In S.F., visions of tech's past - and future

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Sunday, March 10, 1996 · Page D 5
© 1996 San Francisco Examiner

In S.F., visions of tech's past - and future

Martin Perlmutter

"All great change occurs in silence," wrote the philosopher, Nietzsche.

Silence abounded this past week at Intermedia, the once great multimedia trade show just concluded at Moscone South. Aisles that thronged in the previous nine years of the show were virtually empty. The planned exhibit area had reportedly been cut in half. Many developers and publishers who had been fixtures of previous shows were absent - Compton's, Grolier, Virgin Interactive, Warner, Pioneer. A thin red line of support companies and a handful of old mainstays (Sony, Philips, Macromedia) filled the space. As one wag put it, "Someone forgot to alert the manufacturers that the industry was dead," and there was a disproportionate showing by disc replicators and packagers.

Before entering the hall, significant change was evident on the street. In the previous decade of the CD-ROM and Multimedia Conference, streams of attendees had wandered in and out of the exhibit hall, human tendrils that stretched for blocks in all directions. Like ants at a picnic, the action extended far from the blanket. In 1996, little foot traffic was to be seen on the blocks between Market and Harrison during show hours.

But as I approached the elder Moscone facility, I glanced across the street, my eye attracted by motion. In front of Moscone North was a crowd. And then I saw the sign above the door: "Netscape Developer Conference."

The energy detected at street level continued underground. On the first morning of the Netscape gathering, thousands of avidly attentive techies leaned forward to learn the capabilities of the tools that now bring graphics, audio and video to the Web. Sun Microsystems, Symantec, Apple, Illustra and other Internet players strutted their stuff while giant Netscape logos played upon the walls.

At the Netscape conference, there was a thirst for every technical detail, every debugging routine, every software routine displayed before the crowds.

In hushed rooms, new techniques for compiling and testing code were demonstrated. Each method promised substantial enhancement or acceleration of Web performance. Almost magically, real audio and streams of video can now be downloaded over the Net. Formerly somnolent Web pages now dance with graphic images and cycle swiftly through sequences of still pictures. Multiple users, linked by the Web, can play games and explore virtual environments as they watch rapidly updated animated screens. Why, oh why, would anyone trouble with a CD-ROM that defies mortal effort to initialize, when every Java applet promises to care not a whit what platform you run it on?

In silence, too, the Netscape developers greeted Symantec's promise that millions of users will soon be able to download any application they need for home or office use, paying a small fee for the brief term of their use.

Meanwhile, back at Intermedia, the crowds thickened once - when the Netscape developer conference concluded in early afternoon on the final day of the twin gatherings. I recalled the quip of a senior colleague about the CD-ROM Conference long ago, when it was mighty: "You don't come to this conference because you want to; you come because you're scared not to." And I remembered that back then, the show belonged to the company that still has the most to lose from the shift so clearly under way between the ROM and the Net. Back in '90 and '91, we called it the Microsoft CD-ROM Conference.

Sic transit goira mundi.

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