Is there a future for CES?

The world’s biggest technology trade show will feature razor-thin laptops, powerful new smartphones and fancy flat-screen TVs, but talk in the cavernous halls of the Consumer Electronics Show, which kicks off tonight, may focus on whether the show itself has a long-term future.

Apple Inc., which has set the agenda in consumer electronics for the past decade, does not even attend the show. Microsoft Corp., desperately trying to catch up, is making this show its last. It has been a few years since Las Vegas-based CES had the “wow” factor.

“There’s a lot of hype. The promise exceeds the deliverable a lot,” said Todd Lowenstein, portfolio manager at HighMark Capital Management, which owns several technology stocks. “I take an interest in it only to the extent that there’s market-moving information that comes out of there, which I find is rare.”

Steve Jobs’ stylish and dramatic product launches came to dominate the popular tech world, and rivals are looking to copy that outside of the hubbub and razzmatazz of CES in Las Vegas. “A lot of companies are trying to imitate Apple’s success in a lot of areas, and one area where Apple has been extremely successful is in controlling its message by controlling the event and the timetable of its announcements,” said Avi Greengart, research director for consumer devices at Current Analysis, a business intelligence firm.

Microsoft, which is trying to win back its technology crown from Apple and newcomer Google Inc., has long said that CES in early January does not fit its product release timetable, meaning it has little new to share in the opening keynote, which has for years been given by chief executive Steve Ballmer, and before him by co-founder Bill Gates.

“Microsoft can do this on their own, they don’t need CES,” said Hanson Hosein, a specialist in technology and media at the University of Washington in Seattle. “It’s a lot of money. These shows are generally declining in popularity anyway.”

This year, the buzzwords look similar to last year, including “connected,” “always on” and “voice recognition,” whether in new, more powerful phones and tablets or in cars or even watches.

“This year there’s going to be a focus on connectivity and mobility that continues the momentum we’ve seen for the past few years, even though we may not see quite so many big announcements by (mobile) carriers as we did last year,” said Ross Rubin, executive director of connected intelligence at retail research firm NPD Group.

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