Las Vegas computer show has exploded into biggest of them all

A different kind of glitter was competing last week with the traditional tinsel and neon for which Las Vegas is famous: It was the high-tech allure of the microcomputer industry on display in all its glory.

In the winter of 1979, 4,000 people from the fledgling small-computer industry gathered here for a new kind of show called COMDEX. Las Vegas natives scarcely noticed. But the show has quickly become the place where people in this rapidly growing industry do business with each other. And this year, with more than 80,000 people attending from around the nation and the world, it has become the biggest trade show in the city's history.

In fact, in only four short years COMDEX has become the second-largest such gathering in the United States in terms of area, the common measure of trade shows. It filled up Las Vegas's cavernous convention center plus the facilities of the five largest hotels here. Only a 75-year-old housewares show in Chicago is larger.

This year the conference's impact was apparent. The airport was jammed. Taxis were in short supply. Along the roads, mingling with the gaudy billboards advertizing the current casino shows, were signs announcing ''When you say computer, say Seiko'' or touting UNIX, a powerful software package developed by Bell Laboratories. Computer companies were even running local-television ads aimed at conventioneers on

Sheldon G. Adelson, president of Interface Group, which produces COMDEX, sees a message in all this: ''The size of this show, the thousands of companies attending, is a sign of the vitality of our industry.'' Reacting to numerous reports of hard times and a shakeout of computermakers and sellers, Mr. Adelson continues, ''To all those Chicken Littles I say, 'Thank you, but the computer industry is alive and well here at COMDEX.' ''

''Our industry is being shaken up, rather than shaken out,'' agrees David Pava, president of Byte Industries, founder of one of the nation's first computer store franchises. Parts of the computer business - namely the home-computer market - are under severe stress, but other areas continue to grow at spectacular rates, he explains. This basically optimistic view clearly prevails at this meeting.

Indeed, the often carnivallike sights and sounds of COMDEX tended to support the views of Mr. Adelson and Mr. Pava. Although several prominent computer companies have disappeared from the scene, 400 companies - including giant AT&T - out of a total of 1,400 were exhibiting for the first time. Walking into the convention center became a total immersion in the strange and vibrant world of small computers.

Elaborate displays, some like miniature high-tech castles, covered thousands of square feet. They thrust their wood, plastic, and chrome turrets several stories above the floor:

* Olivetti, the Italian manufacturer of typewriters and computers, had a charcoal-gray booth that looked like the bridge of a modernistic ship.

* Visicorp, a software company, had filled its area with a construction of rectangular gray pillars, accented with neon. At the center was a large screen television where the company demonstrated its latest product, Visi-On, which integrates word processing, financial planning, and graphing.

* A small computermaker, Charles River Data Systems, drew attention with a 15 -foot inflated frog holding an inflated computer. Next door, Elephant Memory Systems, which makes computer disks, sported a six-foot sculpture of an elephant , elevated on a rotating carousel. And Elephant's employees wore safari outfits.

* In a platform above the display of a company called Computone, which provides turnkey business computer systems, a leotard-clad modern dancer moved to music that scarcely reached watchers on the floor below.

These were just a few of the elaborate and expensive efforts exhibitors here were making to attract the attention of the thousands of computer store dealers wandering the aisles.

''When we first came to COMDEX, we had a 10-by-10-foot booth and a banner. We handed out a bunch of brochures and had a lot of fun. Now you need to spend $25, 000 to $50,000 on a display,'' Bruce Milne, president of AMI, an accounting software company, commented wistfully.

In the first several years, dealers came to COMDEX hungry for computers and software to fill their stores. Lately, however, the situation has been reversed. The hundreds of different computer manufacturers and thousands of software companies are courting the dealers. In fact, this was the primary business of the meeting.

Thomas Anderson is in charge of software development for Hewlett-Packard's new desktop computer. ''Right now, there are a number of dealers on the fence (about carrying HP's new machine). If we weren't here, they would be gone. Because we're here, we can nudge them in the right direction. We're going to sign up 500 dealers here,'' he explained expansively.

Some dealers, however, say they think the show has become too large to cope with. ''I'm so overwhelmed by it all that I find myself going to things I know, rather than exploring. I don't know where to start,'' confessed Steve Brilling who represents a small computer chain from the Pacific Northwest.

''The problem is not the size of the show but the number of people in the world,'' demurred Joseph Landau of Applied Software Technology Inc.

Besides its tremendous growth, COMDEX has changed in a number of other ways. For one thing, the people involved today are quite different from those who dominated the industry in earlier days.

''The people have improved,'' ventures William Diaz, the dapper president of Columbia Data Systems, which makes a line of personal computers. ''At the first meeting, the people had beards, long-hair, ponytails. You seldom saw someone in a three-piece suit.''

Now, just the opposite is true. The computer hobbyists and programmers with their casual dress and technical knowledge have faded from the scene. Now three-piece suits, particularly gray and charcoal pin-stripe, dominate. Business and sales men and women have taken over.

At the same time, the emphasis of the entire meeting has shifted from hardware development to software and marketing considerations.

Thus, there was no major new hardware announced this year. Predominantly, the computers being offered are variations on the basic theme of IBM's personal computer.

''The architecture of the IBM PC has become the industry standard,'' explains Portia Isaacson of Future Computing, a noted industry analyst.

The new accent on programs was reflected in the fact that the opening session of the meeting was a talk on the future of software.

And new software products, specifically those that break the computer screen into multiple ''windows'' thus allowing computers to display and run different programs simultaneously, generated the most interest.

Despite the well-publicized problems of this new industry, it clearly continues to be one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy.

Next year, Mr. Adelson expects more than 100,000 people to attend, despite the fact that he has spun off several other COMDEX shows.

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