The fact is that the problems of shows like PC Expo transcend the current economy, so much so that even a return to robust growth in the tech sector probably won't restore their former glory anytime soon. The trade show, where prospective buyers went from booth to booth picking up product-information sheets and leaving business cards, has become something of a dinosaur in the Internet Age. Visiting Web sites for product information and filling out online contact forms is far easier on the feet and wallet. Even in good times, marketing dollars are a scarce commodity, and the return on trade-show investments just doesn't cut it any more.
The problem isn't purely economic, however. Look at the sharply reduced participation of even the industry's healthiest companies. The huge displays of IBM and Microsoft once dominated every show floor. This year, IBM showed up with a booth that was perhaps a quarter the size of those it has boasted in years past, and the content strongly reflected the company's growing emphasis on services.
PC CRASH. Microsoft's presence was even more sharply attenuated, even though the company has just launched a new version of Office and will soon ship Windows XP, its XBox game console, and two new versions of PocketPC software. Its display consisted almost entirely of a semitrailer featuring PocketPC products.
Which brings us to another striking feature of PC Expo: the lack of PCs. There were plenty of laptops and desktops around, but nearly all were being used to demonstrate other products or services. IBM's display contained little evidence that the company sells PCs, or PC software. I detected no reference to the company's Lotus Development subsidiary.
Toshiba, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, and Gateway all had sizeable PC displays, but industry leader Dell Computer, which has largely abandoned trade shows, didn't make an exception for PC Expo. A raft of second- and third-tier PC makers has simply departed the business.
Instead, the action concentrated on handheld devices, wireless services, and, best of all, wireless handhelds. One of the biggest displays -- and certainly the busiest -- was the big Palm booth and associated Palm partner pavilion, where developers of hardware and software add-ons showed their wares. It's no accident that PC Expo's leadoff keynote speaker, a spot once reserved for the likes of Microsoft's Bill Gates or Intel's Andy Grove, went to Palm CEO Carl Yankowski.
SWEATY DAYS. Another sure sign of reduced trade-show budgets was the dearth of giveaway items -- T-shirts, coffee mugs, and the like. Even free pens seemed in short supply. One of the rare examples of old-fashioned trade-show hoopla was Cingular's booth, which featured an artist finger-painting a huge portrait of John Lennon while Imagine and Sgt. Pepper blared. Several showgoers noted that it reminded them of Cingular's arty TV ads -- entertaining, but with no detectable connection to the company's wireless services.
Trade shows aren't about to vanish. More focused gatherings, like the Consumer Electronics Assn.'s January gathering in Las Vegas or the Cellular Telephone & Internet Assn.'s annual show, seem to be thriving. I suspect it will be a few years before I can escape spending some sweaty days in late June at the Javits Center. But even if the PC industry rebounds next year, as I expect, I think the best days of general-purpose shows like PC Expo are behind them. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BW Online