January 3, 2012 at 1:53 pm

Why I Am Excited Not to Attend CES This Year

CES 2007 - Crowds for Asimo

The Consumer Electronics Show circa 2007, where Honda unveiled a robot called Asimo.

Note: This article was about CES 2012, but much of it applies to CES 2013 too. I am not saying there is no reason for CES. There is. It’s just that as a digital music journalist, there’s not much reason for me to be there anymore, even though this was a lot of fun. Maybe next year will be different. Also, I take it all back if this thing gets announced there.

Normally, early January is the time when the heart of a young (okay, not so young anymore) tech reporter brims with anticipation for the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES for short, in Las Vegas.

CES rose to prominence following the collapse of Comdex, which was brought down by computers transforming from complicated machines that people would research extensively into mere commodities (how fast? how small?). Now, the same thing is happening to all but a handful of the consumer electronics devices on which CES focuses.

Could CES — once the largest conference in the world, according to none other authority than the Guinness Book of World Records – follow Comdex down the path to irrelevance?

For me, this year anyway, the answer is yes. I’ve probably been to CES ten times, though I’ve lost exact count of how many years I’ve trudged those halls looking for newsworthy gizmos, identifying trends, appearing on panels, and covering keynotes. Back when digital music was mostly about hardware, CES was a treasure trove. It was as close as a tech reporter ever got to shooting fish in a barrel.

For the press (as opposed to buyers, sellers, and other dealmakers who benefit from attending the conference simply because so many of them gather there), electronic hardware simply isn’t where the action is anymore — and not just because Steve Jobs has left us. The most interesting stuff these days are apps and the web, not the hardware with which we access them, no matter how many Android tablets crowd the show floors in Las Vegas.

Even Sony, a consumer electronics powerhouse known for putting a premium on well-designed devices, is worried about hardware commoditization. When we asked Sony Entertainment Network president Tim Schaaff why Sony even wants to offer a music service in the first place, he started to use the word “commodified” in describing Sony’s electronics business before carefully choosing another word. His point was the same: Even Sony knows that the days of selling premium objects without strong connections to content delivery systems and other applications are coming to an end.

PC Magazine, which used to cover Comdex, found five things to get excited about CES this year: a new, more expensive form of television, the OLED (when most people don’t yet have the previous “next big thing” yet, 3D); “ultrabooks,” which are essentially Windows rip-offs of the Macbook Air (didn’t they used to be called “netbooks”?); phones with quad processors (okay, fine, so our apps will run faster); yet another new, more expensive form of television, 4K (please, we don’t even have OLED yet); and the latest generation of Android tablets to try to snatch marketshare from Apple’s iPad.

Better television screens? I’m happy with my LCD HD set, thank you very much, and suspect others are too — especially considering the high cost of both OLED and 4K. Likewise, ultrabooks are a non-event — essentially a rebranding of the netbook with which Windows computer manufacturers hope to compete with Apple’s most compact laptop.

That leaves us with smartphones with quad-processors, which are interesting only because of their increased ability to run software apps (whose developers generally don’t have booths at CES), and the new Android tablets, which are interesting mostly because they run the latest version of Android — and are therefore better at running apps.

You know what’s not interesting in terms of technologies that really will change lives in 2012? The new hardware devices celebrated by CES, although that could change. Wake me up when Apple, Google, or someone else figures out how to put apps on a television in a way that makes sense (like, by making the tablet the remote control); car manufacturers build iOS, Android, or Windows Phone into car dashboards; or an as-yet-unknown genius reinvents the smartphone with motion detection technology suitable for the mass market.

But until a new hardware paradigm promises to change how we interface with apps and the web on a more fundamental level, sorry, but… yawn.

Today, news emerged that trade group for app developers, the Application Developers Alliance, will launch at CES this year. That has to be a step in the right direction in terms of CES’ continued relevance, but that organization is still just getting started off the ground, and plans to appear at CES and other conferences to attract new members, not to show off new stuff for the press to write about.

For that, there’s always the Mobile Apps Showdown at CES, which promises to keep this year’s conference apace with what’s happening outside of the increasingly commodified hardware space. But I’m not going to fly to Vegas and wade through miles of copycat machines and iterative updates just to see that.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr/Sugarmonster)

  • Tom Green

    You’re right on about the hardware.  When it came to getting a new iPhone this past year, I was way more excited about the new features IOS 5 or even Siri than I was on the form factor or the ability to use my volume button to take a picture.  It’s all about software. 

    However, there has to be some cool stuff coming in the NUI (Natural User Interface) space, right?  Kinect et al?  It’s still sort of a novelty to most but that may change soon.  

    Anyway, great read as always.