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Comdex 84

The crowning event of 1984 was Novell’s presence at Comdex in Las Vegas (November 14 through 18). At Comdex, Novell rolled out its newly minted products and philosophy. It was also the first major demonstration of the innovative marketing communications that would establish Novell’s image and make Judith a LAN industry celebrity.

Novell’s most daring undertaking was to create a LAN that would network about 20 exhibitors scattered in different areas of the Convention Center. Novell had help from 3M Company’s Interactive Systems Division, a new NetWare OEM customer, but for both companies the Comdex LAN was an enormous project fraught with risk. If the LAN worked, it would gain a lot of attention for Novell. If the network failed, Novell would be embarrassed before the industry partners it had worked hard to line up. And it would be impossible for Novell to hide its failure from the show attendees, because all of the company’s promotional materials at its booth were designed to showcase the Comdex LAN.

At that time, the sprawling trade show was still contained within the walls of the Las Vegas Convention Center. (In subsequent years it would spill out to occupy more than seven hotels and other exhibition spaces.) The Las Vegas Convention Center is a gargantuan building, each side nearly a quarter mile long, and it comfortably houses dozens of booths that are two stories high. To lay the network cable through the building was a physically demanding task. Then connections had to be made linking the cable to each of the participating booths. And the entire project had to be set up and operational in just 72 hours.

The purpose of the Comdex LAN was to demonstrate Advanced NetWare. Visitors to the show were invited to play MUT, a multi-user trivia game, on various different brands of PCs located in various booths and locations throughout the convention center. The program engaged multiple users in a race to answer multiple-choice trivia questions. Speed, accuracy, and a person’s score relative to the other players determined the winners. Ten prizes were awarded to the top 10 players on each day of the five-day show. The top three players each day received cash prizes ($100, $50, and $25) and all 10 winners received Novell T‑shirts.

A typical question was: “What did Benjamin Franklin advocate as the US National Symbol?” The choices were:

a. The bald eagle
b. The flying burrito
c. The turkey
d. The Frisbee

People loved it. MUT was a smashing success. It demonstrated some key features of Advanced NetWare, such as Master Edit, a program that edited the configuration and game information on a real-time basis without disturbing the game. And it brought people into the Novell booth.

When visitors showed up at the Novell booth, they were engaged by a number of different attractions. In one corner of the booth, five PCs were set up, each one containing the same 10-minute interactive LAN seminar on diskette. Nearby a large bookcase displayed packages of NetWare-compatible software applications, and next to the bookcase was an area where independent software vendors actually demonstrated their products. At the other end of the booth was a PC running the trivia game beside a television showing The Novell Story, a 10-minute video explaining Novell and NetWare. At another PC station, an e-mail program (developed by MAI/Basic Four) allowed visitors to send messages to other exhibitors on the network. At the center of the booth was a display showing demonstrations of Advanced NetWare. At the booth’s information desk, visitors could pick up a copy of a little eight-page newsletter called LAN Times.

All the elements of Novell’s marketing strategy were represented in its Comdex booth. The Comdex LAN, trivia game, and e-mail program demonstrated the concept of hardware independence. The large number of independent software developers who were demonstrating their products at Novell’s booth sent a message that numerous applications were compatible with NetWare and that Novell was eager to form alliances with other players in the industry. The educational video, the interactive diskette, and LAN Times showed Novell’s strategy of educating the industry.

The booth was an example of Judith’s flair for marketing communications. Although the ideas for the booth were contributed by many members of the management team, including SuperSet, Ray, and Craig, the execution fell mostly to Judith. The combination of video, LAN demonstration, trivia game, newsletter, bookcase, and educational seminars led by live people was more than just clever—it was devastatingly effective. The booth was a high-powered marketing communications device to match Novell’s high-powered marketing strategy.

The LAN Times newsletter distributed at Comdex was a seed that would ultimately grow into a multi-million-dollar industry magazine. The first issue was a rather crude affair, replete with typographical errors and produced in great haste on a low budget. It contained short articles on Novell’s Comdex activities, on Novell’s OEM partners, and on Novell’s strategy and philosophy. A one-page advertisement called “LAN Report 1”, aimed at independent software developers, described the Multiple User Software Licensing System (MUSLS). But for all its simplicity, the LAN Times was a popular item at the show and Judith resolved to do a few more issues.

On the first day of Comdex, Novell held a press conference. About 150 people were invited to hear Ray Noorda talk and to find out about Advanced NetWare. A fair number of people showed up, including many editors. Ever since IBM announced the file server–based PC Network Program in September, people were taking a second look at Novell and NetWare.

In addressing the audience, Ray focused on three key messages:

1) The IBM announcement had delivered the coup de grace to the LAN manufacturers who relied on disk server technology;

2) the Net­Ware Operating System offered, in effect, a standard solution to the problem of networking different proprietary LAN systems (and, inci­dentally, could be purchased as an OEM product);

3) by writing applications for NetWare, software developers could access not just Novell LANs but the entire LAN market. Novell was in a position to rescue all those LAN manufacturers and software developers who had bet on the wrong pony.

The following are excerpts from the version of Ray’s speech printed in the LAN Times newsletter. The article was prepared in advance of the press conference, before Ray had actually delivered his speech, hence the mix of past and future tenses.

Mr. Noorda commented that he has changed Novell’s 1984 slogan from “NetWare, Dedicated to SERVE all LANkind” to “NetWare, Dedicated to SAVE all LANkind.” Ray Noorda will announce a plan that will enable LAN vendors to standardize their networks so that they are IBM compatible and will run much faster with increased functionality, flexibility, and security.

Mr. Noorda stated, “Our commitment at Novell is to make LANs function as everyone intended them to with network operating systems that deliver optimum performance. We’ve created an operating system that provides a standard across all local area networks. And by implementing that standard, leading software suppliers can easily create multiuser PC software that runs on all popular LANs. At Novell we create systems that open up new areas of practical application for PC LANs. Because LANs are here to stay.”

By the end of 1984, Novell was shipping about $1.3 million per month.

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