It’s an Apple-Google-Microsoft World — CES Just Lives In It

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Doug Aamoth / TIME

I don’t buy the notion that the Consumer Electronics Show is dead or dying, if only because the Samsungs, Sonys and LGs of the world need a place where they can peacock on a grand stage — and Las Vegas is ideal.

But over my last three years of covering the show, I’ve realized these gadget makers can’t do much to make CES exciting. That responsibility falls to Apple, Google and Microsoft, regardless of whether or not they pay for a booth or deliver a keynote.

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I should have figured this out at CES 2010. Around that time, speculation about an Apple tablet had reached unbearable levels, and nearly everyone expected it to be expensive. I figured at least a few reputable device makers would preempt Apple with their own tablet designs at CES, but instead they hung back, waiting to see how Apple would blow them away with the iPad a few weeks later. The couple of tablets I did see at the show were barely usable prototypes that never made it to market.

Come CES 2011, again I mistakenly thought this would be the year of the tablet. The iPad had enjoyed nine months of unrivaled success, so device makers should have come to the show with plenty of answers. Again, that wasn’t the case, because Google wasn’t ready. Honeycomb, the version of Android that would be optimized for tablets, was a couple months from launch, and only Motorola was allowed to show a tablet with an early, half-working version of the software installed. Some tablet makers demoed hardware without the proper tablet software, but most held off entirely. Another bust.

This year, there would be no excuses, right? The source code for Android Ice Cream Sandwich allows any company to put tablet-ready software on their own hardware, so I braced myself for a tablet glut. Once again, the scene was dead. Samsung didn’t announce any new devices beyond a couple that had already launched overseas. Same goes for Toshiba. Sony and Motorola didn’t bring any new tablets either. What happened? My best guess is that tablet makers, discouraged by slow sales of Android slates, are now waiting for Windows 8.

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I’m not just talking about tablets, though. You could also see the shadows of Apple, Google and Microsoft on televisions, a CES mainstay. Samsung was dabbling in gesture and voice controls and LG added voice commands to one of its smart TV remotes — all nods to Kinect and perhaps to Apple’s Siri. Vizio joined those two companies in announcing new sets with Google TV integrated. But even these improvements smacked of the typical gadget maker’s compulsion: more features, more apps, more bells and whistles. What was sorely lacking was a vision to tie all those apps and features into one seamless experience. Maybe next year, when Google TV is more fleshed out and perhaps an Apple TV has provided more inspiration for competitors.

As for smartphones, the improvements at the show — better cameras, higher pixel counts and 4G LTE everywhere — were all too predictable. And the show’s most exciting phone, Nokia’s Lumia 900, was exciting primarily because of what it meant for Microsoft. Even the cool futuristic stuff I saw, such as Tobii’s eye-tracking technology, won’t amount to much unless it gets built into future operating systems.

All of this is a really long-winded way of saying software has become way more important for technology innovation than hardware, and the gadget makers of CES will forever be shackled by that notion. I’ll still enjoy going to the show — and I hope that playing with previously-unseen tech toys never gets old for me — but it’s no longer the best way to figure out where technology is headed. Apple, Google and Microsoft have their own industry events for that.

Of course, there’s a chance that next year, whatever the software makers are working on will align perfectly with CES, and the show will be an amazing display of technology’s future. But by now, I should know better.

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