Who Killed CES?

When I touched down at JFK last Thursday I started thinking about why I felt so dissatisfied on this trip to CES. I put those dread thoughts into the back of my mind as I fought off a CES-induced stomach flu all weekend but now that I’m fresh and seemingly five pounds lighter I finally have some time to work things out.

When I started covering CES — I guess it was five years ago, although I missed one last year — I would go with few expectations. I knew that CE makers were slow to innovate and skittish, so every little thing was important. A few years ago HD-DVD and Blu-Ray were still gleams in the big boys’ eyes. HD TV sets were unique and fancy, future tech that only plutocrats and the inherently foolish could afford. And MacWorld, which usually came after CES, was cool but had no real cachet. Ohhhh… A new iPod. Oh, fancy… a Mac Mini. Thanks, Steve, but no thanks. We’ll pick up an Alienware and a Creative MP3 player, thank you very much.

This year the CG team hit the floor and looked around. I was immediately struck by the similarities to the floor I saw two years ago. HD-DVD and Blu-Ray? Check. HDTV? Check. Oddly-shaped PCs? Check. MP3 players with no real market share? Check. The future is Vista? Check.

Walking around I grew disillusioned. Josh took quite a few meetings and saw some exciting stuff — which we’re hoping he posts soon — but the rest of us tried to see the show from ground level. And we didn’t see anything. I racked my brain to name something amazing or “Best Of” at the show and I couldn’t. I was frustrated as I left and I’m still frustrated.

Did Apple kill CES? No. They steamrolled the news cycle during CES, shutting down almost every other manufacturer. But as sexy as the iPhone it’s still just a Sidekick 3 with a really nice touchscreen. I’ll cancel my T-Mobile account to get one, but that’s neither here nor there.

Did a technology slow-down kill CES? No. There is no technology slow-down. Unfortunately, technology can’t keep up with economics. I can’t buy a $4,000 Sony video-editing machine or a $2,500 round PC. I can’t pick up a 108-inch HD LCD TV. I’ve already bought all the TV I’m going to need for the next 10 years and all the computing power I’m going to need for the next 2 years — and I’m a special case. Double those numbers for the average consumer and you see what CE makers are up against. The new technology wasn’t boring, but they couldn’t feature it because everyone already bought what they were going to buy for the next few years. They’re having enough trouble convincing folks to pick up HD disc formats, let alone get rid of the VHS player.

Did we biased and bored journalists kill CES? No. The biggest story out of CES was Amanda Congdon getting Tased. There was very little to work with here.

What killed CES this year — and conceivably well into the future — was its size and overreach. The days of the trade show are essentially over, at least for the younger generation of electronics companies. The old guys always like getting into Vegas, setting up a big honking booth, and drinking on the company credit card. The little guys can’t afford it. CES has become an old-boys club and the club has gotten stale. Everything on the floor was months old and of little news value. Even the little guys, the iNinjaCasePod guys selling speakers over the in the corner, were hawking junk from last January. Thanks to sites like this one and a few others who shall remain nameless, the news cycle has been reduced from months to minutes. I know this only applies to folks who read these aforementioned sites, but trust us, lots of you do.

Here are our top five suggestions for making CES worth the trip. Will they be implemented? No. Will the show keel over in the next five years like a 400-pound divorcee at the Bellagio casino? Absolutely.

1. Get Rid of Car Audio – Just scratch that whole hall. Make a special CES Car Audio Special Event in June. Bring back the hot car audio babes and let the car audio people be car audio people.
2. Announce Innovations on the First Day, Not Five Months in Advance – Every gadget blog loves CES Innovations Awards. This shill-a-thon allows manufacturers to “release” their products much earlier than usual and essentially blows the entire CES wad in October. Make these awards count and give us something cool to look at and think about on opening day.
3. Release something, manufacturers! – And don’t make us hunt those items down. Explain to the world why you matter at the biggest CE show in North America. Otherwise you’re just building a massive Sears store in Las Vegas, and no one wants that.
4. Remember the Journos – Buyers are your life blood, but buyers go to CES so they can hang in Vegas, not so they can buy your junk. A good buyer already has your catalog, has already talked to your sales team, and already has their purchase order on their desk back in the Bronx. I approached the Vista tent last week after having had an appointment for a few weeks prior and was turned away. Not good form, MS. This happened repeatedly at many booths, with blonde beauties unable to find appointments or PR people or even fathom that such animals existed. Maybe this all economics — journos don’t buy — but journos make or break your year, kids.
5. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – CES is huge. The booths are huge. Everything is huge. Reduce the cool stuff to one corner of the booth and don’t overwhelm us with your majesty. Kick out some of the parasites inside your booth — MS probably had 50 little companies inside their booth, all “solutions providers” — and let us know what’s going to be hot next year, not what was hot since 1997.

These suggestions are fairly limited in scope and value, I agree. They’re just some things I’ve been mulling over this weekend. I tell myself every year that I’m not going back to CES. It’s an exhausting endeavor. However, this year I actually mean it. It’s a frustrating show with little news value and I just don’t think I can take another year.