CES gaining ground on Comdex?

The Consumer Electronics Show is boasting more exhibit space, equal or better attendance, and happier crowds than its rival tech trade show.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
covers games and gadgets.
David Becker
7 min read
LAS VEGAS--Maybe this town ain't big enough for two technology trade shows.

That's how it is starting to look as this year's Consumer Electronics Show winds down, boasting more exhibit space, equal or better attendance, and happier crowds than Comdex--the computer trade show that takes over Vegas each November.

The Consumer Electronics Association, producer of CES, announced that exhibitors bought up a record 1.2 million square feet of floor space this year. Final attendance figures won't be released until late Friday, but the show appeared to be on track to beat or meet last year's crowd of 126,000.

That would be about the same as November's Comdex, which drew an estimated 125,000 attendees, down from 150,000 a year earlier. Booth space for Comdex was way down, however, estimated at 750,000 square feet.

Although Comdex's proximity to the Sept. 11 terror attacks can take some of the blame, the shifting fortunes for the trade shows also reflect broad trends in the technology industry. Emphasis is shifting away from PCs to gadgets such as handheld organizers, cell phones, and TV set-top boxes, all packed with easy-to-use computing power. Many companies with feet in both the computing and gadget worlds are finding it more profitable and forward-looking to push the gadget end.

Fredric Rosen, CEO of Comdex presenter Key3Media, said it was unfair to compare the two trade shows, which serve distinct audiences of consumers and technical professionals. Last year's Comdex also occurred amidst entirely different circumstances, he noted, with fresh fears of terrorist threats requiring heightened security measures and the New York plane crash the opening day of the show scratching many travel plans.

"The further away we get from 9/11, the easier it is for people to get back to normal," Rosen said. "I think the absence of metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs had an impact on the mood of both exhibitors and attendees" at CES.

"We're very happy CES did as well as it did," he added, "because it shows that maybe people are coming back to trade shows as a valuable tool for business."

Paul Pilat, a researcher at Intel's laboratory in Portland, Ore., has been to both Comdex and CES a number of times and sees the momentum shifting to CES.

"A lot of the same buyers and retailers are having to decide which one to go to," Pilat said, while waiting in line for a cab. "If I had to look into a crystal ball to see which is going to win, I think it's CES. They've got a sharper organization...that has a lot more history behind it."

That's evident in the way CES is organized. Comdex is usually a logistical headache, with events spread out all over Las Vegas. CES does attendees the favor of scheduling everything within the same ZIP code.

see CNET Electronics: CES 2002 Coverage "Logistically, CES is laid out a lot better," Pilat said. "I think that comes from having done it for so long."

The Consumer Electronics Association started CES in 1967. Comdex has been going on for 22 years, but ownership of the show has changed hands several times during that period.

CES and Comdex are the two largest tech-related trade shows in the United States.

CEA President Gary Shapiro took credit for the smooth experience for guests in his opening address Tuesday.

"Several years ago, we came to Las Vegas and asked them to expand the convention center, so we could have our attendees avoid having to travel all over town to visit exhibits," he said. "I think you can count on spending more time at exhibits and less time waiting in line."

Shapiro also announced an alliance with the Hannover Trade Fair Authority, producers of Germany's CeBit, which takes place in March and is widely recognized as the world's largest technology trade show. The two organizations will pair for a joint CES-CeBit show in Shanghai, China, from May 29 to June 1, Shapiro said, further boosting CES' technology clout.

CES is attracting more exciting product announcements. This year's show included major additions to the Windows XP operating system and the debut of entertainment start-up Moxi Digital. The most recent Comdex, by contrast, featured some evolutionary advances in server designs and the umpteenth attempt to make the Tablet PC sound compelling.

Star performance
The rising profile of CES is also evident in terms of star power. The gadget show is attracting many of the same keynote speakers as Comdex and coaxing better performances from them.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates' presentation at last year's CES was dominated by the public unveiling of the Xbox game console, including a tag-team promotional bout with wrestling star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

Gates was more restrained in this year's CES appearance. Still, a crowd that seemed to stretch all the way to Lake Mead before the doors opened Monday wasn't disappointed, cheering each Windows XP advance and every poke at CEO Steve Ballmer.

Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina enlivened an otherwise dry CES presentation Tuesday--anyone care to hear more on the history of the daguerreotype?--by giving away an armload of digital cameras.

Atlhough Intel CEO Craig Barrett wasn't on hand this year, he did his part last year by loosening up for CES and sharing the stage with the Blue Man Group, a theater troupe and Intel's "spokesartists," who proceeded to shove a camera down his larynx and smear Jello-like goo on his head.

Even cab drivers seem to prefer CES to Comdex, which attracts unmanageable crowds of notoriously stingy out-of-towners. "Comdex sucks," one driver opined while toting passengers from one CES event to another. "At least most of these people know what a tip is."

Finally, CES is just more fun than Comdex. Instead of attendees staring glassy-eyed at the latest rack-mount server or network router design, CES offers the "mobile electronics" pavilion, where every booth comes with a custom car outfitted with so many bass-thumping, lights-flashing, shock absorber-pounding gewgaws that if something like it was parked near your driveway, you'd immediately move to another neighborhood.

Consider these consumer-friendly delights showcased at this year's CES:

 Never worry about running out of juice with portable audio products from Soltronix, which embeds a lightweight, flexible solar power panel into each gadget. Most impressive was a headphone radio with solar panels in the headpiece. The company wins extra points for printing its business cards on actual 3-volt solar panels, complete with soldering instructions.

 Privacy Technolgies, a corporate relative of the folks behind the Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner, promises to banish telemarketers from your life with the TeleZapper. The unit plugs in between the wall jack and the phone and emits a tone whenever you take a call. You won't hear it, but the computers that run most telemarketing call centers will think it means your line has been disconnected.

Wherify's GPS Personal Locator  One of the more heavily promoted items at CES was the GPS Personal Locator from Wherify Wireless, a Global Positioning System transmitter encased in a fairly bulky wristwatch designed to be worn by a child. When you want to know where your kid is, use a phone or Wherify's Web site to get the coordinates, a map, and aerial photos. Such security measures probably sound a lot less excessive after Sept. 11.

 The habitually disorganized might want to look into the I-Spot, which creator Digital Innovations bills as a "personal items locator." Each package consists of a transmitter, docking station, and three small receivers you attach to easily lost items such as car keys, a remote control, or Dick Cheney. Next time you can't find that item, activate the base station and I-Spot will tell you where the evil gremlins in your house hid it.

 Simple provided no details on how its electronic ear cleaner works, and frankly, we're not sure we want to know.

Simplify's electronic ear cleaner  Turn anything from a pasta fork to a tire rim into a glittering object d'art with the Gold Plating System from Lifetime Gold. The combination chemical and electronics package will apply a film of 24-karat gold to just about any metal object, the company promises. Kids, please check with dad before trying this on his golf clubs.

 Eliminate the scourge of the overheated groin with CyberCooler's Notebook Cooler Pad, a fan and ventilation system that fits between you and your laptop.

 AMR Enterprises promises to protect another vital organ--your brain--with its radiation-blocking cell phone headset.

 Home entertainment takes on a whole new meaning through Bebe Sounds, which produces several implements that let mothers-to-be and people they really like hear what the baby's up to in the womb, including heartbeats and hiccups. An optional microphone allows mom to sing to junior or help the babe prepare for college entrance exams.

 Turn your state-of-the-art video game console into the equivalent of a 10-year-old coin-op game with X-Arcade, a huge, 22-button controller from X-Gaming that mimics the control layout of arcade games such as "Captain Commando" and "Magic Sword." The company says it will work with any PC or current game console.

 Stop forcing burnt pancakes on your family with the Smart Pan from Digital Cookware, a line of pans with preset temperature and timing programs for turning out a perfect grilled cheese sandwich or pork chop every time.

 If you live in a rural area, Bambi will thank you for investing in Deer Alert, a car attachment that produces a sound that is too high-pitched for human ears but just right to tell animals to scram. Other innovations from creator DesignTech include Wireless Mail Alert, which tells you when there's something to retrieve from your mailbox, without the bother of having to get up and look.

 On the opposite end of the electricity spectrum, NoZap from ST Electronics promises to eliminate static electricity. Tape it near a door where you can touch it before the doorknob, and it absorbs whatever charge you've built up.