What CES 2012 Is About: Four Major Themes

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In the Shadow of the Big Man

I've been reading lots of analysis of this year's show, but I found one piece by San Francisco Chronicle tech columnist James Temple especially thought-provoking. Temple posits that CES 2012 is mainly about a bunch of tech companies trying to catch up with Apple in a number of key categories.

Apple invented what are arguably the two hottest product categories at this year's show--Ultrabooks (with the MacBook Air in January 2008) and tablets (with the iPad in April 2010). During the past decade, no company has done a better job than Apple of recognizing or creating market demand for new gadgets, and then nailing the category with stylish products that are easy to use and "just work."

Typically, the company that identifies a market has an easier time building a successful product for it. And all of the companies that compete in the categories that Apple invented have had to follow a painful course--first accepting that Apple's category entry fits the market's needs, and then trying to clone the Apple product as closely as possible with a version of the product that bears their own brand name.

By now, tech companies are so weary of this cycle that the mere rumor of an Apple product in a new category stirs them to action. Many people engaged in the smart TV business believe that Apple will soon jump in with a smart TV product--one that may be controlled by the same Siri voice-recognition technology found in the new iPhones. As a result, we're seeing TV makers going all-out to add intelligence, apps, content, and voice recognition to their new sets--Lenovo's new Android 4.0-based K91 Smart TV, for example.

Smartphone makers, meanwhile, are adding new versions of Android, thinner designs, and faster 4G technology to their new smartphones. Presumably they're doing this, at least in part to establish position against the market-leading iPhone. The device makers must be operating under pressure from the wireless carriers to provide phones that are as sexy as the iPhone, which at the moment has far more influence on profit margins and subscriber churn than any carrier would like one device to have.

Is CES's Glow Fading?

The question of whether CES is losing its edge elicits different answers from different people. Observers expect attendance at this year's show to be at least as strong as at last year's, when 150,000 journalists, tech analysts, and industry people showed up to immerse themselves in the offerings of some 2800 vendors.

But even as people continue to flock to Vegas for the big show, a lot of chatter seems to suggest the possibility that the show's importance to marketers may be waning.

Microsoft has said that its CEO and other execs won't be keynoting at the event after this year. Nor will Microsoft continue to exhibit on the show floor; and the company says that it has already lowered expectations for its involvement in the show this year.

In addition, many of the companies that make wireless products like phones and tablets may be saving their biggest announcements for the Mobile World Congress event next month in Barcelona, Spain. That's significant, given that mobile is the force pushing the tech world forward right now. Still, AT&T and Sprint, the two U.S. carriers that are trying to get new 4G LTE service off the ground, held big events at CES and released lots of new LTE devices--especially AT&T, whose network is farther along).

If Ultrabooks, tablets, and 4G phones are major trends of the show this year, is that enough to keep the industry--and industry-watchers like me--fired up about the event? Maybe not. I did a local TV talk show interview yesterday, and had trouble keeping myself excited and capturing the imagination of the interviewer and the audience when asked about the "hot products" of CES.

That's because this year's CES seems dominated by a lot of companies that are hyping new stuff in product areas that are already old news, or that were mastered by Apple under Steve Jobs. Don't get me wrong: I think it's vital that those companies use Apple's market vision, and that they work to improve their own products along those lines. More companies releasing more products that, through their diversity, hit closer to what we want can only be good for consumers and their pocketbooks. But that process doesn't have to happen in the spotlight of CES.

Over time, CES may lose its relevance because the consumer tech business is changing--or more specifically, because the marketing of new tech products is changing. CES used to be the one time of the year where thousands of tech companies could get together, show products, have meetings, form partnerships, and talk to the press.

But like the products on the show floor, the business is far more connected and real-time now. Marketing initiatives that in the past were best completed by hauling a bunch of people out to Las Vegas each year many now be done from a company's home office via the Web, social media, and other online promotion for less money and with greater impact.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. It's only Day One. The most important tech company of 2012 may only just now be setting up its booth and getting ready to announce the year's most important product. Something Apple hasn't thought of yet.

For more blogs, stories, photos, and video from the nation's largest consumer electronics show, check out PCWorld's complete coverage of CES 2012.

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