DEC takes a bash at Big Blue. Big networking show gives `mother' no respect

As big-time blowouts go, Digital Equipment Company's tremendously elaborate, exceedingly expensive gala to plump its new computer products seems almost the equivalent of a debutante ball. Not that Digital really needed to prove itself, or show off to anybody. Steady sales and earnings gains by the nation's second-largest computermaker have made it the belle of a sluggish industry.

Still, DEC has lavished some $20 million on its massive trade show, DECWorld '87, which ends tomorrow. It even rented the world's largest luxury ocean liner as a floating hotel (and attention getter) to put up a few of the 25,000 clients who attended.

The aim, it seemed, was to make a permanent dent in the Big Blue (International Business Machines) mind-set of potential customers - to make indelible the statement ``DEC has it now.''

In addition to the 963-foot-long Queen Elizabeth 2, the company also rented another large ocean liner, most of the extra hotel space in Boston, and Boston's World Trade Center.

``I did not expect it to be this big,'' confessed Hamoud Al-Sodoun, a computer systems expert from the University of Kuwait, who flew in for the show. ``The organization and the size is tremendous. I didn't expect to see that many people in the same place at one time.''

There was, however, substance beyond the extravaganza. Digital announced several significant new products (see story next page) and linked together, in one huge, seamless network, computers at seven Boston Hotels, those on two ships, smaller networks throughout the Trade Center, and at sites around the world.

``Our goal is to show customers, through hundreds of management sessions and working applications, how leadership companies are controlling costs ... sharing information easily, and becoming more competitive,'' said Jerry Witmore, vice-president for industry marketing.

Accordingly, the DECWorld network is so detailed and far-flung, it has to be aimed at convincing even hard-core IBM users that Digital can supply not just big solutions but ``total solutions.''

``We're seeing more and more corporations that are willing to step out from under the big blue umbrella,'' says Charles White, an analyst with the Gartner Group, a market research firm in Stamford, Conn. ``They don't want to throw all of their eggs in one basket - and now they feel DEC is a real alternative.''

International Business Machines is sometimes referred to as ``mother'' in the computer trade. This, apparently because owners of IBM equipment traditionally feel secure in the knowledge that they can go to a single company to solve all of their computing problems. But the Digital bash in Boston Harbor was just the latest indicator that the ``mother'' mind-set is giving way to newfound independence.

``We've gone through an evolution in the industry, where the end-user has become increasingly sophisticated,'' says Robert Simko, executive director of International Technology Group, a Los Altos, Calif., consulting firm. ``DEC used to sell equipment primarily based on the attributes of its hardware. Now it sells equipment by developing networking and software applications that make the equipment more valuable.''

The growing sophistication among corporate computer buyers at all levels is clearly playing to Digital's strength in networking. Running in tandem with that understanding is the broad realization that mainframe, midrange, and personal computers must be able to communicate to make the heavy investment in corporate computing pay off, and to gain strategic advantages over rivals.

Accordingly, the drumbeat of the DECWorld show was the familiar ``Digital has it now'' message, with the obvious implication that its rival, IBM, still does not.

IBM has been and is still playing catch-up to Digital in networking, analysts say. This gives Digital two to three years to make its mark before IBM catches up.

For that interim, Digital has positioned itself to scoop up companies and clients that want to network, but haven't been able to get their IBM machines and a hodgepodge of other computers to work together. DEC has done this by developing software to allow Digital's midrange machines to work easily with IBM machines - thus protecting companies' prior investments.

DECWorld has also flaunted the fact that Digital can think like a software company. The show displayed sophisticated applications from electronic publishing, to airline reservation, warehouse inventory, and telecommunications switching, to financial systems for traders.

``What DEC has done is to present, instead of just pure iron [computer hardware], an applications integration strategy within the structure they've set up,'' Mr. Simko, the California consultant says.

Digital is hoping its huge expense on the show will result in at least $1 billion in sales. It may. But if nothing else, it may have made the psychological dent DEC had hoped for.

``The bash in Boston signifies they are a world-class company,'' Simko says. ``They've gained the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.''

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