Instead of news about real products, CES delivers bogus trends. Reporters inundated with press releases about mediocre products are forced to fit all the tidbits into a coherent storyline—this year has been crowned the Year of the Tablet, while last year was the Year of the 3-D TV, and the year before was the Year of Internet TV. These labels are so transparently fake that they're not even worth criticizing; if last year was really the year of 3-D TV, how come almost nobody purchased them?
So, why is CES so dependably dreary? It's the curse of that old Yogi Berra joke—nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded. If you're a big tech company with something truly great to push, you'd be foolish to tell the world at CES. Reporters will have a hard time fitting you in to their hectic schedules. And even if you do get someone to pay attention, your grand announcement will garner, at best, two or three blog posts before the news gets buried under the next hour's news of new iPhone charging docks or snappy USB drives. We can see this effect right now: On Wednesday night, Motorola announced a new version of the Droid and the Xoom, a 10-inch Android tablet. But those stories have already been shuffled off the tech world's radar. As of Thursday morning, the top story on Techmeme—an aggregator site that rounds up the most-covered tech news—was Apple's announcement that it had opened up the new Mac App Store. How did Apple generate all that coverage? Its PR department in Cupertino, Calif.—about 500 miles away from the hubbub of CES—published a press release.
And that suggests why CES is ultimately—and thankfully—doomed. Sprawling trade shows are a vestige of a bygone era in tech media. Back before companies could easily distribute their news online—and before there were dozens of tech news outlets with reporters posted all over the world—the industry needed to put on these monstrosities to show off their gear. But nowadays most companies can summon a couple hundred reporters to a venue and show off a new product in peace. With a few well-written blog posts, a stylish product site, and a live-stream of the launch event, a tech outfit can win headlines at any time of the year. Pulling out of annual conferences also frees firms to develop gadgets at their own pace. Apple ditched the annual MacWorld conference for precisely this reason—the company didn't see why it had to announce its products in the first week of January if they weren't quite ready then. Now Apple announces its stuff whenever it wants. And you know what happens when it does? People pay attention. No trade show required.