By Donald Jenner
Clearly a ghost of its greater-self-that-was, TECHX and PCExpo took center stage at New York's Javits Convention Center during the week of September 16. The show was smaller than ever — but the crowd was fairly dense. The vendor-mix was interesting; some had clearly gauged a changing business-computing market very well.
Computer trade shows and conferences seem generally to be having a hard time. CeBIT ran its first New York conference (in the late-June PCExpo timeslot); the conference appeared sparsely attended and on the show floor, there were more salesfolks than potential customers. Fall COMDEX is clearly in trouble (its operator suffers serious financial problems). PCExpo, a show that in palmier days stuffed the Javits Center with around 80,000 visitors, could barely fill a quarter of the main exhibition hall this year.
That noted, note also that the show-floor, such as it was, was packed. Vendors who put in an appearance, generally had people to talk to and leads to generate. The “disconnect” — if there was one — was between the product-level and the customer-level.
In earlier days, PCExpo drew a mix of suited corporate IT middle-managers (even some top managers). VARs and independent consultants stalked the floors, getting briefed on new things to show customers and networking for future business opportunities. Vendors were strictly big-time — Microsoft, Intel, Apple, AT&T, IBM, Intel and so on. As the show hit and passed hey-day, a section in exhibition “outer darkness” catered to enthusiasts, with parts-vendors selling keyboards, web-cams and the flotsam and jetsam which mark end-user computer fairs.
This year, the IT middle-managers were mostly hunkered down, protecting their turf in the face of a more demanding, productivity-oriented, budget-constrained corporate environment. VARs have consolidated, downsized or simply up and disappeared. Independent consultants are few and far between; that last is often “between jobs” for extended periods.
While a few in each group showed (and I recognized some who were serious players, with money to spend, if not lavishly), the bulk of people wandering the show floor were supervisory-level managers. Their interests were in some ways more focused, and closer to the end-user groups they supervise. As a group, this level has become more technically savvy, and much more interested in good, easily applied and administered solutions. With needs more akin to SOHO users (or indeed, themselves in the SOHO end of the computing spectrum), the kinds of questions they posed and the vendors' products in which they were interested were more akin to the kinds of offerings commonplace at PCExpo of the late-'80s and early-'90s.
The density on the show floor meant that most vendor exhibits had decent traffic. Some companies had — for whatever reason — more substantial groups around their booths than others. What they were showing seemed to be well-attuned to the kinds of people who were looking.
On the show floor, for example, people were intrigued with LCD monitors, but the sticker shock was perhaps off-putting. [One company was touting a new monitor that had a built-in TV tuner and PCCard reader. One commentator asked, was the idea that a real estate dealer would now tuck the monitor in his briefcase instead of a notebook computer, then use a PCCard to show slides of houses?]
On the other hand, Executive Software was passing out samples of its system-management software, and it was going like hotcakes. Part of the reason: As Microsoft pushes folks into NT-family software on the end-user desktop (both home and pro versions of XP), system management issues are of greater concern to managers and users lower in the chain. Executive Software — hitherto targeting the IT professionals almost exclusively — apparently has twigged to the shift in needs, and sophistication and so on; it now has home/home office, small-biz and larger-biz variants of its offerings, priced attractively and presented in ways ordinary users can handle, and easily deployed and managed by supervisory managers at the local-office level.
Hardware players with good traffic in the booth included Hewlett-Packard, a company that has done a nice job of positioning itself for a wider range of purchasers. Even more interesting, though, was Tripp. This is a company that sells uninterruptible power supplies, line conditioners and a few other hardware-management tools — the kind of things that folks just didn't think much about, that aren't very sexy and so on. But there was Tripp, with a good-size booth and very good representatives, showing not super-size, super-expensive machine-room products. While the company had some of its IT-pro products there to be seen, the items placed to draw attention were the line-condioners and UPSs most suited to local office / small office /home-home office applications. These successfully attracted attendee attention.
One surprising exhibitor: The Linux Professional Institute, the premier certifier for people using the Linux operating system. While other non-Microsoft vendors have appeared at PCExpo in the past (including both Apple and various Unix players), the show has tended to be resolutely wintel. Linux is best known as a — rather involved — server system. Three things seem to be happening: The server is less often something in a glass-walled, lights-out room visited by the computer guy. Microsoft's current desktop offering — Windows XP — is substantially more complex to install, maintain and operate (thus reducing the Windows ease-of-use and familiarity advantages; XP is just plain tricky, at times). Linux itself is getting more user-tolerable, and Linux applications suited to the needs of most business users are both available and of high quality. LPI perceives increasing interest (they ran certification exams at the conference section, for those pursuing the Linux bootcamp track).
IBM took a different approach. Rather than a large presence on the exhibition floor, it took a private mezzanine space and set up a coffee-bar. This was good way of showing off the new IBM approach to the industry, that of prime-outsource. Over an iced cappucino and a coffee roll, an IBM staff member was available to detail a range of options suited to different classes of clients. Large “national account” IT executives could develop a network connection suited to its needs, laying the foundation for future direct involvement. Smaller businesses were accommodated equally well; general possibilities were developed for transmission to IBM partner firms for packaging.
The outsourcing model also played in NetLedger's announcement: First, it presented its latest service offering and then it coupled that with a name-change to NetSuite. The company's latest version is a completely web-hosted backoffice database facility, with a variety of front-end “dashboards”. Each element in an organization gets a view of the common database customized to its needs. Sales needs contact management; it's there. Shipping needs to move product orders out the door; it sees the orders to be shipped, the status of product in the pipeline and has a direct connection to UPS, from labeling to tracking. Effectively, NetSuite becomes the IT department, managing integration and updating of functions on top of a comprehensive enterprise database. Companies buy the amount of service they need, based on a variety of criteria, at a price that is presented as dramatically lower than the combined annual license fees, not to mention those fees plus substantial integration service fees.
What was important in both these off-the-floor presences is that they were well-tuned to the opportunities of an industry in transition. The kind of PCExpo attendee who was looking for high-end services most in tune with changing IT demands and a highly connected infrastructure, a shift from off-the-shelf boxes of hardware and software integrated more or less on the fly, to highly-managed solutions from expert service providers.
Simply put, this year's repositioned PCExpo mirrors interesting changes in the Information Technology industry: IT is clearly more pervasive than ever; its management is less the preserve of IT specialists and more of general concern to line managers than ever before. That concern is reaching downward, so that supervisor managers — office managers, administrative assistants — are increasingly concerned with (and, one suspects, eventually influential in the selection of) IT strategies and the tactical products and services through which those strategies are implemented.