of new products -- just reconfigurations of products -- and there are so many personal-computer guys with their cottage industries that people are getting tired of looking at them.''

Many personal-computer companies have already felt the industrywide shakeout. Once, more than 100 companies built PCs; now there are only a couple of dozen. Industry analysts predict there will be half a dozen survivors, including giants like IBM, Tandy, and Apple.

Apple decided to abandon NCC this year, as did Digital Equipment Corporation, Wang Industries, and Hewlett-Packard. IBM, however, occupied a quarter-acre display and enjoyed perhaps the busiest traffic of any company at NCC. The company, long the industry's pacesetter, was characteristically guarded in its reaction.

Paul Neuman, an IBM information representative, would say no more than that ``the volume of traffic has been most satisfactory throughout the show.''

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