A year ago, Steve Ballmer took the stage of the Consumer Electronics Show to tout a technology that he promised would change the world: the Windows operating system. Newcomers to CES might have been baffled by this choice; Windows 7 had been on the market for several months, so why was the Microsoft CEO showing it off now, at a show that is supposed to focus on the tech industry's best new stuff?
CES veterans, though, took the Ballmer keynote in stride. An annual disquisition on the awesomeness of Windows is just one of many annoying CES traditions. This time, Ballmer wanted to show how amazing it was that you can get Windows on lots and lots of different kinds of computers. I thought this was the point of Windows, but never mind. Ballmer pulled out a prototype of the Slate, a small tablet PC made by Hewlett-Packard, and he half-heartedly slid his finger across the screen to show that you could use it as an e-book reader. The demo lasted about 15 seconds. The HP Slate was delayed for much of the rest of the year.
I don't mean to single out Microsoft, because it is merely the worst offender in the overcrowded, overstuffed, chaotic, and profoundly pointless vaporware parade known as CES. That's why I'm skipping this year's show, which begins this week in Las Vegas. Every major tech company follows the same tired CES script: They put on by-the-book press conferences that begin with lots of demos of stuff we already know about—count on Intel, for instance, to always show you how fast its new chips are (hint: faster than last year's chips). Next, with all the fanfare of the Second Coming, tech giants offer a few incremental improvements to old products. (Look, Microsoft improved the Surface computer!) Finally, they show off things like the HP Slate—gadgets in very early stages of development that have been rushed to the show and barely work as prototypes, with little chance of actually getting to market anytime soon.
The fact that CES is an enormous waste of time isn't news to tech journalists. In private, gadget reporters will tell you that covering the show is a tremendous hassle and rarely yields any interesting news. But because CES demos make for great headlines and visuals—hey look, Steve Ballmer unveiled a tablet PC even before Apple did!—and because of the sheer volume of new stuff to post about, CES is a boon for gadget blog traffic and a honeypot for advertisers. To be sure, I'm very grateful that my reporting colleagues are all out covering the show; in the unlikely event that something of consequence is announced at CES, I'll happily scour Engadget, Gizmodo, and other sites from the comfort of my home.
But I doubt that's going to happen. The last time we saw something interesting unveiled at CES was in 2009, when Palm showed off its Pre phone. (The Pre didn't actually go on sale until June that year.) But that was a rarity. Most of the groundbreaking products to hit the market over the last few years—the iPhone, the iPad, the Kindle, the first Android phone, the Chrome OS, and pretty much everything else—were announced elsewhere. Apple always skips CES, and even the companies that attend seem to phone it in. Microsoft's two great products of 2010—the new Windows Phone and the Xbox Kinect—were nowhere to be seen at last year's show.