Computer Chronicles Revisited, Part 72 — COMDEX/Fall '86

The first Computer Dealers Exhibition was held in 1979 in the ballroom of the original MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. (That hotel is now known as Bally’s.) According to a 2021 retrospective by Bob McGlincy for Exhibit City News, that first show drew 167 exhibitors and roughly 3,900 attendees. Subsequent exhibitions–known by the abbreviated name of COMDEX–would draw substantially greater interest from the growing personal computer industry and its customers.

For instance, the fall 1986 COMDEX show–now held at the Las Vegas Convention Center–drew about 1,200 exhibitors and 80,000 attendees. By this point COMDEX had outgrown its original function as a dealer-based show. It was now the place for many tech companies to announce their latest products to the media and the public.

Computer Chronicles would become a regular visitor to the fall COMDEX show starting with the November 1986 edition. This was actually not the first COMDEX event covered by the program. A May 1985 episode looked at the first-ever COMDEX show held in Japan. Indeed, as COMDEX grew in popularity it added more shows and locations to its schedule. In 1986 alone there were seven COMDEX shows held around the world, with Las Vegas serving as the season finale.

Stewart Cheifet and Gary Kildall opened this episode from the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center during COMDEX. Cheifet noted that critics were saying computer shows were not as big or important as they used to be. But Kildall was there in his capacity as CEO of Digital Research. Why did he come to COMDEX? Kildall said it was a chance to “see and be seen.” You could not only make contact with customers but also see what the competition was doing and possibly get some new ideas for products. For example, at least year’s COMDEX the emphasis was on windowing systems like GEM and Microsoft’s Windows. But this year it was more about applications to run with windowing systems, such as desktop publishing.

It’s All About the 386s!

Cheifet opened the next segment standing in front of the Compaq booth, which featured a giant mockup of the company’s new DeskPro 386 PC. He said the big story of COMDEX–in more ways than one–was the Intel 80386 microprocessor and the new generation of PCs it had spawned. Compaq was first out of the game with a 386 machine, but it was obvious at COMDEX that it had a lot of company.

In narration, Cheifet said that at first glance, it looked like the next step of the IBM cloning game from PC to AT was the 386, and almost everyone wanted to be included. But this time, IBM was not in the picture, and it was hard to tell just who was cloning whom. Along with Zenith, Compaq, and Kaypro, other companies were offering their own 386 versions, and they were betting on a big price advantage.

Asian Manufacturers Entered the Clone Wars

Cheifet said that Multitech Electronics, Taiwan’s largest computer manufacturer, unveiled a typical 386 model but at a budget price: $3,995, about $2,000 cheaper than most. (Multitech is better known today as Acer.) Multitech demonstrated the processing power of the 386 at its booth by running an engineering design program on a 16-Mhz, 32-bit 386 chip, which was two to three times faster than 16-bit AT computers. The Multitech’s base 386 system came with 1 MB of RAM on the main board, a 40 MB hard disk, and IBM-compatible expansion slots.

The excitement surrounding the 386 could turn to gloom for AT owners, Cheifet said, who appeared to be facing an expensive new upgrade. But Intel–the source of the 386 chip–was offering an alternative solution known as the Inboard 386. Richard Bader, an Intel representative, said the Inboard would let an AT user upgrade their system by adding a 386 processor and effectively create a whole new machine.

Cheifet said that the introduction of the 386 almost raised the desktop micro almost to the level of a minicomputer. But it also raised other issues like software compatibility and obsolescence. Bader replied that the way that Intel designed its family of microprocessors, everything that ran on the original IBM PC would also run on a 386 machine. Of course, Intel couldn’t promise that everything designed for the 386 would run on that first PC, but that was progress. A lot of the new software would require the new machines. But the “real investment” customers had made in their older machines would not be wasted.

On a more basic level of PC cloning, Cheifet said, South Korean manufacturers were showing XT and AT substitutes at some very attractive prices. Samsung Electronics, which produced everything from semiconductors to CRT monitors, introduced an XT clone (the SPC-3000E) with a retail price under $800. Samsung’s AT clone (the MD-1252Y) would sell for less than $2,000.

Meanwhile, computers competed for space with cars at the Hyundai booth, with that company’s successful venture into the automobile market serving as a symbol of its future computer plans. Cheifet said that Hyundai planned to sell its own Blue Chip line of IBM compatibles through discount stores and mass merchandisers. Hyundai executive C.S. Park said the company had a unique approach in that it viewed the PC as a household item, which could not be differentiated that much in terms of functions.

Cheifet noted that like Samsung, Hyundai was another large industrial conglomerate producing a wide spectrum of electronic components. In the past, those parts had gone into other companies’ computers but now they would go into Hyundai’s own products. Park said Hyundai was trying to serve a market that had not been well-served by other competitors from Japan and Europe. He thought that Hyundai was better positioned than those competitors in providing a low-cost product.

The People’s Republic of China also introduced its own PC clones, Cheifet said, albeit ones with unusual software for the western market. Yin Min, the deputy director of Guangdong Science & Technical Co., Ltd., said through a translator that the company planned to bring its own acupuncture and Chinese culinary software to the United States. The software could read and display in both Chinese and English, Cheifet said, adding the Chinese computers were available in all modern configurations, including an 80286 version with an 80 MB hard disk, a local area network, and even a Chinese-character spreadsheet.

The Second Generation of Portable PCs

Switching gears, Cheifet said that if there were any signs of visible progress at COMDEX it was the portable computers on display–which for the first time had visible displays. Thanks largely to some giant leaps in LCD technology, Zenith, NEC, and DataVue introduced new laptop portables with sharp, bright screens. For example, the Zenith Z-181 was one of the first machines offering the so-called super-twist or birefringent liquid crystal displays, which created a crisp blue-and-white screen with a 12-to-1 contrast ratio, about four times better than a conventional LCD.

To overcome the added weight and bulk of the new portables, Cheifet said that DataVue cut its new Snap computer in half: the main unit with the keyboard, CPU, and external ports; and a separate floppy disk unit connected by an infrared beam. (The floppy disk could also be swapped out for a hard disk.) Cheifet quipped that hopefully Snap users took the right half before they went out the door.

As for NEC, its entry in the new generation of portables was a slim compact machine with a bright, sharp screen and impressive processing power. Cheifet said the NEC MultiSpeed ran off the company’s own V30 microprocessor at either 4.77 or 9.54 Mhz, faster than many desktop units. The MultiSpeed also featured two 3.5-inch floppy disk drives and weighed about 11 pounds.

Unfortunately, Cheifet noted, second-generation hardware came with second-generation prices. Most of the units described above retailed for about $2,000.

Cheaper Laser Printers Meant Cheaper Desktop Publishing

COMDEX ‘86 was also a showcase for desktop publishing, Cheifet said, relying on the usual Macintosh or PC, laser printer, and page description software. Increasingly, manufacturers were packaging these elements together and selling them as units. Hewlett-Packard unveiled a $7,750 system based on Ventura Publisher, which included a high-resolution color screen, a Macintosh-like user interface, and HP’s own LaserJet printer.

Compatibility was also not restricted to cloning IBM’s architecture as laser printer clones were also everywhere, Cheifet noted. And while most companies seemed stuck on the same basic internal design, at least the prices were dropping. Okidata presented a $1,500 laser printer (the LaserLine) with 15 resident fonts and up to 512 KB of memory. The LaserLine was compatible with the HP LaserJet and IBM software.

Cheifet said that Alabama-based QMS Inc., which built one of the first low-cost laser printers, had now moved into the high end with its QMS-PS 800+ machine, which incorporated Adobe’s PostScript language, 35 typefaces, and 2 MB of RAM.

NEC also introduced three new laser printers known as SilentWriters that used a different type of technology. The SilentWriter directed the light beam through an array of LEDs, eliminating the mechanical rotating mirror used on most laser printers. John McIntyre of NEC explained that with a conventional laser printer, you had a single light source that scanned across the page and reflected by that mirror. The LaserLine, in contrast, had an array of about 2,600 LEDs across the page, each aimed at a particular location on the paper. So the LED fired as the paper passed by.

For more frugal desktop publishers, Cheifet said, there was Atari’s booth, where software vendors promoted budget-priced publishing packages for the ST. Drafix showed a $300 computer-aided design package while British company MirrorSoft unveiled publishing software for under $200. Another British company, Excellent Software, had a publishing package retailing for under $50.

The Latest in Mass Storage

Cheifet said mass storage was also a major theme of this year’s COMDEX, with attention split evenly between magnetic and optical media. Toshiba presented an 800 MB write-once optical drive that conformed to the new international 130mm standard size. Netherlands-based Phillips had also formed a new joint venture with Control Data Corporation called the Laser Magnetic Storage Corporation, which presented a demonstration of a 20-disc digital “jukebox.” Each 12-inch disc held 2 GB for a total of 40 GB. Laser Magnetic also promoted a half-height cartridge-based optical drive that could fit into a regular 5.25-inch floppy disk drive slot in a PC.

On the software side, Cheifet said that Delorme Mapping Systems showed a natural application of CD-ROM technology: maps. A single 600 MB disc held a database of maps of the entire globe. The user could choose between different scales by placing a cursor over the desired spot or by entering latitude and longitude coordinates.

The Next Floppy Disk Standard?

Wendy Woods took over for the next segment. She noted that there was a lot of hype and gimmicks at COMDEX. It was hard to sort through the inventions that would never see the light of day and those that would signify the next great trend. This was especially true when it came to data storage devices.

For instance, Konica demonstrated a promising new technology, the KT-510. Woods explained that Konica made a standard 5.25-inch floppy disk capable of storing 10 MB of data–the equivalent of 800,000 typewritten pages or 10 times what could be stored on a standard diskette. Konica had obtained eight patents on the new technology, which company spokesman Rich Freeland referred to as an “embedded servo position information system.” He said it was a technique for placing pieces of magnetic information on the diskette intermixed with data, which allowed for a much higher resolution of head positioning.

The question, Woods said, was could this product be positioned so that it became the next standard. Toshiba was asking the same question as it promoted its own 4 MB 3.5-inch diskette. This was accomplished using “perpendicular recording,” a technology that Toshiba was the first to offer commercially.

The Dawn of the Smart-Shoe Era

Switching gears–or maybe feet–Woods moved over to the Puma booth, where the footwear manufacturer showed off what it claimed was the world’s first computerized running shoe. Woods explained the back of the shoe contained a tiny microprocessor that registered foot strikes and had a timer. Once the user was finished running, they could plug the shoe into a PC loaded with special software and see their progress. In the demonstration, the computer showed a user ran the equivalent of one-tenth of a mile in two-and-a-half minutes, burning 13 calories in the process.

Jerry Cohen of Threshold Technology, which presumably developed the shoe for Puma, told Woods that there were 17 million runners in the United States, 12 million of whom were considered serious, competitive runners. For people in that latter group who trained a lot and needed accurate information, he saw a market for this type of product. Woods added that the Puma computer shoe was currently selling big in Canada but had only just been introduced in the United States.

Woods next highlighted the phonetic engine, a computer speech processing system that could change phonemes–the small units of sound that made up human speech–into text. She said the possibilities for this technology were “as limitless as the imagination.”

Finally, Woods discussed the PC Movie Maker, a system developed by CompuSonics Corporation that combined a high-capacity optical disk drive with special database software and peripheral cards to enable a PC to record audio and stereo inputs. John Stautner of Compusonics told Woods that a user could record hours of material per optical disk without the need for any magnetic tape. Woods pointed out the expense of the system might discourage people from buying it. Statuner replied that for under $10,000, there was no equivalent system and that CompuSonics’ goal was to bring the cost down.

Wrapping Up COMDEX ‘86…and Looking Ahead to 1987

Following the end of COMDEX, Stewart Cheifet was back in the San Mateo studio with George Morrow sitting in the co-host’s chair for a wrap-up round table discussion. The other participants were two Chronicles regulars–Jan Lewis of the Palo Alto Research Group and Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies–joined by newcomer Hal Glatzer, the west coast bureau chief for Software News.

Morrow opened by asking Lewis about the prevalence of 386-based machines introduced at COMDEX. Lewis said there were a tremendous number of machines announced, which she classified as a “defensive move” for many vendors. But many of the announced machines would not be shipping for some time. And even the 386 machines that were available now were shipping in very small quantities.

Cheifet asked if there was actually any software out now to take advantage of the 386 machines. Lewis said that was the key question. At this point in time, there was no software available that specifically took advantage of the 386. Of course, you could run existing applications on the 386, and that raw speed would help if you were working with something like a very large spreadsheet or database. But the truth was that 386-specific software was still quite a ways from making it onto the market. She added that software for 286-based machines had still not caught up and probably would not arrive until mid-1987. So “God knows when” we would see 386-optimized applications.

Morrow turned to Bajarin and asked about the state of laser printing based on what he saw at COMDEX. Bajarin said the whole concept of desktop publishing had gotten people “jazzed.” He chaired a session on desktop publishing at the show that drew 1,200 people. (They had to turn 400 more away.) But if you actually went to the show floor and tried to find a daisy wheel printer, you would have had difficulty. So laser printers were definitely starting to dominate the market.

Morrow next asked Glatzer about what he saw with respect to new software products at the show. Glatzer said that we rarely saw new software unveiled at COMDEX anymore. It was just impossible to run a good demo on the floor. But he followed larger organizational purchases of software, and what he noticed there was that everyone with an established application now had a local area network version. He chaired a session on LANs that drew a lot of people who were looking at complete systems and complete solutions for medium- and large-sized businesses that wanted to run their favorite applications in the network.

Morrow asked Lewis about the state of network hardware. Were we moving closer to adopting standards? Lewis said there was quite a bit happening in terms of local networking but there were still “many, many standards” competing for supremacy. Morrow said there was similar confusion over standards for laser printing. Bajarin agreed. He noted that Adobe had gotten a jump on things with PostScript and Hewlett-Packard had adopted DDL.

Cheifet asked about the prices of laser printers. How far were we from, say, a sub-$1,000 laser printer? Bajarin said the lowest prices he saw at COMDEX were between $1,600 and $1,795. But increased competition from firms like RICOH and Konica would, in his view, see prices come down to between $1,300 and $1,500 within two years. And by the time we got to 1989, he expected the prices would finally be under $1,000.

Morrow noted that the mood at this year’s COMDEX was much more optimistic than at the previous year’s event. How did the group feel about what next year would bring in terms where the industry was headed? Glatzer said he expected more of the same. He thought quite a few of the marginal companies had either dropped out or been bought by other companies. He felt that the show had reached its natural, optimum size. It was about 90,000 people two years ago and it had become almost too unwieldy. At 70,000 to 80,000 attendees, there was still a full house but things weren’t overcrowded. Lewis observed that there was definitely an upturn based on the amount of “legitimate business” actually conducted at the show.

Morrow asked if there was any general theme that we would see for 1987. Bajarin said he didn’t expect too many new users at the low end of the market. Instead, it would be more likely that the Fortune 2000 company employees who had PCs on their desks would go out and buy an $800 or $900 PC so they could take their work home.

U.S. Software Company Looked to Profit from Iran-Iraq War

Stewart Cheifet presented this week’s “Random Access” segment, which was recorded in November 1986.

  • As the Iran-Iraq war continued, Virginia-based BDM International was reportedly negotiating to sell computer wargame simulation software to Iraq to help it be more effective in potential attacks against Iranian oil and transportation system targets.
  • The Reagan administration announced a new “Sensitive” classification for government documents. Cheifet said a “sensitive” document was not necessarily classified but it could not be placed in a computer database.
  • China’s Shanghai Software Consortium worked as a contractor to develop a number of software programs for prominent U.S. publishers, including Activision and McGraw-Hill. Cheifet said the Shanghai company had 25 programmers who worked on IBM compatibles (developed in China) and earned about $50 per month.
  • Johns Hopkins University doctors implanted the first computerized pancreas into a patient. Cheifet said the artificial pancreas could be programmed by an external radio transmitter to alter the amount of insulin delivered to the patient’s body.
  • Paul Schindler reviewed The Toy Shop (Broderbund Software, $65), a program for designing and printing out parts to assemble paper toys like airplanes and starships.
  • Accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand developed a new expert system for giving tax advice.
  • General Information released Hotline ($29.95), a telephone number database and auto-dialer that included 2,000 commonly used national telephone numbers.
  • The mayor of Lyons, Oregon, was surprised by a recent $1,300 bill for a new phone line that had been recently installed at the local public library to access the library system’s mainframe in Salem, Oregon. Cheifet said that due to a software bug the PC “just kept calling” the mainframe, logging 87 hours worth of phone time in a month.

The Costs of Attending–or Not Attending–COMDEX

This episode largely discussed who was at COMDEX. But there were several notable absences from the show, including Apple, Commodore, Ashton-Tate, Digital Equipment Corporation, and Lotus Development. IBM did show up but canceled a scheduled press conference. AT&T had a large booth but didn’t make any new product announcements, with a company spokesman telling the press, “This is a show for small companies.”

The Apple and Commodore no-shows led much of the press to declare Atari the unofficial “winner” of COMDEX. Wendy Woods reported for Newsbytes that Jack Tramiel’s company “has the excitement race wrapped up.” Not surprisingly, much of that excitement was around audio products, including Midiplay, a 16-channel MIDI recording and playback system that cost $50, and Metatrack, a $100 program that linked a MIDI synthesizer to the Atari ST.

But as the Chronicles coverage indicated, the big theme of the fall 1986 COMDEX show was the prospect of new 80386-based PC clones. John Markoff of the San Francisco Examiner said a colleague counted 107 companies on the floor that planned to sell a 386 computer. IBM was not among them, as it would not unveil its successor to the PC line–the IBM PS/2–until April 1987. Big Blue’s official excuse for the delay was that it was waiting to finish its 386-specific operating system before releasing a 32-bit PC. (That would be OS/2, which was ultimately released eight months after the PS/2, in December 1987.)

Apple’s reason for not attending COMDEX at all was also quite simple: John Sculley’s company had no interest in any event where it wasn’t the center of attention. Markoff said this heavy-handed approach might “prove to be a strategic blunder,” particularly with respect to Apple’s lead in the desktop publishing market. After all, the new 386 machines promised to close the gap with the Macintosh on that front, as even Aldus featured its PC port of PageMaker at COMDEX. Still, Markoff reasoned that if IBM managed to fragment the PC standard with its eventual 386 machine, that would still leave Apple’s Macintosh as “an attractive alternative.”

Another possible reason that Apple and some of the other prominent companies may have skipped COMDEX was the cost. This wasn’t a cheap show to attend. According to a November 1986 report in the Los Angeles Times, COMDEX organizers charged exhibitors $24 per square foot for space on the floor. One exhibitor, Xebec, told the Times that it paid $63,000 just to get its foot in the door. Xebec then spent an additional $150,000 to design a two-level booth, and another $30,000 to actually have it shipped to Las Vegas and built. And that didn’t account for the labor costs of running the booth during COMDEX. Another exhibitor, Panasonic, said it cost about $17 per person per minute to have its 20 employees staffing a 5,000 square-foot booth for five days.

Notes from the Random Access File

  • This episode is available at the Internet Archive and has an original broadcast date of November 20, 1986. The COMDEX/Fall ‘86 show itself was held from November 10 to November 14, 1986.
  • Dr. Chong-Sup (C.S.) Park spent many years as a senior executive for the South Korea-based Hyundai Electronics, which was part of the Hyundai Group conglomerate. In the 1990s, Hyundai acquired the U.S. hard disk drive manufacturer Maxtor, and Park served two stints as that company’s CEO from 1995 to 1996 and 2004 to 2006. In 1996, Park became president and CEO of Hyundai Electronics America. When the Hyundai conglomerate broke up in the early 2000s, Hyundai Electronics became Hynix Semiconductor Inc. Park continued to serve as CEO of Hynix until 2002. He currently serves as a board adviser to Nyriad, Inc., an enterprise storage company.
  • John McIntyre spent nearly 16 years at NEC as a marketing director. In 1995, he joined Lyra Research in Massachusetts as vice president of marketing. He returned to the tech industry in 2007 as a marketing manager with Samsung Electronics. His most recent position was with BPO Media, a market research firm for the office technology industry.
  • Hal Glatzer began his journalism career in Hawaii in the 1970s. After moving back to the U.S. mainland in the 1980s he wrote and edited for a number of tech industry publications and authored Introduction to Word Processing for Sybex in 1981. His first novel, The Trapdoor, was published in 1986, and during the 2000s he transitioned into primarily writing mystery novels and plays, including Sherlock Holmes & The Volcano Horror, a stage adaptation of the 1910 Arthur Conan Doyle short story, “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot.” Glatzer currently resides in New York City.
  • Konica’s 10 MB KT-510 floppy disk drive never quite took off. Electronics magazine reported in November 1987 that Konica had a number of delays just getting its 5.25-inch drive into production. Meanwhile, IBM released its PS/2 computer with a 3.5-inch disk drive, which made it “unlikely that makers of PC-compatible systems will incorporate the KT-510 into their systems.”
  • According to Dami Lee of The Verge, the Puma computerized shoe–officially the RS-Computer running shoe–featured at COMDEX was not really the first of its kind. Adidas released a similar product called the Micropacer in 1984. But Puma still decided to celebrate its historic shoe by manufacturing 86 pairs of an updated RS-Computer shoe in 2019, which Lee said retained the original 1986 look but now featured “a three-axis accelerometer, LED indicators, a USB port for charging, and Bluetooth to connect the shoe wirelessly to your phone.”
  • Paul Schindler would also feature The Toy Shop in the Computer Chronicles 1986 year-end holiday buyers guide, an episode I’ll be covering shortly.