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CES Is Not What You Think It Is

The big show goes on, but it's not where most big game-changers get launched.

Lauren Goode

Almost everyone in or near the tech industry knows that, every January, a monster event called the Consumer Electronics Show takes over Las Vegas for about a week. It’s one of the biggest trade shows in the country, and it dumps something like an extra 150,000 souls into the city, making everything from bathrooms to cab lines miserably crowded. I am one of them and I was there, yet again, this week.

All those folks descend on Las Vegas to peruse miles of trade show booths full of electronic gadgets, from giant TVs to tiny earbuds; to court customers and vendors; and maybe do a little gambling and partying. There are even tours of the massive show floor for visitors from outside of the industry, led by perky guides carrying pennants, kind of like the ones you see when busloads of tourists alight at the Eiffel Tower (the real one, not the copy down the road in Vegas).

But outside of the world of regular CES attendees, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about the big show. Lots of tech aficionados, investors, and just plain citizens imagine that CES is the place where the most important, trend-setting, society-impacting new tech products are unveiled.

It isn’t.

To read or watch some of the media coverage of the show, it might seem as though the entire tech and electronics industry worked all year to prepare sensational new things just to launch at CES.

They don’t.

In fact, while CES has plenty of value for the tech industry — just as every industry’s big trade show does — it simply isn’t the stage where the most important new things debut.

In the 22 years I’ve been attending CES — and a now-defunct, similarly huge Vegas tech trade show called Comdex — I have seen hundreds or thousands of new products introduced. But most have been incremental improvements on existing hits, elaborations on existing trends, accessories for hardware that debuted earlier and elsewhere, or ideas that went nowhere.

Save one, all of the biggest, game-changing products during my CES tenure were introduced to the world at other events, away from the cacophony of CES. Their creators chose to reveal them at times that are far more propitious in the annual tech sales cycle than in January, right after the big holiday season and months away from the important back-to-school season.

Did the iPod debut at CES? Nope. How about Windows 95? Nope. Google search, Facebook, the iPad, the first Android phone? Nope, nope, nope and nope. Microsoft’s historic first tablet computer, the Surface? Nope again.

In fact, seven years ago this month, in 2007, Apple — absent as always from CES — lured most of the influential tech reporters and analysts away from Las Vegas right in the middle of CES to watch the late Steve Jobs introduce the iPhone in San Francisco. It was a true game-changing moment that swamped anything that year at CES.

Apple’s rivals absorbed the lesson, and many more started holding their own product-intro events away from CES. Microsoft even killed off its huge, expensive booth at the show.

The one really big electronics product in recent years that did use CES as a launch platform was HDTV. For the TV makers, who were there long before Silicon Valley showed up, CES remains a prime stage. But it took years and years of repeated flogging of HDTV at CES before it took off.

Now, the same TV makers are pushing a higher-resolution type of TV, called 4K or Ultra High Definition (UHD). But, if it succeeds, it will also take years. (This year, some were also pushing an odd new idea that struck many attendees I spoke to as at best a niche — curved TVs.)

So, even when it is the launching pad for something big, CES tends to be a slow cooker, not the sort of sizzling product event Silicon Valley is accustomed to, where a new gadget or app or service is introduced, becomes available a day or a week later, and rapidly sells millions of units or has millions of downloads or signups.

This isn’t to say that CES has no value. A lot of networking and a lot of business is done there. Some genuinely interesting new products are shown behind closed doors to a select few, in meeting rooms and hotel suites — the sub rosa CES. Those are the main reasons I attend.

And this year, as always, small companies showed off their takes on existing trends, and some of them are interesting — like better, cheaper 3-D printers or ways to remotely monitor and control things around your house, or to monitor your health and fitness.

And some big companies made incremental improvements to existing product types, like a Lenovo laptop with a changeable, contextual bar of virtual control buttons above the keyboard; and a Toshiba laptop capable of 4K resolution.

But for all those folks on those tours of the main CES floor, remember this: You are unlikely to see the next huge, disruptive tech product while trailing that perky guide.

Correction: An earlier version of this commentary incorrectly said it had been six years since the iPhone was unveiled. In fact, it has been seven years. The article has been updated to reflect the change.

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