Why the Consumer Electronics Show is a lousy place to see the future of tech.

The latest gadgets and tech toys.
Jan. 16 2008 11:59 AM

Consumer Electronics No-Shows

Why the giant tech conference is a lousy place to see the future of tech.

Also in Slate, Paul Boutin says he's disappointed in the ultraslim new laptop that Steve Jobs debuted at Apple's Macworld Expo.

Slash and Bill Gates. Click image to expand.
Bill Gates plays Guitar Hero as Slash plays a real guitar

For years, the gargantuan Consumer Electronics Show has opened with Bill Gates sharing his vision of the future of personal technology. The Microsoft chairman's presentations always attract throngs of conventioneers and plenty of press coverage. His futuristic visions, though, haven't usually come to pass. Windows Smart Displays, which he touted in 2003? Dead within a year. SPOT smart watches and Portable Media Centers (2004)? Never popular; now defunct. The MTV-branded Urge music service (2006)? Folded into Real's Rhapsody in mid-2007. It's enough to leave you placing bets against the Surface touch-sensitive table and Sync car computer, two of the products Gates demoed in his swan-song speech last week. (His move to full-time philanthropy will end the keynote tradition.)

The failure of Gates' presentations to spawn the next big thing is a fitting kickoff for CES. The show's 2008 edition filled 1.85 million square feet of Vegas exhibition space with the latest gadgets and gizmos, providing an excellent freeze frame of where the industry is right now. But CES has never been a reliable roadmap for where consumer electronics are going.

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Gates gets to be the centerpiece at CES in large measure because Steve Jobs skips the whole affair. Apple's CEO does his January product introductions at Macworld Expo, a show where he is the show. (Full disclosure: Both that conference and PC World, my employer, are owned by International Data Group.) Considering that Apple has set the tech-industry agenda in recent years, Jobs' absence from CES leaves a gaping hole in the Las Vegas desert.

Last year, perverse scheduling put CES and Macworld head-to-head, allowing Jobs to trump the rest of the industry by unveiling the iPhone in San Francisco during the second morning of CES. This year, Macworld came the week after CES. None of the news—a bizarrely thin notebook, movie rentals through iTunes, an upgrade to Apple TV that turns it from computer peripheral into a stand-alone box—was an iPhone-like bombshell. But Jobs still provided a slicker, more coherent picture of where the digital world is headed than anyone at CES.

Back in Vegas, most of the real news is about incremental improvements—products that are a bit better and a bit cheaper than those we saw last year. Nobody wants to admit that. So everyone from genuinely inventive giants such as Toshiba and Texas Instruments to also-rans like COBY tosses around words like innovative in the ad banners that plaster the Las Vegas Convention Center.

To be fair, there are some innovations to be found among the infinite aisles of iPod accessories and cell-phone cases. Toshiba's sprawling exhibit, for instance, played host to demos of an upcoming Qosmio notebook that uses an impressive chip called the SpursEngine—a cousin of the PlayStation 3's potent Cell processor—to whip through processor-intensive tasks such as preparing digital video for editing.

Oftentimes, though, what's displayed as "innovation" will never be ready for prime time. Toshiba also had a mock-up of a tablet computer, based on Microsoft's Ultra-Mobile PC spec, that's powered by a fuel cell rather than a battery. The company wouldn't say when such a device might ship, which is just as well: I'd be startled if even its engineers believe that the misbegotten UMPC platform will still exist by the time fuel cells become a commercial reality.

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