This week's Consumer Electronics Show should be a huge deal. Dozens of the most innovative companies in the world have converged on Las Vegas to tout new products. There's a ton of amazing technology being unveiled that will shape our lives for years to come.
Yet the public has greeted the show with a yawn. When I tweeted to my tech-savvy followers to ask which CES announcements they were most excited about, I didn't get a single serious response. None of this week's announcements have generated as much buzz as Apple got last September when it announced the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch. Indeed, those two Apple products may have generated more buzz than all of this year's CES announcements put together.
Apple gets more buzz than anyone else in the technology business because Apple understands that people get more excited about products than technologies, and that they're more interested in products they can buy now than ones that will be available at some undefined point in the future. And Apple is better able to exploit these insights because it takes a unique approach to technology development that help them to tell compelling stories about its products. Because Apple makes the whole iPhone — the hardware, software, and many of the apps — it can control exactly when, where, and how it's announced and promoted.
In contrast, most of the products unveiled at CES are collaborations among lots of different companies. A typical CES product runs software from one company (Google or Microsoft), chips from another, (Intel or Qualcomm), and is designed and distributed by yet another company. As a result, CES stage is so crowded that it's hard for any single product to stand out. By the time a gadget reaches the market, it invariably feels like old news.
Technology divorced from products is confusing
A lot of the technologies being demoed at CES are genuinely impressive. Intel, for example, has spent a lot of time promoting RealSense, a technology that uses multiple cameras to capture images in three dimensions. In his CES keynote, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich showed off a variety of cool applications for the technology, from images that can be re-focused after they're taken to drones that can automatically avoid obstacles that cross their path.
But RealSense isn't a product you can pick up at Best Buy. It's a component that's going to be part of a wide variety of laptops and tablets, most of which haven't been released yet. Krzanich used Dell's new Venue 8 7000 series tablet to demo the technology, but it wasn't a big focus of the presentation.
Of course, Intel is a chip company, so it's not surprising that it's focusing on components rather than complete products. But it's going to be hard for the companies selling laptops and tablets that include RealSense to generate buzz either. If companies release Realsense-based devices in the coming months, the technology will already be old news. And each company will be competing with lots of other companies hawking essentially the same features.
Dell did get the benefit of bringing RealSense to market first, but it hasn't been able to generate a lot of buzz around the tablet either. That's partly because Dell is dependent on Google and Android app makers to build the software that will make the technology compelling to consumers. And it's partly because Dell doesn't seem to be trying very hard to make its products distinctive. "Dell Venue 8 7000" doesn't have quite the same ring as "iPad."
You can see this same dynamic at work in the auto business. Tesla got a lot of buzz back in October when it unveiled the Tesla D, a brand new car with a slew of innovative features. In contrast, Chevy's announcement that it would be adding LTE wireless and an app store to its cars attracted comparatively little notice. It's just not easy to get excited about a company making incremental improvements to a wide variety of different products.
It used to be a little easier to impress people. In the late 1990s, people would get excited about faster clock speeds, wireless laptops, and newfangled HDTVs. But at this point people take for granted that the hardware they buy will be insanely powerful and will have all sorts of capabilities. What they care about is what they can do with that horsepower. Apple and Tesla are good at telling compelling stories about their products. Sometimes Google manages to do it. But most other companies do a terrible job.
For building buzz, less is more
Another obstacle to getting excited about CES is the bewildering number of products companies offer. There are so many that it's difficult for ordinary consumers to get excited about any specific model.
If you hear about an exciting new smartphone innovation from Apple, you know exactly what to do: get an iPhone. But things aren't that simple in the Android world. Samsung sells dozens of different tablets and smartphones. So do LG and Lenovo. It's a big job just keeping track of which products are available and which have the latest features.
Automakers have the same problem. We know that most automakers will support Apple's CarPlay standard and Google's Android Auto. But which cars will support which standard, and when will they be available? We don't know all the details right now, and even once all the announcements have been made it will be difficult for ordinary consumers to keep track.
To be clear, there are good business reasons for doing things this way. Producing a lot of different models allows big companies to serve a lot of different customer types, and leaves them less dependent on the risk that any specific product will flop. But it also makes it difficult to build buzz, because after a while the products all start to seem the same.
Almost everything at CES feels like old news
The third big buzzkill at CES is technology demos that won't become shipping products any time soon. Perhaps the best example is BMW's virtually uncrashable car. It's amazing technology that will prevent a lot of fenders benders and may even save some lives. Unfortunately, you can't buy one this year, and probably won't be able to get one this decade.
Not only is it hard to get people excited about a product that doesn't have a specific ship date, this kind of pre-release hype also makes it hard to get people jazzed up when the product is actually released. When BMW finally offers the no-crashing feature in its 2021 cars, it will seem like old news. Dribbling news out over several years is a terrible way to get people excited.
Apple and Tesla take the opposite approach: they're famously secretive companies that try not to give the public any hint of what's coming until the product is on the verge of shipping. This secrecy is rarely perfect — news of Apple products often leak a few days or weeks ahead of a major release. But Apple's product demos almost always come with a specific ship date — generally within a few months. That's a short enough time frame that people can start salivating over their next shiny gadget.
So a big reason CES feels like a snoozefest is that almost everything announced there has been — or will be — announced several times before the product actually reaches consumers. Often, when an Android phone maker announces a new feature, it's something that was revealed months earlier by Google. Apple's CarPlay and Google's Android Auto standards were unveiled early last year, but most new cars won't support the standard until later this year.
This year's gadgets are better than previous years' devices in a wide variety of ways — they're faster, have bigger, brighter screens, more polished interfaces, and so forth. But today's gadgets have gotten so complicated that most people don't know what capabilities the device they already own has. To get customers excited, companies need to help customers understand how new hardware will let them do things they couldn't do before. But most of the technology companies at CES are terrible at this.