The truth about CES: Why the critics are right and wrong

The Consumer Electronics Show is no longer what it used to be. But that doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile.

This is not where the action is. This is never where the action was. Sarah Lew/CNET

Is the Consumer Electronics Show a waste of time?

According to some critics, it is. They say that the world's largest hardware show has lost relevance in a a software-dominated world. And as Buzzfeed correctly points out in its thorough takedown of CES, the world's most innovative technology isn't at CES anymore. It debuts at individual press events put on by Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Samsung, and the other titans of technology. Of that group, only Samsung has any official presence at CES 2013.

"The fact is, hardware doesn't really matter," argued Wired's Mat Honan. "We buy phones because they have the apps we want. We buy TVs (or don't) not only for picture quality, but because they are easy to use. We look for the gadgets that are compatible with our existing laptops, and will export data to the applications we already use. We live in a software-driven world. Hardware is merely the foundation that it is built upon."

"Consumer technology has simply outgrown CES, which was an exclusive club of buyers and sellers and journalists," said Buzzfeed's Matt Buchanan, who decided not to attend CES this year. "The forces that have obliterated 'electronics' and the 'gadget' as the atomic unit of consumer technology, and rendered the trade show obsolete as the sole mechanism for launching them into the world, are the same ones that have made technology more powerful and accessible and human than ever before."

CES is the show that gave birth to the VCR, camcorder, CD, HDTV, and DVD. But in the last few years, the only interesting things that have come out of the show are Android smartphones and OLED TVs. So I understand the critics when they say that CES is no longer relevant. I could only find two things on the show floor that really interested me. A few years ago, that number was larger.

But any good conference attendee will tell you that the content of a conference -- its panels and show floor -- are never where the value is found. This is something Buchanan picked up on as well:

CES is far from a ghost town if you look strictly at the numbers...But the value in going is increasingly on the sidelines. Advertisers meet media executives; marketing firms pitch clients.

It's more than that, though. One trend I've noticed is an increasing amount of entertainers and Hollywood executives coming to the show for meetings at hotel suites (and the occasional concert). They realize that their world is colliding with the technology world, and that they need to find more ways to work together.

So why do they come to CES? It's simple: Only SXSW has a higher concentration of the tech industry in one location. People can pound out meetings with journalists, managers, OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), and investors in a four-day period. It's very rare when multiple industry leaders gather in one place, and the clever ones take advantage of that critical mass.

CES is the show bloggers and industry executives love to hate. And yet they come in droves. I doubt that will be changing anytime soon.

The truth about CES (and all tech conferences in general) is that the panels and show floor have become meaningless. Tech companies now use their own conferences and press events to launch their products, a trend that really began in earnest when Apple ditched the Macworld Expo.

That doesn't mean the world's largest gadget show has become irrelevant. It just means that it has evolved, like all the other tech conferences. And while CES will never regain its place as the frontier where hardware makes its debut, rumors of its death are greatly exaggerated.

 

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