Does CES Matter Anymore?

CES attracts thousands of attendees every year.

A few years back, an editor at a prominent technology publication pointed out what he saw as the central flaw of the Consumer Electronics Show, which brings hundreds of companies to Las Vegas every January. “PR reps tell these small companies that the best way to announce their product is to do it at CES,” he told me. “So you have all these tiny firms that bet everything on making a splash in the convention hall—only none of them have a chance to stand out.”

Meanwhile, the world’s biggest tech firms roll out CES booths so large and bright, they resemble the UFO at the climax of Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Intel, Microsoft, Samsung and Sony have all used CES to show off their flagship initiatives: ultra-books, Windows Phone, Android tablets, PlayStation, Kinect, 3D gaming, Windows 7.

But for companies large and small, the timing of the show was always somewhat problematic. The best time to debut new products is before the holiday shopping season: that’s why Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Nokia all rolled out their latest smartphones, tablets and operating systems last fall. By January, these companies are at the lowest ebb of a yearly cycle; as a result, the CES show floor offers a lot of prototypes and early versions—many of which never see the light of day.

For many years, Microsoft anchored CES with one of the largest booths. Either Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer gave the show’s opening keynote. But the company’s enthusiasm faded away over time; in late 2011, it announced that the 2012 edition of the show would be its last. Instead of using the final keynote to reveal some new product, Ballmer spent the bulk of his time onstage detailing the “Metro” interface that increasingly defines Microsoft’s mobile and PC software. To everyone watching in the auditorium, it was clear that Microsoft was holding its gunpowder in reserve for the Windows 8 debut much later that year.

Executives giving keynotes at CES 2013 include the CEO of Qualcomm, the president of Samsung’s Device Solutions Business, the president of Panasonic, and the chairman and CEO of Verizon. All big companies with a lot of interesting initiatives, true, but none will likely offer the sort of presentation that results in big headlines. Imagine if Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, or Apple CEO Tim Cook, decided to open the show with the unveiling of a new product—analysts would spend weeks picking over every word.

All of which begs the question: despite the flashy booths and untold numbers of exhibitors, is CES slated to go the way of COMDEX, another large tech conference that eventually faded away? After Microsoft made the very public decision to pull out of the show, many pundits and tech journalists suggested the answer could very well be “Yes.”

But prominent companies still count on CES to make a splash. As this year’s show opened, Nvidia rolled out the Nvidia Grid, a renamed-and-refreshed version of their GeForce Grid, a cloud-gaming platform; in addition, the company also announced the next-generation Tegra 4 microprocessor and “Project Shield,” a PlayStation Vita-like portable gaming device.

Other companies will also use the next few days to introduce some cutting-edge technology and build some buzz. So CES isn’t dead yet. But its future will depend on its ability to hold—and gain—prominent companies willing to use the week to roll out buzz-worthy products.

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