Microsoft's departure signals CES's decline

Jan 12, 2012 By Troy Wolverton, San Jose Mercury News

Monday marked the end of an era at the Consumer Electronics Show, the tech industry's gigantic annual gadget fest in Las Vegas.

Steve Ballmer's keynote speech that evening was the last one scheduled by a Microsoft CEO after a 13-year run. And after this year's show, the company is pulling out of CES entirely.

Some will say Microsoft's departure is long overdue. With the shift away from PCs and Windows as the center of the tech universe, the company's influence has been on the wane for years. Ballmer's speeches of recent years have often offered little news or insight.

But Microsoft's departure says more about the state of the giant trade show than it does about the software company. Its move underscores that the show isn't as important as it once was. And I think its departure will mark the beginning of the end of CES as the tech industry's major annual event.

CES's importance as a venue for showing where technology is going and what hit products are in the pipeline has long been overstated. There's often little correlation between the products that garner attention at the show and those that end up being commercial successes.

That disparity has been most visible in those years when Apple, which has famously shunned CES, made a product announcement around the same time as the show. Products such as the and the - both announced at January Apple-only events - became smash hits, household names and industry-changing devices. Bonus points if you remember any products announced at CES the years those products came out.

But even when Apple hasn't served as a distraction, CES often hasn't been able to deliver the goods in terms of hit products or industry influence. Much of the buzz at last year's show, for example, focused on new tablets, such as Research In Motion's and Motorola's , that would rival Apple's . But those devices ended up being commercial busts. So, too, have 3-D televisions, which TV manufacturers have been flogging at CES for years.

Part of CES's problem is the disappearance of the annual product cycle. The show was established back in the days when the electronics industry had a simple ritual. Manufacturers came to the show to pitch to retailers the products they would be selling in the fall.

These days, manufacturers introduce products throughout the year and often refresh individual product lines multiple times during a year. Products shown off in January may no longer be on store shelves come the crucial holiday season. And products that end up being holiday hits often are those that reach store shelves just before the season starts.

Take Amazon's Kindle Fire. The new tablet was Amazon's best-selling product this holiday season. But Amazon didn't unveil it until late September, eight months after CES was held.

Tech companies have learned that they don't need CES to draw attention to their products. It's not just Apple that holds its own events. Amazon did the same trick when unveiling the Kindle Fire. And one reason Ballmer's keynotes have included little news is that Microsoft typically announces its products at other venues, whether its own developer conferences or industry-specific trade shows such as the E3 video game conference.

Indeed, such tailored conferences - big and small - now dot the calendar throughout the year. Such events give companies the chance to unveil products when they're most likely to draw attention from those most interested - rather than at CES, where they stand a good chance of being lost in the cacophonous din.

A still bigger problem for CES is that it focuses on hardware, whether speakers or televisions or phones. That made sense when the most important things about electronics were their design and technical specifications and how they looked or sounded.

But times have changed. As devices have become "smart," the most important thing about them is not what they look like or the parts inside them but the software they run, particularly their operating system or software platform.

Unfortunately for CES, with Microsoft's departure, the show will be virtually devoid of the most important software platform makers in consumer technology. Not only is Apple absent, but so, too, is Facebook. Google and Amazon have only a small presences.

Without such companies, CES's ability to showcase the future of technology is limited. Sure, you're still likely to see cool tech demos and lots of accessories for hit products. You may even see some neat hardware.

But the real action - the debut of truly game-changing products and the unveiling of the cool software that powers them - won't be found in Vegas.

Explore further: Indiegogo project 'Switchmate' lets you run light switch from your phone without rewiring


Related Stories

Microsoft says 2012 CES tech show will be its last

Dec 21, 2011

Microsoft Corp. is pulling out of the International Consumer Electronics Show, the largest trade show in the Americas. It's joining Apple in saying that it prefers to put on its own events when the time is ...

High-tech gadget show opens doors in Vegas

Jan 10, 2012

The International Consumer Electronics Show kicked off on Tuesday with a dazzling array of high-tech gadgetry including ultra-thin laptops, snazzy smartphones, iPad rivals and flat-screen and 3D TVs.

iPad challengers from Microsoft surfacing in January

Dec 24, 2010

Curious timing: Goldman Sachs issues another report saying the iPad and tablets are hammering Microsoft, then anonymous sources tell the New York Times that Windows 7 tablets are part of Steve Ballmer's Consumer Electronics ...

The 'CES curse?' Gadget show has poor record

Jan 06, 2012

The largest trade show in the Americas must be a great place to show off new products, right? Wrong. The International Consumer Electronics Show is quickly becoming a launch pad for products that fall flat.

Recommended for you

Panoramas for your tablet

Mar 25, 2015

Most people are familiar with the fictional world of 'Star Trek,' in which the characters can use a holodeck to create and interact with virtual worlds. It is possible to recreate a similar effect in the ...

Bound to please: Book-making machines star at French fair

Mar 23, 2015

Chose a PDF file on the screen and five minutes later a book, printed and bound with a proper cover, spits out. It used to be science fiction, but machines that do this are here now and increasingly grabbing the attention ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jan 13, 2012
They left with embarrassment after their pathetic presentation... Ballmer gets how much pay?
4 / 5 (1) Jan 13, 2012
This may be the beginning of a larger trend. Let's see how Vegas sails this decade.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.