Las Vegas in November is the site of the annual computer industry pilgrimage to COMDEX. 200,000+ visitors tackled the endurance course this year...

I made a supreme effort and covered every gangway of every location for the first time ever. I can’t claim to have taken it all in at times, but I was there. Big-time.

The most ubiquitous software without any doubt at all was id Software’s remarkable DOOM. You don’t know what DOOM is? You plainly don’t have teenage kids, or you have been living in a tent for the past year.*

DOOM rattled out from the proliferation of multimedia hardware stands (the Americans insist on calling them "booths", I just can’t get used to that) and its scrolling speed provided a readily accepted datum of hardware performance for most visitors.

The most ubiquitous industry-wide "happening" was, you guessed, the Internet and related on-line issues. The world and his dog was trying to work out where and how to make a buck on and from the Internet. Several software solutions were proposed, and the web browsers from Netscape Communications Corp. (formerly Mosaic Communications), BookLink and Quarterdeck displayed a high degree of professionalism that was understandably lacking from the almost universally familiar original NCSA Mosaic web browser: the one that started it all.

Locomotive Software, a rare sight at COMDEX (a British Software house: the veteran of Amstrad PCW Locoscript fame) sought to avoid being typecast, and instead of launching LocoNet, introduced Turnpike: a very smooth Internet mail and news management system for on/off-line and stand-alone/networked operation.

Not eponymous

Microsoft’s Marvel turned out to be anything but. Not only had the attentions of copyright lawyers from the comics of that name interceded and forced a change of name to the utterly prosaic Microsoft Network, but the "product" itself appears to be locked into Windows ‘95 in a way that displays an act of faith in the immediate ubiquity of the much delayed Windows “upgrade” above and beyond anything that non-Microsoft staffers seemed willing to accept as reasonable.

Marvel enjoys some neat touches in the way is handles progressively rendered images and rich text: but these are proprietary to Microsoft (no surprises there), but all these could easily be implemented on the real Internet by anyone willing to abandon the principles of consent and standards that have stood the net in such good stead thus far.

IBM’s prodigious spending to promote OS/2 was not reflected in enthusiasm for the product on the floor. I can only recall seeing two stands featuring the "I’ve been Warped" message.

Crowd puller

Anything to do with the Internet seemed guaranteed to pack in the crowds. Although COMDEX was far from promoted as an Internet or network event, a good many industry veterans stood and watched the size of the crowds drawn to stands like those of Quarterdeck, Netscape, Netcom and BookLink (InternetWorks and AOL), and made mental notes to take this thing more seriously themselves.

The public was clearly voting with its fundament; and not just for the relief provided for weary feet by a welcoming seat.

I got into some conversations with guests about Internet issues, and it was clear that the message of email needed little additional promotion. Confusion about the web and how to use it for "serious" information collection and management was being dispelled quite rapidly by the new generation web browser. These increasingly have the power to manage a raw IP feed and turn it into something as orderly and useful as anything any of the more nannying on-line services are able to do.

That these products touched a nerve with those of us who got lost in the maze of the Internet in the past was obvious. Audible "ooohs" and "ahhs" could be heard accompanying the demonstration of a deft technique in the way a particular browser or news reader handles issues we could relate to. Occasional spontaneous applause broke out, in the way that US quiz show audiences are want to do.

The sound of the cogs rattling in the minds of executives from companies not already in the net game became deafening.

Other trends

There was a handful of stuff that caught my eye: Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) clearly snuggles into the growing fad SOHO market. But yet again, developers are working out where and how to work Internet mail into their schemes of address books, diallers, voicemail and fax. Talking email and fax systems made their first appearance.

Optical character recognition and voice recognition took significant strides towards universal deployment, by working pretty much as a normal user would expect, and not as hitherto, as a techie was prepared to tolerate.

Hardwarewise, the most significant things I saw were two PCMCIA cards: the Rockwell GPS (Global Positioning System) on a PCMCIA card for (an alleged) $695; and the IBM combined ISDN TA and V32 modem on a PCMCIA card for $595.

There were more video, TV/Video and Video/TV cards than ever, fuelling the view that maybe multimedia was ready to break away from the main COMDEX event.

* If you don’t know (and there may be some visiting Martians reading this) DOOM is the most acclaimed PC game of all time. Unbelievable graphics, brilliant sound, wonderfully simple plot: get them before they get you. And all this can be networked as a multiplayer game.

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