Technologizer

In Praise — Yes, Praise! — of CES

The annual gadgetfest in Vegas is incomplete, exasperating, archaic -- and essential.

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Clockwise from top left: scenes from the 1967, 1980 and 2013 CES exhibition floors

It’s never been difficult to find people eager to say terrible things about International CES, the consumer electronics industry’s annual megaconference in Las Vegas. Last year’s show, according to one pundit, was a joke. Another said it was increasingly irrelevant. Then there’s the guy who admitted that he’d never attended CES — but who still felt qualified to dismiss it as a “relic in the desert.”

Even Nick Wingfield of the New York Times politely wrote about CES’s relevance being called into question — in a story that echoed the gist of a Times piece from 2008 calling the show “sometimes ineffectual.”

Me, I’d describe all of the fifteen-or-so editions of CES I’ve attended with the same words: chaotic, crowded, exhausting and strange. But I don’t mean those as criticisms. They’re demonstrable statements of fact about a show I don’t mind admitting that I like attending and find valuable. I expect them to hold true for CES 2014, which officially starts next Tuesday after several days of pre-show press conferences and other related events.

Even as a non-CES-hater, I acknowledge that enormous trade shows, as a category, have an old-timey feel to them in the Internet age, and that if CES ever falters, it might wither away quickly. In 2011, when Microsoft announced that it was ending its traditional CES keynote and removing itself from the show floor, I recalled the sad fate of the COMDEX show, which went from filling 1.35 million square feet of Vegas exhibition space to not existing in just seven years.

Two years later, though, there’s no real evidence that CES faces any comparable existential crisis. Last year’s show included 1.92 million square feet of exhibits, the most ever. “This year, we’re bigger,” says Gary Shapiro, the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, the trade organization that produces the show. “That’s all we’re saying, but we’re definitely bigger.”

CES has gotten so huge because it is, as Shapiro outs it, “whatever we define it to be.” When I ask him what this year’s hot categories are, he tells me that nine of the top ten car companies will be at the show, and three companies will be demonstrating self-driving vehicles. He notes that the show had to expand its 3D printing section three times, and features 200 gaming-related exhibitors. He mentions wearable gadgets, educational tech, health devices and something called MEMS (Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems) technology.

Shapiro has so much to cover, in fact, that he forgets to mention TV — CES’s bread and butter all the way back to the first show, in 1967 — until I ask about it. Oh yeah: “Ultra HD is huge,” he says.

Of course, the fact that CES is about anything and everything is not automatically a virtue. Six years ago, I wrote a piece about the show’s lack of focus and sagely advised the CEA to give it more coherence by putting it through an intentional downsizing. The organization has done no such thing, and I’ve come to enjoy the event for the messy, over-the-top, Vegas-sized all-you-can eat technological buffet that it is.

Many of the knocks against CES are true. Does the absence of Apple, the industry’s single most influential company, leave it fundamentally incomplete? Sure. Is it true that other companies tend to avoid the CES cacaphony for their most significant announcements, revealing major products at their own Apple-style events, on their own schedules? Absolutely.

I also wrestle with the event’s traditional early-January timeframe, which is out of whack with an industry that unveils so many of its most newsworthy items during the last few months of the year. (CES’s European archrival, IFA, takes place in Berlin in September.) For the record, Shapiro says that the show has its dates locked into place for the next couple of decades, and that its sheer enormity makes it tough to move: “I like the dates, I like the time. It’s a simultaneous equation with a thousand other shows in Las Vegas, and we’re the first.” He also lets me in on his “secret theory” that people, after spending the holidays with family and dealing with wintery weather, like to get away to Las Vegas.

A CES that took place in the fall, with Apple on the show floor, would be tidier. But even in its current form, it’s the least imperfect snapshot we have of the industry, and the best place to see, touch and try an awful lot of products at once.

To me, the most serious charge against the show — which I made in that aforementioned six-year-old story — is that it doesn’t provide a clear view of where consumer electronics are going. The fact that the industry is giddy over something new has never been a sign that consumers will love it: For instance, real people pigheadedly refused to give a hoot about 3D TV even after several consecutive CES shows’ worth of hoopla for it. (When we talked, Shapiro brought up that technology mostly to deny that he’d ever had much faith in it himself.)

Nowadays, I tend to accept CES’s fuzzy view of the future as inevitable. It’s also a reminder of an eternal verity about the consumer electronics business: Tech companies build supercomputers with eyes, ears and instant access to all the world’s information and put them in our pockets for a reasonable price — a stunning achievement that we take for granted. A decade from now, they’ll be doing stuff we can’t even imagine; whatever it is, we’ll take it for granted, too.

Yet it turns out that it’s the “electronics” in “consumer electronics” that’s the easy part. What’s tough is getting into the minds of consumers, understanding what they want and the forms that they want it in. As long as you don’t get caught up in all the irrational exuberance, CES provides a unique close-up view of the industry’s ongoing attempt to figure out its customers.

I find that fascinating, even when the products themselves aren’t inspiring. And I feel sorry for my fellow tech reporters and pundits who don’t think it’s worth a few days of their time, once a year. They’ll get more sleep than I will next week — but they won’t know the business they cover quite as well.

MORE: Check out TIME Tech’s complete CES coverage

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