I'm in CES prep mode: Crawling through hundreds of emails, making last-minute appointments, trying to ferret out interested bits of gee-whiz information from tight-lipped tech companies. On the surface, it's a rerun of the past nine years of my life. Deep down, however, I know that CES 2013 is different, and not necessarily in a good way.
It's the first year since 1999 that Microsoft will not deliver the keynote address. In fact, the software giant won't even be in attendance at the Las Vegas tradeshow. In the company's place is Qualcomm.
That's right, Qualcomm, the mobile CPU company, will take the stage and, I suspect, show off a lot of other people's finished products.
Qualcomm's spot in the CES lineup is not just about filling the vacuum left by Microsoft. It marks a seismic shift in CES's purpose, from broad-based consumer electronics show to mobile electronics event.
And that's cause for concern.
CES has no choice; it has to continue the transition to a mobile technology focused show. That is the larger trend. People care far more about the phone in their pocket than they do the HDTV in their living room or desktop computer in the den.
The Las Vegas trade show will have its share of oddball and interesting products that are not mobile. There will be near wall-sized TVs, ultra-thin, edge-to-edge screens, monstrous speakers, tons of home automation and new form factors for PCs. Virtually every single one will be incremental updates.
Innovation, where it's found at CES, will be entirely mobile.
That presents another problem. The coolest stuff you'll see and read about will be small, sometimes tiny enough to fit inside Tinkerbell's sock. And how could it be otherwise? Miniature is a prerequisite for mobile.
Tiny stuff can do amazing things, but it'll be hard to show off. Whatever innovation Qualcomm unveils at CES 2013 will be blown up to hundreds of times its actual size and probably look like, well, chips and mother boards. Obviously, they'll demonstrate all this inside cool new smartphones and tablets from their partners, but even those are as thin as a pencil and smaller than your average hardcover book.
Even products that are not explicitly "mobile" devices will be designed for the mobile lifestyle. The latest health gadgets and sensors are almost all wearable. The hottest automobile tech is not another set of trunk-sized speakers -- it'll all be small and either connectivity-based or augmented reality. High-tech fashion is for wearing on the go and staying connected to your mobile devices. Home automation usually starts with your cell phone and connects you before you arrive at your stationary home.
The use of the word "mobile" in most pitches will be a lot like the way tech companies threw around "Internet-ready" in the mid-1990s.
If CES is, as I suspect, turning into a mobile show, then it has another big problem: Mobile World Congress. Once referred to as the more awkward "GSM World Congress," this Barcelona, Spain-based event has ballooned into a monster show where all the major smartphone and tablet manufacturers make their biggest announcements. The show also takes place less than two months after CES wraps up.
History proveat having two major shows with similar focus happening this close together is an unsustainable situation.
CES has been around for 40-plus years, but it was by no means the only tech-focused show in town. In the 1980s, '90s and even into the very early part of this century, I made the yearly pilgrimage to Las Vegas for another monster show that started with the letter "C" -- Comdex.
Unlike CES, Comdex was pure nerdy tech, attended primarily by ultra-geeks like me. It was PC-heavy at a time when the computer business was a vast sea of large and small competitors and average nerds still shopped for graphics and sound cards.
Over time, though, Comdex changed. Technology got simpler, consumers brought computers home and the turn of the century saw the rise of the gadget. CES exploded and Comdex imploded. Seriously. One year it was there. The next year it was not.
Technologists like me barely lost a step. We simply switched gears to CES and have not looked back.
Now, however, when I look forward, I see history repeating itself.
CES has not had a standout product in years. The last knock-your-socks-off unveiling was the Palm Pre in 2009.
Companies like Microsoft, Samsung, and Motorola find it more cost effective to run their own launch events and not compete for attention at multi-building trade-show extravaganzas like CES. Where did they learn this? Apple. The company has been running multiple yearly events for a decade. Each one is invite-only and generates the kind of publicity money can't buy. I suspect Apple's ROI on these events is quite good.
I wouldn't say Microsoft has duplicated Apple's success, but it's clearly doing well enough to leave CES behind.
These pop-up events aside, CES is also losing the battle for interest to the Electronic Entertainment Expo (or E3), which is held each June in Los Angeles. Most believe Microsoft has an Xbox 720 up its sleeve. There was once a time when it would have at least demoed it on the CES stage. Now, if it happens, the major Xbox update is a lock for E3. Sony and Nintendo also hold all major gaming announcements for E3.
Oh, "but those are all gaming devices" you say. Not really. Every console is now a home entertainment hub, delivering everything from games, to music, to media, to live, streaming TV and movies -- all things that normally belong at the Consumer Electronics Show.
Don't misunderstand me. I'm excited about CES 2013. I know I'll see cool and unusual technology. I'll get some hands-on time with bizarre and wacky devices. I'll meet interesting, important people and have great conversations. But I bet many of them will end the same way: Can CES survive this mobile revolution?
January 03, 2013