ComNet Attracts a Devoted Crowd

About 45,000 people gathered at the annual networking trade show to hear predictions from futurists and try out new technologies

P> The Internet and wireless communications were the hot topics at gargantuan ComNet '96, the annual networking trade show held in Washington, D.C., late last month. About 45,000 people gathered to hear futurists such as Wired columnist Nicholas Negroponte; business guru Eric Schmidt, Sun Microsystems Inc.'s chief technology officer; and to pay homage to the 450 exhibitors.


Netscape Communications Corp.'s CEO James Barksdale cut through some of the Internet hype that pervaded the conference to give real numbers. About 1,000 of the top U.S. companies have line items in their budgets to buy on-line audio, video, graphic and voice capabilities, he said. In 1994, the Internet had 38 million users, and Barksdale estimated the number would grow to 199 million by 1999. He also said that 280,000 World Wide Web sites were on the Internet as of November 1995.

Brian Ek, Prodigy's vice president for government affairs, said the key to the Internet now is speed. "Bandwidth is our mantra," he said. Ek envisions 50 million wired households, which will make telecommuting and telemedicine a part of everyday life. Ek criticized the clumsy and long URLs, or World Wide Web addresses, saying Web searching needs to become easier.

Although the speeches drew big crowds, the exhibits seemed to attract even more sneaker-clad attendees. Hugely popular at the exhibit hall was a bank of computer terminals set up for free Internet use by CompuServe. Conferees also saw demonstrations of Java, Sun Microsystems' new technology, electronic cash transactions and the latest in cable modems. They also got an ear-full of sales pitches from Internet access providers, including PSINet Inc., Herndon, Va. At the conference, PSINet announced an Internet security alliance with firewall vendor Raptor Systems Inc., Waltham, Mass.

Though most of the ComNet buzz was Internet-related, new wireless technologies such as personal communications services and satellite systems garnered a lot of attention. American Personal Communications, Bethesda, Md., which was the first company to come out with PCS under the brand name Sprint Spectrum, attracted crowds of people who wanted to try the new phones.

Another popular exhibit was "The Vision Dome," a cavelike structure for virtual reality built by Alternate Realties Corp., Research Triangle Park, N.C. The 16-foot dome had a ceiling-to-floor surrounding screen that makes people standing inside feel as if they're in an airplane or whatever experience the screen is showing. Unlike other virtual reality systems, people in the dome don't need goggles or a headset. Although the floor vibrations and great sound make the experience realistic, ARC overpromises on the dome's potential.

Though many technologies of the future were previewed at ComNet such as sophisticated Internet security products and satellite mobile communication systems, some of the panelists weren't successful in predicting coming events.

A panel of government officials incorrectly predicted that Congress would not pass the telecom reform bill that week. The panel included William Kennard, general counsel at the Federal Communications Commission, and Larry Irving, administrator at the National Telecommunications Information Administration.

David Leach of the House Commerce Committee said the bill would probably not pass during ComNet because signature documents had not circulated yet.


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