IBM'S GERSTNER MAKES COMDEX KEYNOTE DEBUT

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A few years ago, troubled IBM Corp. pitched "A whole new shade of blue" as its Comdex theme. When the computer industry's greatest show on earth opens today, IBM will spin a whole new shade of Lou.

IBM Chairman-CEO Louis V. Gerstner Jr., who jumped from RJR Nabisco two years ago, today will make his first keynote speech at a major computer show, talking about "network-centric" computing. Having lost the desktop software wars to Microsoft Corp., IBM wants to convince the world the new battle is in computer networking.

For his debut, Mr. Gerstner is skipping the glitz and futuristic demos standard for keynotes at the Comdex circus.

"The words will take precedence over pyrotechnics," a spokesman said.

Big Blue's image is red hot, courtesy of an image makeover conceived by VP-Corporate Marketing Abby Kohnstamm and Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, New York. Still, what Mr. Gerstner and IBM do at Comdex is critical: IBM's personal computer business remains shaky. And Mr. Gerstner must still prove the value of his pricey acquisition of Lotus Development Corp.

As 200,000-plus visitors descend on Las Vegas for the biggest of all U.S. conventions, the computer industry, too, is a mix of soaring and souring. The Internet, a key focus at this year's Comdex, is accelerating demand for faster, more powerful PCs.

Computer sales also are booming, with growing home and international sales making up for the maturing U.S. business PC market. Microsoft's Windows 95 is helping drive sales of PCs and software applications. Intel Corp.'s new Pentium Pro chip will show up in top-of-the-line servers and PCs, pushing the old Pentium down into the mainstream of business.

But there are troubling signs, too. Profit margins are skidding. Amid the boom, such big names as Compaq Computer Corp., Intel and Apple Computer are holding the line on ad spending. IBM is actually cutting the size of its Comdex booth compared with last year. Novell is ceding defeat in software applications, putting WordPerfect up for sale and giving less reason for dominant Microsoft to continue its massive ad spending on Microsoft Office.

One of the most profitable players in the industry over the past year is a company that got in and out: Forstmann, Little & Co. made nearly $700 million off its one-year run with Ziff-Davis Publishing Co., the largest U.S. computer magazine publisher. Japan's Softbank Corp., having bought Comdex for $800 million last spring, just paid $2.1 billion for Ziff.

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