Huge computer show: a main event for the industry, and the economy

If the information age is transforming the world into a global village, then this is the county fair. The mammoth National Computer Conference (NCC) is the main event of 1983 for the burgeoning computer industry, which may earn it a rating as the main event for the United States economy overall.

There was no recession in sight at last week's gathering here. In halls that would make airplane hangars feel cramped, almost 700 companies set up booths outfitted like instant Beverly Hills boutiques, gleaming with the sleek look and feel of high technology.

This is where computer companies stand shoulder to shoulder like prize bulls and show each other and their public who they are.

Pinstriped salesmen shoulder their way through the thronging crowds, passing out cards and collecting names and phone numbers.

The mood here is decidedly upbeat.

''There's a great enthusiasm that the technology is still changing,'' says John Imlay, keynote speaker at the conference and president of MSA Inc., the world's largest independent software company.

Funding for innovation is at a peak, he says. ''Venture capitalists are virtually throwing money at new ideas, and new start-ups are at an all-time high.''

Mr. Imlay's own company enjoyed more than $100 million in sales revenue last year and is still growing at a rate of 40 percent a year.

Robert Mendenhall, president of WICAT Systems, says his six-year-old company reached $22.3 million in sales last year, up from $3.7 million the year before. ''So clearly, we're doing well,'' he adds.

Although there are soft spots in the computer market, such as minicomputers, many other companies express much the same overall outlook.

Much of the attention this year is shifting to companies like WICAT that produce software - the languages, codes, and instructions that make computer hardware usable. The exhibitors here also notice that personal computers have captured a bigger-than-ever share of the spotlight.

There seems to be a consensus that these two fields - software and personal computers - are where the future lies for the computer industry.

Where the two fields come together, the excitement is obvious. Apple Computer's elaborate, marble-floored booth is packed, and necks crane in all directions as salesmen demonstrate ''Lisa'' - Apple's recently introduced personal computer system.

Mr. Imlay, the MSA president, notes that his keynote address was the first in the history of this conference to be given by a leader in the software, rather than the hardware, business. This is a nod by the industry, he says, to the importance of software.

It is the symbolism in such gestures that is the stuff of this trade show. If a computer company wants to make a splash, this is the time and place to do it. If it wants to etch its image deeper into the consciousness of the computer aficionado, this is its chance.

There is a rumor here that Apple spent a million dollars to be here, including the cost of its booth, of flying 300 employees from Cupertino near San Francisco Bay, of renting Disneyland for an evening (and giving away 18,000 tickets), and of several employee receptions.

Apple spokesmen say the total sounds high, but not outlandish.

They do it not to transact business here, says Paul Dali, Apple vice-president and manager of personal-computer systems development, but rather ''to make sure people know how much we're doing.''

In 1979, Apple was the first microcomputer manufacturer to exhibit at NCC, and the company rented Disneyland to get attention. Now that microcomputers are the hottest game in town, Apple feels it has roots here.

On the other hand, Xerox Printing Systems Group expects to transact real business here. The division has built a $200,000 two-story booth with private conference rooms and a classroom upstairs. All the company's senior executives are here, and their appointment schedules are booked all day every day of the conference.

Sperry Rand has set up a minitheater, with a cast of five doing live 18 -minute commercials for its ''office of the future.'' ''You have to be here because everyone else is here,'' says advertising manager Jeffrey Houdret.

''Every computer company that's a real company is here,'' explains Robert Mendenhall of WICAT, ''so you have to show up.'' He adds that virtually every computer manager for the Fortune 1000 is here, too.

The motive for coming here is often a defensive one, says Thomas Grossman of Burroughs, which has set up a posh minicinema with canvas chairs. ''If you're not here and looking strong, what's wrong?''

So who is missing from this global county fair?

The booths buzz with speculation on why Hewlett-Packard hasn't made an appearance. Spokesmen for the maverick company say the reason is obvious. It can spend its money more efficiently on smaller, more narrowly focused shows, including the company's own.

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