The Incredible Shrinking CES

As the Consumer Electronics shows opens in Las Vegas this week, the papers are awash in stories about CES being smaller this year, by about 11,000 attendees (about an 8 percent decline) and 300 exhibitors (a 10 percent decline.) Given that the Dow Jones Index has fallen about 30 percent, and the S&P 500 has dropped 33 percent since this time last year, such devotion to televisions, mobile phones, netbooks and other consumer gadgets is admirable. And there’s a silver lining to this cloud: consumer electronics may get easier to use.

Analyst Stephen Baker from NPD gave me hope, when he was quoted in a Reuters story saying, “In tough times, the emphasis maybe shifts from cool and neat to how do you make things work better.” But CES isn’t about making gadgets work better — it’s about hardware. And today’s ease-of-use problems are tied more to business model issues such as licensing content, protecting revenue streams and a lack of openness.

One of the primary ways I want my gadgets to work better involves watching web TV on my television. Unfortunately, that’s more of a business model and bandwidth problem, but broadband TVs may help. Other improvements on my wish list include open mobile phone networks, universal cables and chargers, and better battery life for my mobile devices.

Since CES deals in razzle dazzle, rather than the mundane, we’ll see 3-D movies and televisions, competing wireless HD video transmission standards and the compromise computers known as netbooks, rather than solutions for our ease-of-use challenges. So, let’s shelve those dreams of seamless convergence and better portable power for a week, and let the consumer electronics industry wow us. Then we can turn our backs on 3-D televisions and continue our quest for products we actually want, that actually work.