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The Best-Laid Plans of Mice and Pens Don't Always Pan Out

November 18, 1996|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

In 1981, when I attended Comdex for the first time, everyone was talking about the recently introduced IBM personal computer and speculating whether PCs would someday replace computer terminals on corporate desktops.

Fifteen years later, Comdex attendees this week will debate whether it's time to go back to the future as IBM, Sun, Oracle and others unveil their network computers--essentially terminals that let you do your work via the Internet or your company's centralized computer system.

Whether the network computer remains an interesting concept or takes off as a major product category remains to be seen. But the fact that it's the current industry hot button is anything but a guarantee that it will succeed. The computer industry has a long history of false starts and, in some cases, late bloomers. It's not uncommon for a new product category to get rave reviews at Comdex, little or no action at the box office, and succeed years later because of better timing or superior products.

Pen-based computers, for example, were a big attraction at the 1991 Comdex. Some pundits speculated that these hand-held pen-based machines, which require you to enter data with a pen or stylus rather than a keyboard, would replace desktop and notebook machines. Momenta was one of several companies to show an impressive pen-based machine at that year's show but, alas, Momenta is now a ghost of Comdex past.

But ideas often resurface. Philips, Compaq and other companies this year are expected to show off the latest generation of hand-held systems.

Multimedia CD titles were also omnipresent at the '91 Comdex. Eventually, CD-ROM drives and sound cards did become a standard component in all home PCs, but only a handful of software companies have made significant money in the multimedia CD-ROM market.

IBM's OS/2 operating system was a hot topic at Comdex '89. Big Blue and lots of software companies, including WordPerfect and Lotus, were showing OS/2 versions of their popular MS-DOS programs. WordPerfect, you ask? It then dominated the word-processing market, but because it bet on OS/2, it was very late in rolling out its Windows version. The company is now defunct and the product of the same name has changed hands twice.

In 1985, the Atari booth was a hot spot on the convention floor, with more than 70 new titles for its ST line of computers. The ST, which had a graphical user interface and the ability to run multiple programs at the same time, was arguably better than the Macintosh and certainly better than anything IBM or Microsoft had to offer. But it too has gone to the computing graveyard.

By 1983, IBM had pretty much secured its place as the dominant maker of business PCs, but the clone makers were hot on its heels. Twenty-six companies were showing IBM-compatible computers. Matsushita introduced the hot new Panasonic Senior Partner, causing some analysts to suggest that Japanese companies would soon dominate the PC market just as they did other sectors of the electronics industry.

It didn't turn out that way--at least not then. This year, for the first time, Sony, Toshiba and Canon will show off their new lines of home desktop PCs.

Lots of people stood in line at the 1983 Comdex to get a peek at the new Concurrent CP/M operating system from Digital Research. Old-timers remember Digital Research and the original CP/M from the days before IBM and Microsoft teamed up to create the PC. But, alas, memories are all we have of that once venerable company and its operating system.

You don't have to go very far back to find predictions that didn't pan out.

In 1993, Bill Gates, in an Associated Press interview that ran during that year's Comdex, stated that his company would be "a pretty minor player" when it comes to "content-related things."

Microsoft is now the dominant publisher of CD-ROM titles, owns a half-interest in the MSNBC television network, and is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into Internet content development.

I'll be at Comdex '96, trying to separate the long-term trends from this year's fads, but mostly I'll be looking for real products that you and I can buy, afford and put to use right away.

Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at His World Wide Web page is at

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