I’ve heard tell of people predicting the weather through achy joints. CES isn’t all that different. You get a sixth sense about the show once you’ve been to a few.
A few weeks before the show starts, as families are settling in to their holiday meals, you get a slight throb in your bones, telling you whether this CES will be a memorable one — or if it will be another six weeks of winter.
All signs ahead of this year’s show pointed to a lackluster offering, and things proceeded accordingly over the course of the past week. Having covered so damn many of these things, I did a gut check with several people in the intervening days to make sure that it wasn’t just a case of crusty old blogger syndrome — but the reaction appears pretty much universal: CES 2018 was an in-between year, at best.
From a product standpoint, the event will be remembered for Google’s media blitzkrieg, papering the whole of Las Vegas with Assistant ads to rival the likes of Celine Dion and David Copperfield. It was clear well before the event kicked off that smart assistants would dominate the show. Amazon had a decent showing, but Google won by sheer brute force.
But beyond a handful of smart displays (only a couple of which were actually pictured at the event), it’s hard to imagine any of them being too memorable a couple of weeks out. The real take-aways from this year’s event were the sideshows.
There was the act of God — the worst rain storm in the city on that day in 73 years. The weather resulted in 127 car crashes and one soaking wet Google booth. It also led to the single most memorable CES moment in recent history, when the following day, residual water led to an hours-long blackout in the Las Vegas Convention Center.
There also was the GoPro CEO trying to put on a happy face in the immediate wake of massive layoffs for the company. Or Intel and everyone else dealing with the whole Spectre/Meltdown situation. That had echoes of the IFA two years back, when Samsung attempted to soldier on in the aftermath of a Note 7 recall. It’s really hard to put up appearances when you’re also attempting to stem the bleeding.
See also: Huawei’s media event. If I’m being honest, we had a long conversation ahead of time with regards to whether it was actually worth attending this year. I’m glad I did. Not for any particularly product-related reason — the company revealed a router and pricing for an already announced phone.
But instead, because executive Richard Yu channeled Howard Beale in the waning moments of his keynote, excoriating U.S. carriers for not playing ball when, “We’ve won the trust of the Chinese carrier. We’ve also won spots on all of the European carriers.” It’s hard to blame the guy for not keeping his cool when a long-awaited deal with AT&T seemingly fell through last second.
CES took a backseat as the big tech stories for the week continued to focus on things like the ever-changing price of Bitcoin. Samsung, which like LG had revealed most of its news well in advance of the event, made its bigger splash when mobile chief DJ Koh told an audience that the Galaxy S9 is coming next month at Mobile World Congress. That, after all, is when people announce phones — either that or at their own event. A week after CES, can you name any new phones from the event off the top of your head? I’m having trouble.
Sony’s press conference came and went with little fanfare, as well. The only thing anyone really talked about was Aibo. The robot dog was adorable, sure, but like so much of what was at the event, it wasn’t new.
Even Eureka Park, the startup pavilion that has been a saving grace for the show as bigger players have moved away, was a fairly lackluster spectacle. I was about ready to toss my malfunctioning laptop out a window if I got one more pitch for a STEM robot toy that teaches kids how to code.
Maybe it was just an off-year. This show ebbs and flows like the industry itself. The CTA called this year’s show a “record breaker,” with the largest aggregate show floor size in its 51-year history. Sadly, this time out, that didn’t equate to much excitement. Maybe John is right, and a change of scenery would do it some good. Or maybe the era of the big tech show is reaching its conclusion. It’s probably some combination of all of the above.
The CTA would no doubt like to put the rainstorms, black outs and executive improv behind them — but at the very least, they offered up something memorable this year.