Tomorrow, the crown jewel of all the technology industry’s expos will open its doors for the 46th year running. The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is huge: in 2012 a record 153,000 people descended on Las Vegas to cross-examine 3,100 exhibitors. In 2013 the tradeshow will be spread over four massive venues, including one of the largest convention centres in the world. And the media presence will be bigger than ever – The Verge, this year’s official technology news partner for CES, is sending more than 60 people alone and promising non-stop video coverage, live blogs from every major announcement, and a breaking-news show every 90 minutes for the duration of the four-day event.
The allure of CES is obvious: vendors big and small showing off the latest shiny innovations to eager crowds of consumers, industry representatives and the press. Pitching your product to the right passing retailer could land you a bulk deal worth millions; an interview with the right journalist could see your invention catapulted into the spotlight and lauded as the next big thing.
At least, in theory; for the reality is somewhat different. Herds of reporters and bloggers, exhausted from traipsing miles each day around the convention floor, stumble wearily from place to place, occasionally bouncing off the crowds that gather around the booths. A feverish blur of noise and colour assaults the senses, which are already dulled by the inevitable coughs, colds and headaches. Big corporate spenders are nowhere to be seen because the private sales pitches and deals have been agreed weeks in advance. The consumers themselves haven’t turned up because they can’t afford the flights and every media outlet in the western hemisphere is covering the show anyway. And the next big thing is neither announced nor discovered.
What’s more, the jewel has lost some of its sparkle. Apple, the world’s biggest technology company, has never exhibited at CES, instead preferring to hold its own MacWorld conference down the road at the same time. Microsoft, a CES loyalist for almost 20 years, announced that the 2012 show had been its last. It is unlikely that Google, the last of the giants left standing at the tradeshow, will announce anything major. Samsung, LG, Sony and Panasonic will continue to compete with one other for the largest floor space, only to fill it with the same smart TVs and 3D glasses.
The problem is that CES is a victim of its own popularity. Companies like Microsoft, Google and Apple, who can afford to put on their own events, save their major products for exclusive keynotes where they can be the centre of attention (Apple hasn’t been to MacWorld since 2009). The small companies nobody has ever heard of flock to CES only to get lost in the furor whence they continue not to be heard of – even those that get a lot of coverage at the time. Journalists and bloggers attend resignedly – after all, everyone else is going – even though they can’t possibly hope to cover everything. The term ‘consumer electronics’ gets stretched further every year as more companies vie to participate, with the result that CES now features everything from cars to tablets, microwaves to giant speakers. Even CES’ saving grace – its ability to indicate future industry trends, if not actually reveal that elusive next big thing – has waned in recent years during the post-iPad stagnation.
CES, much like any industry-standard necessity, is an event everyone loves to hate. But slowly and steadily the show is losing its lustre. Reducing the numbers and narrowing the focus could encourage bigger announcements as well as stop large exhibitors from just filling their booths with products everyone has seen before. Less clutter would also give smaller attendees more opportunity to be noticed and the media more chance to seek out the real gems. A good cut and polish could be beneficial for all involved.