Leaving Las Vegas: Reflections on CES…and Apple

With the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) over, I consider what I’ve learned from my visit — especially from the perspective of my interest in all things Apple.

Managing the size of CES

There is no way that an individual can cover all of CES. Sites like CNET may have given out their “Best of CES Awards,” but (even with a team of reporters) I seriously doubt they checked out every product at the Show. At Macworld Expo, I could walk up and down every aisle and at least briefly glance at each product on display. At CES, such a strategy is doomed to fail. Your dead body will be discovered at the far end of the South Hall before you are finished.

The only viable alternative is to plan ahead. Study the Show Guide, read the PR emails you received. From these materials, decide what you want to see and map out how best to navigate the floor to see them. This can work because the range of products at CES is so broad that you almost certainly will not have an interest in all of them. For example, I was mainly interested in products that either work with or might compete with Apple’s products. I also had a personal interest in home theater equipment. With such limits in place, it’s relatively easy to pare down a “must-see” list to a manageable size.

While this may be necessary, it does have one big drawback: it sharply reduces the chance of a serendipitous discovery, of tripping over some unexpected surprise. But I see no way around this. I also wonder how smaller vendors at CES deal with this reality. If all attendees followed my advice, I suspect there would be a good number of small booths that would stand almost deserted all day. Maybe there’s still value at having even a largely ignored presence at the Show. Given the large number of attendees, maybe visits from only a tiny fraction are sufficient. I don’t know.

No Macs at CES

One other thing I learned from my attempts to walk up and down every aisle at CES: Outside of the borders of the iLounge Pavilion, there was virtually no sign of the Mac anywhere. Maybe I missed it, but I did not see even one booth that featured products designed exclusively for a Mac. There were a few booths that had products that work with both Macs and PCs (such as Blue microphones), but even they were in short supply. It was easier finding booths with iPhone/iPod products — including AR.Drone, an intriguing flying device/toy/game controlled by an iPhone app. But nothing specific to the Mac. Neither hardware nor software.

To be fair, software for any platform was in short supply at CES. Apparently, “consumer electronics” implies an emphasis on hardware. That’s a big difference between CES and Macworld Expo. The Expo has always featured software companies — including Adobe, Quark, Google, Omni Group, Micromat, Intego, Prosoft Engineering, and an assortment of others. Not so CES. This, in turn, led me to contemplate the obvious next question:

Should Apple attend CES?

Short answer: No. While an argument might be made that Apple loses something by being the only major consumer electronics vendor not present at CES, I don’t agree. If Apple were to be at any show, I still see Macworld Expo as the better choice. At the Expo, Apple was the biggest fish in a medium-sized pond. At CES, Apple would be one of just many big fish in a huge CES ocean. At Macworld Expo, every  booth is showing products that work with the Mac, iPhone or iPod. At CES, most booths could care less about Apple products. Even if Apple’s presence at CES brought along some other Mac vendors, it would still hardly be noticeable. At Macworld Expo, what Apple does is always the biggest story. At CES, Apple would have to share the spotlight at best. In some years, it might not even be in the spotlight. Macworld Expo attracts tens of thousands of consumers. CES is not open to the public.

Apple has been lucky to have Macworld Expo. I suspect that if a company such as Sony, for example, had the chance to participate in a (Sony) Expo that was as successful and attention-grabbing as Macworld Expo has been, they would jump at the chance. They might even decide to bypass CES to do so.

Of course, the problem with my CES vs. Expo comparison is that Apple has decided to skip both venues. Its official position is that it gets all the publicity it needs from its retail stores and special media events. For now, it’s hard to argue with this — at least from a financial point of view. Apple’s sales certainly don’t seem to be hurting. However, I believe there is a significant public relations advantage to Apple attending Macworld Expo — even if it is mainly to help boost the visibility of third party vendors who attend (who, after all, are all selling stuff that require a Mac or iPod/iPhone purchase). I believe Apple may yet regret its decision — although I doubt they (especially Steve Jobs) will ever admit it.