Technologizer

In Defense — More or Less — of CES

CES isn't a crisp snapshot of the state of the industry -- it's more of an incomplete data dump. But here's the thing: Imperfect though it is, frustrating though it can be, it's still valuable.

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Steve Marcus / Reuters

Claire Hobean, operations manager for Re-Time, models the Re-Timer during the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Jan. 9, 2013.

Like most of the technology journalists I know, I’m in Las Vegas this week to attend the International Consumer Electronics Show. Matt Buchanan is not. Over at BuzzFeed, he has explained why he thinks the venerable conference is no longer relevant, or at least not relevant enough to be worth the trek to Vegas.

A sampling of his reasoning:

By Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s reckoning, there are now four technology companies that truly matter to people: Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google. None of them are at CES. Apple’s last appearance was in 1992. Microsoft, which delivered the CES keynote for years, announced — before last year’s keynote, even — that it would not return in 2013. Its keynote spot is being taken over by Qualcomm, which is mostly known for making chips for phones, and its centerpiece booth now hosts Hisense, a state-owned Chinese manufacturer you probably haven’t heard of. There probably isn’t a more precise illustration of what’s happened to CES: The booth of the world’s biggest software company is now occupied by a company mostly noted for its production of cheap HDTVs that line the shelves of Walmarts across the country.And any event, by any of those five companies, announcing nearly anything — even the flops — is instantly more significant to consumers than practically anything announced at CES. iPhone. Kindle. Windows. Timeline. Project Glass.

Buchanan’s piece is a good read, and he makes a convincing case that CES is a fundamentally flawed enterprise.

But…

I’ve been attending humongous tech trade shows since Adam Osborne was alive and keynoting them. I attended my first CES in 1994 and have been to more than my share of Comdexes, IFAs, CEATECs, Mobile World Congresses and other CES-like events on multiple continents. Altogether, I must have spent more than a year of my life at them, which is enough to leave me wanting to plead for special dispensation when it comes time to chat with St. Peter.

And you know what? There was never a golden age of CES, or shows like CES — at least if what you wanted was a crystal-clear, comprehensive view of where the industry was, and where it was going.

Back in 2008, I wrote a piece for Slate in which I declared that CES was a lousy place to see the future of tech. I listed the reasons: the absence of Apple, the tendency of electronic companies to hype anything and everything, the way competition tends to devolve into mindless specsmanship, the extremely spotty record Microsoft and other companies had for correctly guessing what consumers would care about. I was at least as down on the whole exercise as Buchanan is.

But I still returned to the show in 2009, and every year since. And I expect to be here in 2014. Rather than finding CES to be a once-essential show which has lost its relevance, I think the current incarnation is largely similar to the previous editions Buchanan seems to think were much better. I find it similar to other big tech shows past and present, too.

Here’s why CES 2013 feels comfortably familiar to me — in ways both good and bad:

The crud is nothing new. Buchanan quotes The Verge’s Josh Topolsky bemoaning the “mass-produced Chinese garbage” and “Westinghouse TV” type products at CES. But there have always been aisles and aisles of these products, or their spiritual forebears, at tech trade shows. Sturgeon’s Law — that 90 percent of everything is crap — holds at least as true at the Las Vegas Convention Center as it does everywhere else. And it used to be worse: Back in the day, there was a section devoted to porn.

CES’s excessive hardware bias has always been an issue. Buchanan points out that hardware is pretty much a container for Facebook, Twitter, the App Store, iOS and Android — a state of affairs which is out of whack with CES’s traditional emphasis on physical goods rather than electrons. That was never not true, at least in the era of CES’s dominance as the tech industry’s event of events. (Which hasn’t been all that long — until the late 1990s, COMDEX, not CES, was the business’s flagship conference.)

There was no era when the show’s official version of the future was reliable. A few years ago, for two CESes in a row, I salivated over dazzling demos of a technology called SED TV. It never shipped. Even one of Buchanan’s examples of the good old days of CES — the launch of Palm’s ill-fated Pre phone — is a sobering reminder that being a big deal at CES guarantees nothing. You’ve always had to take the hype with a grain of salt the size of the Circus Circus sign.

Microsoft leaving CES isn’t that big a deal. Its big booth on the show floor was…well, big. But it was full of products which were already for sale, which meant that it wasn’t terribly scintillating. And the famous keynotes by Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer were an annual parade of SPOT watches and Portable Media Centers and Surface tablets and other products which failed to matter much. It’s possible that CES will actually be a slightly more accurate preview of tomorrow with diminished Microsoftian influence.

Hey, Microsoft is here. On Monday night, Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs, who replaced Steve Ballmer as the pre-show keynoter, welcomed a special guest: Steve Ballmer! The company also demoed Surface Pro for some journalists. And Windows 8 is everywhere, on a bevy of computers and tablets from companies which have formal presences at the show. (A Microsoft representative e-mailed me to make sure I knew about them.) Without paying for so much as a centimeter of real estate itself, Microsoft has a pervasive presence.

Maybe it should be called the Component Electronics Show. The companies which provide the technologies which power everybody else’s gadgets, such as Broadcom, are here in force, often in private meeting rooms tucked into the corner of the convention center rather than on the floor. They’re showing stuff they’re working on now which won’t be incorporated into consumer products for awhile — genuinely innovative items such as next-generation video-decompression chips. It’s a great sneak peek.

Shadow-CES is at least as good as CES. It’s the virtual show comprised of events which aren’t at the official conference space at the LVCC and Venetian — at nighttime press bashes such as Digital Experience and ShowStoppers, in hotel suites on and off the Strip and sometimes just out and about on random street corners. (Everywhere I go here, I run into interesting industry folk.) Shadow-CES is eclectic and satisfying; you could spend a worthwhile several days here in Vegas without ever formally “attending” CES.

We mock the Hisenses of the world at our own risk. Buchanan points out that the prime show space Microsoft once occupied is now home to cheap-TV maker Hisense, and says that’s emblematic of CES’s woes. But I’ve been going to electronics shows long enough to remember the days when Samsung was a low-rent maker of cheesy commodity products, and its presence at shows felt slightly embarrassing. I’m not predicting that a decade from now, Hisense will be a household name with a top-notch reputation. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if things panned out that way, though.

Again, there is much in Buchanan’s piece which I agree with. CES isn’t a crisp snapshot of the state of the industry — it’s more of an incomplete data dump. But here’s the thing: Imperfect though it is, frustrating though it can be, it’s still valuable. To riff on what Winston Churchill said about democracy, the show is the worst way to learn about what’s new in the tech industry…except for all the other ones.

MORE: Check out TIME Tech’s complete coverage of the Consumer Electronics Show

3 comments
BillPytlovany
BillPytlovany

It's funny you mentioned Westinghouse.  I couldn't help but notice all these new WestinghouseTV's suddenly on the market suddenly. While I think of Westinghouse as an old appliance company aren't they best known for  nuclear power plants?

Bill