Yes, it’s that time again. For the past week, hundreds of companies have been rolling out countless products at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) – or what I lovingly call “Geek Week.”
CES is the largest trade show in the U.S., with 140,000 attendees trekking to Las Vegas to push buttons, watch the blinking lights, feel the shiny plastic, and gaze at the huge, crystal clear screens. Yet, the clout of CES has clearly faded this year. There are few truly interesting and disruptive products being shown at CES 2013, only variations (and knockoffs) of the gadgets, software, and apps the big players have already created.
The biggest in players don’t show up
So what has happened? Microsoft didn’t attend this year, and instead counted on its manufacturing partners keep it front and center. When I’ve attended the conference, I always looked forward walking into the Main Hall with excitement to see Microsoft’s massive needs-its-own-ZIP-code booth. A CES without it is lacking. They did make an appearance during Qualcomm’s keynote, but it wasn’t the same.
But it’s not just Microsoft. Many of the big, industry-defining tech companies do not show up, either. Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Google all either did not have a booth or they didn’t make any major announcements. Instead, they have followed suit with Apple by holding a private event, an approach that lets them more closely control access and, by doing so, the messaging.
A hardware show in a software world
Part of the explanation is that CES is a hardware show trying to compete in an era where software matters more. Wired.com’s Mat Honan writes,
“The fact is, hardware doesn’t really matter. We buy phones because they have the apps we want. We buy TVs (or don’t) not only for picture quality, but because they are easy to use. We look for the gadgets that are compatible with our existing laptops, and will export data to the applications we already use. We live in a software-driven world. Hardware is merely the foundation that it is built upon.”
But I think the change is a more subtle than that. Hardware still matters, but CES is less of an event because innovation has shifted more to the software side. No longer does only the “biggest, fastest, and lightest” win consumers over. Consumers want devices that perform the best, are flexible and feature-rich, and have a digital ecosystem of apps and content. For example, many people don’t care about yet another “black slab of plastic smartphone X” because they all generally have the same things (e.g. front/rear camera, GPS, headphone jacks, etc.). Yes, they might be lighter or have a little bit better screen. What truly differentiates those devices is great software. Reliable, robust apps make our lives easier and more interesting. We want simple-to-use software that we can depend on, and we want it to integrate into all sorts of proven systems that we already have and already use.
CES was not and is not targeted primarily at the press or the public. Its main function is to get manufactures and retailers from around the world together to not only see the latest in tech, but to place orders in order to get distribution of these products. But by trying to court those other constituencies, CES is trying to be everything to everyone and it needs to reconsider. This circus can still have the sideshow, certainly, but it shouldn’t focus on it at the expense of the acts in the center ring.
Flickers of the gadget magic still exist
Still, CES has its moments. And it probably always will at some level because we will never stop loving the gadgets and gizmos that that make our lives louder, more shareable, and more fun. It’s often said in the industry that advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And there is nothing like that moment when you see that magic take hold of someone – their amazement and amusement at a new technology in action. As long as there are still pockets of that magic to be found, CES will still be a draw.
So was there still magic this year? Of course. I was asked by KCTV5 to share my Top 5 from this year’s 2013 CES. Here’s what I told them:
[UPDATE] Here are some of my favorites from CES this year:
World’s Thinnest Watch – CST-01
Bi-Directional Wireless Charging
Canon “Instagram” Camera
Snapgrid “iPhone” Camera Controller
FaceCase Swivel “Virtual Try On” Technology
Samsung Flexible Displays
FitBit Flex Activity Tracker
Razor Edge Gaming Tablet
“Luggage Tracker” TrakDot