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Thursday, June 26, 2014


From the Tech Vault Dept.: Back when I covered technology for a number of Ziff-Davis magazines, I also filed a piece or two with the local (Albany-area) press. I attended my first PC Expo in Manhattan in the late 1980s, getting myself in for free by claiming that I was covering the event for the Schenectady Gazette. A decade later, I actually did so, and my report is below. This was the peak time for the show; attendance would dwindle by half within a couple of years, and the show has long since been swept up into a more generalized tech expo.


A KID WOULD SEE THIS as the world’s neatest science fair. But, although kids are discouraged from attending the annual PC Expo, the three days of computer-product hype that took place last week at the Javits Center in Manhattan brought out that kid within all who allowed ourselves to succumb to the magic of flashing lights and flickering TV screens.

Jacob K. Javits Convention Center
This is an annual trade show held to induce volume buyers and trade resellers to pick up this or that line of software and hardware, and the vendors wage a cutthroat battle to grab attention. It’s like a carnival midway as hawkers hector passersby, luring them to booths with promises of contests and prizes.

“Drop your business card in the slot,” says one, “and you’ll be eligible for a vacation giveaway!” They’re serious: with the big bucks being paid for computer systems these days, a vendor whose product becomes a hit stands to make a fortune. And the personal computer, that diminutive wonder IBM introduced eight years ago, has found a place in work – and play – environments of all sizes.

In the keynote address that kicked off the Expo, IBM exec David M. Thomas stressed the usefulness of the PC in a network environment, allowing companies to string several machines together to share data and applications, obviating the need for larger, more costly setups.

And the local area network (LAN) was a hot item at this show, with many vendors, including IBM itself, displaying ever more streamlined methods of passing information from machine to machine at impressive speed.

“If it weren’t for IBM, none of us would be here, of course,” one small vendor observed while ruefully watching would-be customers flock to Big Blue’s booth just behind him. He had little more than a poster and some hand-outs, while IBM featured an attractive woman swapping quips with an animated character on a TV screen. And that was just on one wall of a many-sided stall that reached well into the rafters of this block-sized convention center. 

Not that you had to be large to be eye-catching. General Information, Inc., on hand to market a memory-resident telephone book that dials through your modem, mounted display monitors in slabs of papier-maché rocks arranged like a mini Stonehenge.

Carbon Copy, a program that allows you to call another, similarly-equipped computer and work with its data and programs without a network setup, brought in beautiful red-headed twins to hawk its wares.

Symantec Corp. invited you to swap a business card for a key that might unlock a box containing – surprise! – copies of its popular “Q & A” database software.

At least two exhibitors used close-up magic to draw in the crowd for the sales pitch: the artist working for Soma Technologies, a computer maintenance outfit, kept up a running patter of quick puns along with rope tricks and cups-and-balls routines.

Although it seemed that the bulk of exhibitors came from California, the Capital District was represented by The Software Group, a Ballston Lake company that wrote and markets Enable, an integrated package offering word processing, spreadsheet and database programs, a graphics utility and even telecommunications.

Record-breaking heat, over 100 degrees last Wednesday, kept most of the buyers inside this air-conditioned palace that sits near the piers on the midtown west side. At five o’clock each day, however, the vendors and shoppers emerged, tearing off neckties, swapping fancy high-heeled shoes for Reeboks while fighting for cabs and cursing at passing buses.

Each morning another mob scene took place, this time at the check-in booths where new arrivals – and many came for one or two days only – queued up to buy their entrance badges.

Shopping bags were distributed at the door, bags which were quickly filled not only with sales-pitch material but also the goodies: software demonstration disks; logo-imprinted frisbees, hats, pens, screwdrivers; free copies of computer magazines.

The hierarchy which puts IBM at the center of the huge halls puts the rest of the vendors in a mad competition for space. Zenith hits you at one door with a sideshow-style sales pitch that promises a lottery try for one of their products if you sit through the whole spiel; representatives demonstrating 10-Net, a LAN program, quietly greeted arrivees at another entrance.

On the farthest perimeter were the smallest, or poorest, of exhibitors. This is where you might get grabbed by the elbow and implored to witness a product. This also is where the hi-tech, well-lighted signs give way to badly-aligned hand lettering, and where glossy brochures are replaced by photocopied pages in badly-translated English.

But there are gems to be found even in this area. For example, Frank Rogers, president of One-on-One Technologies, was showing his $39 database – 1 on 1=3!! – a dBASE III Plus work-alike with an impressive set of features at an unbeatable price.

The office of the future, if this Expo is any indication, need not be in a major city; with a big emphasis on desktop publishing, any small operation can be completely autonomous but have the ability to draw upon the resources of larger outfits with computer-to-computer hookups over the phone.

If that becomes the case, it’s good to know that a city like New York will still attract those far-flung businesspeople to a science fair the likes of which only Manhattan could muster.

 – Schenectady Daily Gazette, 28 June 1998

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