I’ll hazard a guess that when the final figures are tallied, around five thousand people will have made the annual pilgrimage to the Networks For Business Show, held this year in a small corner of the desert of echoing hangers that make up Birmingham’s NEC.
For those of you not acquainted with the show, it has been the UK’s premier networking and IT event since the beginning of LAN time, unofficially sometime around the middle of the 1980s.
That’s impressive staying power for a show that has successfully stepped over the corpses of the multitude of other business computing shows that found themselves suddenly dumped on the ‘no longer profitable’ scrapheap.
But judging by this week's events (or rather complete lack of them) the Networks Show (as it is better known) has finally run out of road. If the rumour-mongers are well informed – and we believe they might be – this week’s show could turn out to be the last.
If the organisers end up claiming more than five thousand people attended the event (we’ll remain sceptical), that’s still dramatically down for a show that could pack out several halls of the NEC only four or five years ago. The line-up of vendors was miserable too. Most of the big players have long since deserted the floor, leaving never-say-die independents such as Extreme Networks, Foundry and Trapeze (behold a new name) to showcase their next-generation switches with integrated wireless, the only technology anybody seemed willing to make a noise about.
Should we care?
If you live in London or its surrounds, you’ll likely appreciate not having to make another early-morning train journey, at unfathomable expense (£64.00 return, expect to stand part of the way), by public ashtray to Birmingham International. You’ll also probably not miss the clammy sandwiches on white bread at £4.00 a go, or the tepid cups of British station char that taste like a parrot's bath water.
Some will blame the downturn for the fate of Networks for Business – Networld+Interop in the US has had to cut its frequency for example - but I’d suggest there’s more to it than that. It’s not that the vendors are no longer willing or able to write big cheques for tiny stands. It’s that they no longer need to. The industry has changed in structure, with vendors such as Cisco at least temporarily dominant. If you happen to rival one of the large IT and software vendors taking a stand at a show will no longer make a noticeable difference to the bottom line.
The future lies with smaller, more targeted shows that look to a new landscape of security, storage, operating systems and (eventually) wireless even. These shows will not be held in the NEC, which is too big and expensive to make a constrained business model work. Like it or not, they will mostly be held in London or not at all.
The downfall of the Networks Show tells us something about what happens when an event on longer defines a community of people and becomes, as did the Networks Show in the mid-1990s, about the selling or PR chain - when the selling stops and nobody has much to say there is no longer a reason to carry on. Rather like the industry it has tried to serve, a once-great event simply forgot how to make an exhibition of itself.