By Jason Snell
December 31, 2016 2:48 PM PT
Nothing happens next week
Next week is the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. I just tried to write a phrase to describe it, and I don’t think I can do so without ushering up some sort of Lovecraftian horror in your mind. Because that’s how I feel about the Consumer Electronics Show: It’s a horror show.
I’m not saying that just as someone who dislikes Las Vegas, big crowds, and trade shows, though those things are undeniably true. CES is pretty rough to cover as a journalist. No, let me rephrase it: CES is impossible to cover as a journalist. If you’ve got a plan and a bunch of appointments and a laser focus, you can survive it, but even then you will have missed far more than you will have caught. The flight out of McCarran Airport at the end of the week is never a victory march, always a retreat in defeat.
But the fact is, CES is nonsense on so many non-journalistic levels. Yes, some products get announced there. But it’s not like it was, especially for major announcements. Apple proved to the entire tech industry that the biggest players in tech don’t need the hype of an outside group’s event in order to lure the most important press to their product announcements. Now every major player calls its own press conferences or hosts its own events in order to get the word out.
So that takes out the biggest players and their biggest announcements. Then there’s the matter of competition: There’s no denying that the smartphone is the single biggest product category in the tech industry today. And the world’s biggest trade show for mobile devices takes place just a month later: Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Phone makers prefer to launch their products in a more focused environment, and one with less noise. So that’s drained CES of another wave of exciting product launches.
The thing that keeps CES afloat are the business deals. Wander the halls and you’ll realize that, despite its name, CES is not really a consumer trade show. It’s all about manufacturers making deals with distributers, tiny companies you’ve never heard of with ridiculous products you’d never want trying to convince a manufacturer or distributor to make or sell their products. It’s interesting from a tech-spelunking perspective, but most of those products won’t ever see the light of day.
Also there’s an entire show floor full of cars.
There was a time when CES and Macworld Expo competed over the same week of the year, and that led to some unfortunate collisions. Steve Jobs would take the stage in San Francisco and CES would grind to a halt as they watched someone a few hundred miles away completely steal their thunder. Journalists would fly in to San Francisco for the Apple keynote, then jet to Vegas to catch the rest of CES. (This also led to an extremely skewed impression in the media that Macworld Expo was just an Apple keynote—when Apple pulled out of Macworld Expo, you could read between the lines and figure out which journalists had never spent more than a single day at Macworld Expo.)
Macworld Expo is dead and CES lives on, but Apple’s approach to launching its products severely affected both. CES will never have the firepower it had a decade or two ago, when Microsoft would make major product announcements in one of its many keynotes.
Yes, next week news will flow out of the desert in the same way that water doesn’t. But after you filter out the stuff you don’t care about and the stuff that will never actually ship to consumers, you’ll be left with very little. My advice is to ignore CES altogether and maybe, at the end of the week, read a week-in-review synopsis from an outlet like The Wirecutter. You’re not going to miss anything.
And will I be in Vegas next week? Oh, you sweet summer child. I will be on vacation in Hawaii, aggressively not noticing any silly nonsense coming out of the desert.