A year ago, Steve Ballmer took the stage of the Consumer Electronics Show to tout a technology that he promised would change the world: the Windows operating system. Newcomers to CES might have been baffled by this choice; Windows 7 had been on the market for several months, so why was the Microsoft CEO showing it off now, at a show that is supposed to focus on the tech industry’s best new stuff?
CES veterans, though, took the Ballmer keynote in stride. An annual disquisition on the awesomeness of Windows is just one of many annoying CES traditions. This time, Ballmer wanted to show how amazing it was that you can get Windows on lots and lots of different kinds of computers. I thought this was the point of Windows, but never mind. Ballmer pulled out a prototype of the Slate, a small tablet PC made by Hewlett-Packard, and he half-heartedly slid his finger across the screen to show that you could use it as an e-book reader. The demo lasted about 15 seconds. The HP Slate was delayed for much of the rest of the year.
I don’t mean to single out Microsoft, because it is merely the worst offender in the overcrowded, overstuffed, chaotic, and profoundly pointless vaporware parade known as CES. That’s why I’m skipping this year’s show, which begins this week in Las Vegas. Every major tech company follows the same tired CES script: They put on by-the-book press conferences that begin with lots of demos of stuff we already know about—count on Intel, for instance, to always show you how fast its new chips are (hint: faster than last year’s chips). Next, with all the fanfare of the Second Coming, tech giants offer a few incremental improvements to old products. (Look, Microsoft improved the Surface computer!) Finally, they show off things like the HP Slate—gadgets in very early stages of development that have been rushed to the show and barely work as prototypes, with little chance of actually getting to market anytime soon.
The fact that CES is an enormous waste of time isn’t news to tech journalists. In private, gadget reporters will tell you that covering the show is a tremendous hassle and rarely yields any interesting news. But because CES demos make for great headlines and visuals—hey look, Steve Ballmer unveiled a tablet PC even before Apple did!—and because of the sheer volume of new stuff to post about, CES is a boon for gadget blog traffic and a honeypot for advertisers. To be sure, I’m very grateful that my reporting colleagues are all out covering the show; in the unlikely event that something of consequence is announced at CES, I’ll happily scour Engadget, Gizmodo, and other sites from the comfort of my home.
But I doubt that’s going to happen. The last time we saw something interesting unveiled at CES was in 2009, when Palm showed off its Pre phone. (The Pre didn’t actually go on sale until June that year.) But that was a rarity. Most of the groundbreaking products to hit the market over the last few years—the iPhone, the iPad, the Kindle, the first Android phone, the Chrome OS, and pretty much everything else—were announced elsewhere. Apple always skips CES, and even the companies that attend seem to phone it in. Microsoft’s two great products of 2010—the new Windows Phone and the Xbox Kinect—were nowhere to be seen at last year’s show.
Instead of news about real products, CES delivers bogus trends. Reporters inundated with press releases about mediocre products are forced to fit all the tidbits into a coherent storyline—this year has been crowned the Year of the Tablet, while last year was the Year of the 3-D TV, and the year before was the Year of Internet TV. These labels are so transparently fake that they’re not even worth criticizing; if last year was really the year of 3-D TV, how come almost nobody purchased them?
So, why is CES so dependably dreary? It’s the curse of that old Yogi Berra joke—nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded. If you’re a big tech company with something truly great to push, you’d be foolish to tell the world at CES. Reporters will have a hard time fitting you in to their hectic schedules. And even if you do get someone to pay attention, your grand announcement will garner, at best, two or three blog posts before the news gets buried under the next hour’s news of new iPhone charging docks or snappy USB drives. We can see this effect right now: On Wednesday night, Motorola announced a new version of the Droid and the Xoom, a 10-inch Android tablet. But those stories have already been shuffled off the tech world’s radar. As of Thursday morning, the top story on Techmeme—an aggregator site that rounds up the most-covered tech news—was Apple’s announcement that it had opened up the new Mac App Store. How did Apple generate all that coverage? Its PR department in Cupertino, Calif.—about 500 miles away from the hubbub of CES—published a press release.
And that suggests why CES is ultimately—and thankfully—doomed. Sprawling trade shows are a vestige of a bygone era in tech media. Back before companies could easily distribute their news online—and before there were dozens of tech news outlets with reporters posted all over the world—the industry needed to put on these monstrosities to show off their gear. But nowadays most companies can summon a couple hundred reporters to a venue and show off a new product in peace. With a few well-written blog posts, a stylish product site, and a live-stream of the launch event, a tech outfit can win headlines at any time of the year. Pulling out of annual conferences also frees firms to develop gadgets at their own pace. Apple ditched the annual MacWorld conference for precisely this reason—the company didn’t see why it had to announce its products in the first week of January if they weren’t quite ready then. Now Apple announces its stuff whenever it wants. And you know what happens when it does? People pay attention. No trade show required.