Lots Of Geeks, Fewer Gizmos

Geeks don't gamble. and most would rather work out a really cool algorithm than ogle the she-gals of Glitter Gulch. So why every fall do they descend lemminglike on Las Vegas for that jampacked, noisy and endlessly aggravating trade jamboree known as Comdex? To boogie, of course -- and learn something about where the computer industry is going.

Too bad. This year's parties at Comdex (a.k.a. the Zoo) were as lively as ever. But techies seeking direction found mainly confusion. As usual, they invaded in force -- 190,000 of them. They chowed down on three-alarm chili, raced armadillos and talked ardently about the Information Highway, the Internet and the big opportunities in electronic retailing. But wait. Weren't these last year's hot topics? And where were all the great new products, the Widget 1.0s that spin geeks' eyeballs and make them go ""Cool''? Either Comdex is caught in a time warp -- out of sync with its reputation as a bellwether of computing's megatrends -- or it's like a good car: the real action is under the hood.

A year ago digital ""revolution'' was in the air. People hyperventilated about ""500 channels'' of interactive TV. Home shopping! Movies on demand! All that now rings a bit hollow. The big interactive-television trials, supposed to get underway this year, have been delayed -- some indefinitely. The failed marriage of Bell Atlantic and Tele-Communications Inc. stands as a metaphor for sweeping plans gone awry. Was it all hype, a digital daydream that no one wants to let go? Only on the surface. If today's big picture looks muddy, there are some well-focused snapshots. Consider the explosive growth of the Internet, twice as big as last year. Or the warp-speed evolution of the PC: ever faster, more powerful and cheaper.

There's a lesson here, reflected in the fact that so few major products were introduced at this year's Comdex. To be sure, Microsoft unveiled its new online serv-ice, the Microsoft Network -- paving the way for the likely ""killer app'' of the '90s, universal e-mail. IBM boosted its new line of Power PCs, its bid to recapture something of its former dominance. But neither of these comes out before mid-'95. Until then, it's back to basics. We're entering ""an era of incremental change, not quantum leaps,'' says Robert Glaser of Progressive Networks in Seattle. Big Ideas like home shopping and movies-on-demand won't build the Info Highway, experts now say. More important are step-by-step advances in basic electronics -- faster modems and microprocessors, beefier memory banks, new digital ""compression'' technologies that let you squeeze fat chunks of data and images through skinny little phone lines. Few but the most diehard techies follow developments such as these. Most of us focus on the sexier gizmos in Las Vegas. But remember: a good engine comes before chrome wheels.