CES could benefit from a rear-view mirror

I’ve never even been to CES, but I’m already sick of the roller-coaster.

Every year we come back from the Christmas holidays when suddenly the Consumer Electronics Show opens in Las Vegas and vendors start dropping new gadgets as though they were sitting in the bottom of Santa’s bag. The frenzy around CES is becoming downright irritating, all the more so because IT departments can no longer afford to ignore it. Sure, many of the portable, personal, digital assists unveiled this week will flop, but a few will likely find their way behind the firewall. If only there was a good way of knowing which ones.

I would actually like to propose such a way, although I doubt the CES organizers would do it. Amid all the launches and keynotes focusing on the future, I think CES would be well served to devote a little more time to its past. Imagine a session, called CES Catch-Up, in which experts evaluated the relative success or failure of the devices that were considered sure-fire hits one to five years earlier.

In some cases this would be an easy exercise. If a gadget was a hit, it might seem superfluous to highlight it. But it might still be worth it to look at the kind of pain such technologies brought to enterprise IT departments, or even individual consumers who lost data, experienced poor integration with the rest of their digital office or home. If the device was a miss, it would be valuable to dig deeper into the reasons why, and see if they offer any clues to the kind of consumer expectations, behavioural characteristics and tolerance for faults that make or break technology products.

The reason CES Catch-Up probably won’t happen, of course, is that it would embarrass the vendors who all occasionally invest in products that don’t find acceptance in the marketplace. CES Catch-Up would be considered poor sportsmanship in a tournament for whose small, sleek handheld can attract the more euphoria from Engadget or Gizmodo. It’s as though, in the wake of Comdex and other defunct technology trade shows, no one wants to stop the momentum of an event that’s actually attracting attendees.

But there’s a big difference between CES and Comdex. The latter switched focus in its final years away from mere product exhibition to user education. CES, on the other hand, is shamelessly about gear, not vision. While it features a lot of the same talking heads – Intel’s Paul Otellini, Bill Gates in his final appearance – their role is more akin to Shopping Channel host than thought leader.

Comdex Catch-Up might have been a lot more realistic than CES Catch-Up, but I still dream of adding some much-needed business intelligence to the world’s largest gadget fair. The irony is that consumers today have a much higher level of sophistication around technology products, yet shows like CES don’t offer much to help them (or their vendors) to a better job of using what we provide them. Instead, everyone surrounding CES acts like the end users of old, gaping as one might at a conveyer belt each year at what’s shiny and new, and hoping it will be better than the toys that disappointed us the year before.

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