@ CES: No Signature Magic This Year But The Winds Are A-Changing

Four days spent in Vegas five years after the introduction of the iPhone gives me the sense that the tech industry is at a weird crossroads, both intrigued by the rearranging of the old guard and a bit weary of the public expectation that every year will bring something amazing.
It’s not hard to understand why Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) decided to make CES 2012 its last, although it would have been nice if they’d at least made an effort to mark the occasion. The event is impressive, overwhelming, electric, and tiring with a 50 percent markup on coffee and five times as much cigarette smoke as the modern tech office worker encounters on a daily basis.
It’s the type of event that given its sheer size (over 150,000 people picked up a badge for CES, a new high) and emphasis on glitz that one expects to be memorable. There were a few things that the mobile world will remember about CES 2012: the determination shown by Nokia (NYSE: NOK) to get America right this time and the positive feedback they and Microsoft enjoyed; the blunt realization that Android is so ubiquitous that dozens of new phones were announced at the show with hardly anyone noticing; and the five-years-too-late introduction of a real smartphone powered by Intel.
But because of that size and its awkward timing just after the holiday season, CES requires that tech companies pretend to put on a show for attendees and that those in the media who depend on tech companies to do things they can talk about to pretend that it’s some sort of huge mind-blowing experience.
The biggest story in technology during CES week had nothing to do with any display of consumer electronics. Google’s decision to pollute its search results with a half-baked social graph of Google+ users was easily the most talked-about event in technology during the week. Nothing unveiled at CES came even close to generating that kind of reaction.
The energy required to attend CES coupled with the lack of anything that fired up the crowd caused predictable blowback from those who slog through the Las Vegas Convention Center, perhaps best shown in this existential lament from Gizmodo’s Mat Honan about the meaning of it all. In a way, it’s all Apple’s fault: everyone keeps expecting every “special” event like CES to produce something as explosive as the iPhone was in January 2007 (an event that far overshadowed the CES of that year) each and every time.
It just can’t happen. Products like that, and the resulting buzz that generates page views, only come along once in a rare while. And nowadays when companies think they have a product like that, they tend to introduce it on their terms to make sure they carry the hypershort media cycle, rather than sharing it with Justin Bieber or some crazy television that etches high-definition images into your brain.
But if you put aside the gadget obsession for a while, you can start to see how companies used this CES to set themselves up for the coming year.
The 2012 bronze medal in mobile is now Microsoft’s and Nokia’s to lose, spurring a wave of “Microsoft is back!” sentiment that paired nicely with a BusinessWeek interview designed as a Steve Ballmer image-rehabilitation project. However fortuitous the timing, it showed the fiery CEO has finally come to terms with the notion that he is an underdog in the most important personal computing market of the future.
Google let its partners introduce all those slightly different Android handsets early in the week before revealing on Thursday that it wants Android developers to focus on application consistency. That may cause a problem for those Android partners who insist they have to differentiate themselves despite fragmentation problems, especially considering that Google is now requiring they make the stock Google experience available to developers on their phones in order to carry a link to the Android Market.
Intel (NSDQ: INTC) has now linked itself with Motorola (NYSE: MMI) and Google, an interesting trio given Intel CEO Paul Otellini’s presence on Google’s board and Motorola’s pending purchase by Google (NSDQ: GOOG). If Google forgets that it promised to operate Motorola as a standalone company, some interesting products could emerge from that alliance.
Samsung continued to emerge as a new powerhouse, with one of the biggest presences at CES coupled with a much more practical presentation of itself to attendees: no wolf-costumed preteens were involved with Samsung’s promotional strategy at CES this year.
And Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) sent 250 people, including head of iOS marketing Greg Joswiak, to CES in order to scout competitors and take the pulse of the industry.
CES is still relevant and necessary because of the personal interactions that it forces among tech industry professionals, and it will keep that role in 2013 after Microsoft departs the show. But we have to stop thinking about it as an event that will produce a blockbuster, and be content with the opportunity to measure the pulse of an entire industry rather than succumb to the relentless churn of minor developments.