CES 2012: A GLITR Perspective

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The Panasonic exhibit at CES. (CNet News.com photo)

The Panasonic exhibit at CES. (CNet News.com photo)

Okay, it’s been a full week now since I got back from the International Consumer Electronics Show, and I feel like I finally have the perspective to write about this mammoth happening.

First of all, despite its almost ridiculous size, it’s still a trade show, where people who make things meet people who buy those things in large quantities to sell to consumers. That’s the irony in that no “consumers” are allowed in the “Consumer Electronics Show.” You either have to be a consumer electronics maker or a consumer electronics buyer of large quantities. It is, at its heart, a sales and networking deal.

But it’s also just so damn big — nearly 1.9 million net square feet of rented exhibit space (that’s more than 31 football fields), a record 3,100 exhibitors, a record 153,000 attendees (34,000 from outside the United States) — that it attracts worldwide attention.

It’s also the particular business that’s involved. Consumer electronics brings Hollywood and the music industry to your home. So between the size and the nature of the industry, this trade show becomes show biz. This year, you could bump into (or sometimes have to squeeze by) Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber, Ryan Secrest, LL Cool J, Ludacris, Xzbit, Will.i.am, Kelly Clarkson, 50 Cent, and probably a bunch of others I’m too old and clueless to have heard of. (I had to beg off on a party where I could have met Snooki because I just had too much work to do. My daughter really wanted me to meet Snooki. I was pretty sure I’d rather work.) What’s even cooler than the celebrity glitz is that many of these people are now actually involved in financing and managing the design and sale of consumer electronics. They’re not just spokesbimbos.

Also, Microsoft announced that this would be its last year to have a big glitzy exhibit at the show, and the last year its CEO, Steve Ballmer, would provide the pre-show keynote. Fine, whatever. Apple doesn’t exhibit either, but word is they still send roughly 150 people to the show. And practically every small gadget booth was offering iPad cases, iPhone cases, iPod cases. And every tablet maker on display — and there were literally hundreds of them — was claiming it was a serious competitor to the iPad.

So obviously, Apple is still “at CES,” even though, strictly speaking, it isn’t. It’s going to be the same for Microsoft. This fall, Microsoft will probably be rolling out its Windows 8 operating system. (They gave us peeks at CES and it looks really cool, the interface is amazing.) Intel, HP, Lenovo and a ton of people involved in the PC industry, for instance, will be rolling out their Windows 8 powered PCs at CES 2013. So yeah, Microsoft will be around. Ditto Microsoft Phone, should that technology actually take off.

Other folks point out the “flops” associated with technology introduced at CES — netbooks, 3-D television, etc.

Well, for every netbook, I’ll counter with a VCR, a CD, Blu-Ray, or any of the other now-ubiquitous technologies rolled out at CES. Needless to say, with more than 20,000 new devices introduced at CES this year, a fair number will turn out to be clunkers.

The other thing is the now-ubiquity of consumer electronics, in everything from cars to refrigerators.

My favorite exhibit on that score was probably Visteon, which showed off an instrument panel made up entirely of video screens. But in view of federal warnings about distracted driving, its displays and functions were markedly different when the car sensed little traffic around (think the M-5 freeway through Farmington at 2 p.m. on a Sunday) vs. times with lots of traffic when you really have to be on your game behind the wheel (think I-696 at 5:30 p.m. weekdays). During times of “low driver demand,” the display would actually read you incoming text messages and invite you to respond. During times of “high driver demand,” the display wouldn’t even tell you you’d received a text. Pay attention to the road, there, bub. Really cool.

As for TVs, yes, the LG giant OLED screens were magnificent, but for $5,000 to $8,000 they had better be. What I’ve learned is that every TV is made by the same half-dozen Chinese and Korean manufacturers you’ve never heard of, and what the name brands do is tweak and make their software and user interface easier to use.

As for computing, the future is thinner (lots of Air wannabees), touch screens, voice recognition, ruggedness and better battery life. Oh, and of course, blazing speed, from multi-core CPUs.

Automakers were at CES in force — Ford had a huge display, as did GM-Onstar, and even back-from-the-dead Chrysler showed gorgeous stuff. They were joined by foreign marques Kia, Audi and Hyundai. And next year, CES says they’ll be joined by Mazda and BMW.

I went to Las Vegas prepared to complain about the size and amenities of the press facilities at CES, but then I realized that (a.) nobody outside the press cares, and (b.) the CEA did a good job this year of expanding into not just one but two auxiliary press rooms for the event. Thanks, folks!

Similarly, a lot of readers, and the entire WWJ newsroom, seem to think being sent to events like this is a vacation. I know, as above, nobody cares, but let me assure you, this is harder work than when I’m at the office. My typical CES day has me arising at 6 or 7 a.m. local time, starting meetings with various companies at 8 or 9 a.m., and meeting with companies all day long. I fill gaps in my schedule by just bopping by Michigan company booths where I had been unsuccessful in reaching anyone from the company to schedule an interview and seeing if anyone can talk to me, or visiting booths of global companies with technologies I thought were interesting. Most evenings, there’s a keynote or a reception to go to. Then, somewhere between 7 and 9 p.m. local time, I go back to my hotel room and write it all up — AND I STILL HAVE TO PRODUCE THE REGULAR GLITR, TOO. Nobody does that for me while I’m gone. So I’m up until midnight or 1 a.m. local time, working. Then I collapse until dawn. Rinse and repeat. This is fun because I love being immersed in high tech. This is NOT fun because I’m screwing around.

And Vegas? There really isn’t anywhere else in the world to hold this show. Vegas has 150,000 hotel rooms, transportation services (buses, taxis, the Monorail) capable of handling huge crowds, a convention center the size of three-plus Cobo Centers, and it really is the entertainment capital of the planet. (The gambling in Vegas just isn’t that big a deal any more, now that there are casinos in practically every podunk town in the country, thanks to various Indian nations and state and local government desperate for revenue.)

Consumer Electronics Association president (and part-time Detroit-area resident) Gary Shapiro issued this statement about the show: “The 2012 CES was the most phenomenal show in our history, generating more energy and excitement across every major industry touching technology than ever before. The breadth and depth of the 2012 CES, which featured more innovative technology products than anywhere else on Earth, is a testament to the dynamic and innovative global consumer technology industry.”

CEA economists predict industry sales will top $1 trillion worldwide in 2012 for the first time.

In closing, I want to thank the management of WWJ Newsradio 950 who allows me to go to CES and concentrate on the Michigan companies displaying there, not just chase the national stories everyone else chases; the Michigan companies who had such interesting stories to tell, which I hope I got across accurately; and Verizon, who let me hang on to the cell phone Web connectivity dongle I used for last fall’s Tech Tour long enough to use it at CES too!

God willing, I’ll be back, Jan. 8-11. 2013.

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