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Expo’s Hi-Tech Vaudeville Obscures Computer Industry Doldrums

June 26, 1991

NEW YORK (AP) _ The reviews were mixed but the show definitely drew crowds. As three dancers in business suits relinquished the spotlight, a pin-striped fourth shuffled up to sing a soulful endorsement of IBM’s high-tech prowess.

″It looks like Times Square here,″ said David Zippel, a man who should know. IBM hired the songwriter of Broadway’s Tony award-winning City of Angels to co-write its own show, which debuted this week before a standing-room-only audience at IBM’s 8,400 square-foot exhibit.

While clearly the most lavish, IBM’s was just one of 700 displays to turn this year’s PC Expo at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center into a veritable song-and-dance of computer products.

Hiring top Broadway talent was merely one way the industry tried to put a happy face on a year marked by price-cutting and worries about shrinking profits. Companies offered jokesters to hawk products’ features and would-be Doc Goodens were able to rifle fastballs to dramatize the speed of a company’s diskdrive.

Most of those at the cavernous Manhattan convention hall Tuesday seemed too swept up in the carnival atmosphere to notice the recession’s impact on the U.S. computer industry.

″On the surface everything looks the same as it’s looked for the past four-to-five years,″ said Mike Perkowski, publisher of CSN, a computer trade magazine based in Manhasset, N.Y. that had a show booth.

Just below the surface was last week’s news that Apple Computer sent lay off notices to 900 workers and slashed top executive salaries. International Business Machines Corp. warned that its earnings would not meet analysts’ expectations, causing its stock to plunge.

Lower profits from computer hardware are forcing former competitors to cooperate. IBM and Apple are talking about a technology sharing agreement, AT& T bought NCR and IBM invested $100 million in Wang Laboratories Inc., which will curtail its computer making.

Despite the changes, a record 75,000 attendees were expected to visit the three-day event, which started Tuesday. The minimum price for exhibitors was $3,100 for a 10-foot-by-10-foot space.

Some exhibitors said they maintained last year’s expenditures for the show and said business was fine. Observers said companies could ill afford to diminish their presence at the industry’s top personal computer show.

″I think the recession is kind of over and they’re pouring money into it so they’ll be in a leading position for the future,″ said Colgate-Palmolive systems analyst Ralph Bernabei, toting a bagful of give-a-ways and pondering the ambience.

But some were less than impressed by the razzle-dazzle. Turning to a reporter at the IBM show, a woman clutching a boxful of freebies said, ″Who wins the award for worst production? It’s just like all of their products. I’m bored.″

Still, IBM clearly out outdazzled Apple’s display of towering walls and Macintosh computers. The smaller company traditionally has relied less on trade shows than self-made lavish events to promote its products.

″We really go for a more austere corporate approach,″ said Apple’s Ed Forman, the company’s marketing manager for large business.

″IBM’s behavoir at individual trade shows tends to reflect the buying community. This is not a blue suit crowd for the most part,″ said CSN magazine’s Perkowski. ″They’re turned on by the glitz and glamour and hype and hoopla.″

If the glitter didn’t belie the recession, the Expo concessionaires’ $6.25 pricetag on a turkey sandwich did.

″Let me ask you, where’s the recession?″ asked attendee Haskell Erps. ″This is an oasis in the recession.″

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