Consumer Electronics No-Shows

Why the giant tech conference is a lousy place to see the future of tech.

Also in Slate, Paul Boutin says he’s disappointed in the ultraslim new laptop that Steve Jobs debuted at Apple’s Macworld Expo.

Bill Gates plays Guitar Hero as Slash plays a real guitar

For years, the gargantuan Consumer Electronics Show has opened with Bill Gates sharing his vision of the future of personal technology. The Microsoft chairman’s presentations always attract throngs of conventioneers and plenty of press coverage. His futuristic visions, though, haven’t usually come to pass. Windows Smart Displays, which he touted in 2003? Dead within a year. SPOT smart watches and Portable Media Centers (2004)? Never popular; now defunct. The MTV-branded Urge music service (2006)? Folded into Real’s Rhapsody in mid-2007. It’s enough to leave you placing bets against the Surface touch-sensitive table and Sync car computer, two of the products Gates demoed in his swan-song speech last week. (His move to full-time philanthropy will end the keynote tradition.)

The failure of Gates’ presentations to spawn the next big thing is a fitting kickoff for CES. The show’s 2008 edition filled 1.85 million square feet of Vegas exhibition space with the latest gadgets and gizmos, providing an excellent freeze frame of where the industry is right now. But CES has never been a reliable roadmap for where consumer electronics are going.

Gates gets to be the centerpiece at CES in large measure because Steve Jobs skips the whole affair. Apple’s CEO does his January product introductions at Macworld Expo, a show where he is the show. (Full disclosure: Both that conference and PC World, my employer, are owned by International Data Group.) Considering that Apple has set the tech-industry agenda in recent years, Jobs’ absence from CES leaves a gaping hole in the Las Vegas desert.

Last year, perverse scheduling put CES and Macworld head-to-head, allowing Jobs to trump the rest of the industry by unveiling the iPhone in San Francisco during the second morning of CES. This year, Macworld came the week after CES. None of the news—a bizarrely thin notebook, movie rentals through iTunes, an upgrade to Apple TV that turns it from computer peripheral into a stand-alone box—was an iPhone-like bombshell. But Jobs still provided a slicker, more coherent picture of where the digital world is headed than anyone at CES.

Back in Vegas, most of the real news is about incremental improvements—products that are a bit better and a bit cheaper than those we saw last year. Nobody wants to admit that. So everyone from genuinely inventive giants such as Toshiba and Texas Instruments to also-rans like COBY tosses around words like innovative in the ad banners that plaster the Las Vegas Convention Center.

To be fair, there are some innovations to be found among the infinite aisles of iPod accessories and cell-phone cases. Toshiba’s sprawling exhibit, for instance, played host to demos of an upcoming Qosmio notebook that uses an impressive chip called the SpursEngine—a cousin of the PlayStation 3’s potent Cell processor—to whip through processor-intensive tasks such as preparing digital video for editing.

Oftentimes, though, what’s displayed as “innovation” will never be ready for prime time. Toshiba also had a mock-up of a tablet computer, based on Microsoft’s Ultra-Mobile PC spec, that’s powered by a fuel cell rather than a battery. The company wouldn’t say when such a device might ship, which is just as well: I’d be startled if even its engineers believe that the misbegotten UMPC platform will still exist by the time fuel cells become a commercial reality.

Hoopla-induced specsmanship that doesn’t have much to do with consumer benefit runs rampant at CES. Hitachi’s entire marketing message was focused around a line of LCD HDTVs that are 1.5-inch thick; the company must have been chagrined to discover that Panasonic’s booth had a plasma with a profile of less than an inch. Presumably, both companies hope that I conclude that my own HDTV, less than six months old and 4.9-inches thick, is embarrassingly zaftig. But why should anyone obsess over the one dimension of a TV set that you can’t see when the set’s in use?

Thin may have been in at CES 2008, but the fiercest competition among TV manufacturers is always over who has the show’s largest flat screen. It’s usually a game of inches: Last year, Panasonic had a 103-inch plasma, while Sharp showed off a 108-inch plasma nearby. This year, however, Panasonic unveiled a 150-inch plasma, boasting a staggering 42 more inches of screen than the next largest set I saw. As with previous winners of the CES screen real-estate derby, both its six-figure price tag and towering size render it more of a technological stunt than a breakthrough consumer product.

Even when promising products are meant for your living room and mine, it pays to keep your enthusiasm in check. In 2006, attendees queued up at the Canon and Toshiba booths to see TVs based on SED (surface-conduction electron-emitter display), a technology that delivered impressively crisp detail and vivid colors. In 2007, there were no SED demos, but the sets were still slated to show up later that year. Today, nobody’s predicting when SED will hit store shelves—and the CES hype machine has moved on to OLED, a different technology that was on display this year in prototype TVs from Sony and Samsung.

Increasingly, CES’ very success reduces the chance that major innovations will debut there. The 41-year-old conference now encompasses almost anything a consumer might buy that has an on-off switch—one booth in the main hall was hawking Hello Kitty hair crimpers. On account of the show’s wide net, lots of manufacturers choose to release major products at specialty events such as the PMA digital photography show and the wireless industry’s Mobile World Congress, both of which are less than a month away. End result: Many of the cameras and phones on display at CES will be rendered obsolete within weeks.

Of course, just about everything that’s wrong with CES is endemic to every massive trade show. As the 2008 edition of CES wore on and attendees’ feet got sorer, more and more folks groused that the show has grown too massive and diffuse to fulfill its mission. I heard a lot of people comparing the present state of CES to COMDEX, the one-time behemoth of Vegas tech shows. That conference grew ever more expansive and undisciplined, peaked in 2000, and started to crumble with the 2001 edition, held two months after Sept. 11. When companies and convention-goers discovered they could get by without attending COMDEX, they did so in droves. Two years later, the show met its demise, and the industry was grateful to be rid of it.

If CES’ organizers want to avoid COMDEX’s fate, they’d be smart to put the show through an intentional downsizing that leaves it a more coherent preview of what’s next for entertainment technology. Perhaps they will. But right now it seems more likely that 2008’s edition will begin with Steve Ballmer running through a few Microsoft products that won’t go much of anywhere. And that Steve Jobs, once again, will put on a better consumer electronics show than the folks who run the Consumer Electronics Show.