Unevenly Distributed: Why CES Is Hell

CES, or the Consumer Electronics Show, is held every year in Las Vegas during the first week of January. In the tech news cycle, it’s considered a period of rejuvenation and reinvention. I guess it is, but not in the same way a farmer might look upon a dewy field upon the approach of a fertile spring.

Rather, CES is a fertilization: a voluminous disgorgement of thousands upon thousands of new gadgets from the collective o-ring of the world’s gadget makers which the tech press can easily spend the next few months digging their way through, consuming and regurgitating the meatiest chunks, while the actual seedlings will be ignored for many months to come.

In an ideal world, an event like CES � where there is more technology than anyone can possibly make sense of � could be tamed by a team of tech journalists, who, with level heads, would approach the cornucopia of new like a volume to be edited: a soothsaying summary of what the future of electronics holds, in both its imagination-bereft cynicism and its brave futurism. In trying to write about everything, though � and in writing about oceans of gadgets birthed of no clear purpose and meant for no one in particular � gadget writers end up writing about nothing of importance.

The thing that can be hard to remember going into an event like CES, where hundreds of tech companies vie for attention amongst thousands of new gadgets, is that tech is iterative… and iterative tech can be very confusing when it comes rapidly and bombards the senses. Look at the history of handsets using Google’s Android OS, for example, and you can easily trace the evolution from the first Android phone, the HTC G1, to the current top-of-the-line Googlephone, the Galaxy S, according to often minute spec bumps: the first Android phone with a 1GHz processor, the first Android phone to be released with a new iterative version of the operating system, the first Android phone to get a high-res display, the first Android phone to get 512MB of RAM, the first Android phone to get 4G. Very few of these iterative bumps made a huge splash, yet through ubiquity, rapid release, a wide array of configurations and a constant release cycle, Android is now the biggest smartphone OS out there.

The problem is, when you look at Android as a whole ecosystem, the differences between devices (and therefore their import) becomes muddy and hyper technical. Compare that to the iPhone, which has only had four iterations in a little more than three years: there’s the original iPhone, the iPhone 3G (which added 3G to the mix), the iPhone 3GS (which bumped the speed and added a video camera) and the iPhone 4 (which added FaceTime, a 1GHz A4 CPU, more RAM and a Retina Display), each paired to the annual release of a major OS revision that added major, noteworthy features to the OS. Every iteration of the iPhone was heralded by major improvements in both the hardware and software that are immediately understandable even to casual consumers with a passing familiarity with the brand.

The difference between Apple and the various manufacturers of Android phones isn’t that the iPhone didn’t have countless hardware and software iterations… it did. It’s just that Apple held the meaningless ones back, and only released iterations that mattered, the import of which were easily communicable even to those who don’t live and breathe tech. The end result is that iOS � which only runs on iPhones � no longer commands the largest slice of the pie when it comes to smartphone operating systems, but the iPhone is still the most popular and identifiable smartphone on Earth.

None of this is meant to be a moist handjob to Apple: both Google’s strategy and Cupertino’s are paying off for their respective companies. The point here, though, is the clarity of message that can be achieved when a company controls both the software and the hardware of their device and keeps all of the “missing link” iterations back from the public eye. Google’s Android OS may be more pervasive, but the difference between individual devices themselves (and what makes each of those devices unique) are hard to identify even in retrospect without a Wikipedia listing… let alone when you’re trying to figure out which of a gaggle of competing Android phones to buy at a given moment of time.

Now let’s imagine that every single Android smartphone was dumped on a three square mile showhall all at once, and a thousand tech journalists were set loose to try to make sense of what it all means. That’s CES in a nutshell: a thousand gadgets arrayed for the public eye and accompanied by breathless PR serenades, yet almost each and every one only slightly iterative on the model shown the year before… and only a few of them meaningfully iterative on the best of their contemporaries.

For someone who loves the transformative power of tech to improve lives and facilitate creation, CES is a gruesome horror show of various parts bulk ordered slapped together by engineers without any vision: their infinite configurations determined by some engineer’s spreadsheet, their branding decided by the random alphanumeric string generated in cell A1 for each variation. Go to Asus or Sony or Dell’s booth, for example, and you’ll see a couple of dozen new laptops, each with some slight iteration of new processor or cache size or RAM configuration or display technology or storage option, but with no clearly stated creator’s vision distinguishing them from one another. The same is true at CES of almost every gadget, whether a smartphone, a tablet, a digicam, an HDTV, a PMP or even a mouse… thousands of devices in every configuration, most of which will sell by the droves, but almost none of which have a communicable vision, or are meant to fill a definable hole in a real human being’s life.

It’s a shame. I wish that the hundreds of talented tech journalists who converge upon CES every year could pass onto their reader a coherent vision of the landscape of the next year in tech, but who can blame them for not being able to do that when even the people making these gadgets can’t answer as simple a question as why their device matters?

(They can’t. At a past CES I attended, this was the sole question we asked the people working the booths: nearly every single one stumbled over their script and could only answer in specs.)

Even when CES does seem to glimpse the future of its own industry � as they did last year, when keynote speaker and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer took the stage to herald in the future of tablets � it’s usually badly off the mark. In the case of tablets, the entire conference seemed so smugly self-satisfied that it had somehow beat Apple to the punch by unveiling a cavalcade of Windows 7 “slates” ahead of the iPad (which was then rumored to be branded the iSlate). What they unveiled were a bunch of touchscreen laptops without keyboards, running on an operating system that was never meant to be separate from a mouse or a QWERTY: when Apple introduced the iPad three months later, what they unveiled was a working, interactive window for the absorption and creation of new media, the software as fused with the hardware as a brain is fused with the mind. Is it any wonder that very, very few of the Windows 7 slates announced at CES have been released, even a year later? They were designed in a spreadsheet, where as the iPad came from a communicable idea… a vacuum in a real person’s electronic life, the edges of which could be measured.

CES 2011, like CES 2010 and every CES before it, will give us our first look at some truly impressive gadgets that will fill a hole in our lives that we didn’t know we had. Some of those personal vacuums will be created out of PR speak, but some of them will be real and transformative of the industry as a whole. It’s the tragedy of CES that the noise will deafen the signal. The gadgets that debut at CES this year that matter will be spared the same amount of ink and the same breathless praise as the gadgets that don’t.

CES should be a vision of a better future of the limits of ingenuity and vision, both filtered and purified by the journalists who cover it. Instead, it’ll be like an initiation into Fight Club.

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Unevenly Distributed is a weekly column written by John Brownlee fusing the week�s most interesting tech stories with history, context, weirdness, humor and vision towards the future. You can drop John a note by writing to john AT gearfuse DOT com.

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  1. I believe this is one of the single most important, and best articles I’ve ever read on gearfuse. Props to you Mr. Brownlee, I’ll be sharing this with everyone one. The tech industry needs vision, not just more stuff.

  2. So, where do we start? I was reminded again today of the expression “spending money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like”. Gadgets, in the developed world, very much fit into this expression. Your question: “Why does your device matter?” could get a lot more straight answers if vendors were trying to solve REAL problems experienced by people all over the planet. Not meet some (fellow-) geek’s iterative wish list criteria….

  3. John, I agree and disagree with your post. The part about the benefits of a homogeneous, preplanned product lineage from Apple being superior to the more chaotic, evolutionary (in a natural sense) path that Android is taking is not the part I agree with. I think both strategies have their places (obviously), but that their benefits are nearly incomparable — truly an apples versus hamburgers comparison. The part I agree with you on is the utter lack of a coherent, meaningful abstraction of what CES produces each year. This will be my 2nd year going (purely as a tourist) and it’s always interesting to see the coverage focusing on specific gadgets and only rarely stepping back for a wider look. The forest is surely more than the sum of the individual trees, yet it’s almost never covered as such. Hopefully, this year will be different, but I’m not holding my breath.

  4. Craig, I didn’t say that Apple’s path was superior to Android’s. I said the opposite, in fact. All I said was that Apple’s product lineage was more communicable and less chaotic than Google’s. So needless to say, I agree with you. Thanks for the great comment!

  5. John, this was a refreshing article on CES–glad to read it! That said, we are hosting an unveiling tomorrow night at a private event at CES that really hones in on how a mobile Internet device can change the way a family communicates. It is the WHY that you state that you are looking for–how technology fits into regular lives and why it matters. We would like you to take part as we inject the vision you desire for CES back into your experience. Please email me so I can follow-up with details.

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