Why you should care about CES — even if you don’t want to


A bartender pours a martini though an ice sculpture during a press event prior to the 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Sunday, Jan. 6, 2012. The 2013 CES trade show, which runs until Jan. 11, is the world's largest annual innovation event that offers an array of entrepreneur focused exhibits, events and conference sessions for technology entrepreneurs. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg (Andrew Harrer/BLOOMBERG)
January 9, 2013

The CES tech show may have only kicked off this week, but chances are there are already some people who are sick of hearing about every new gadget that may, possibly, hit the market in the next decade.

Yes, CES gets a bad rap these days — and there are a lot of reasons why. Major companies pull out of the show to set their own announcement agendas (see: Apple, Microsoft). And many of the show’s “hot products” of the year don’t always pan out in the real world (see: ultrabooks), have super limited appeal, or simply never come out at all. In many ways, CES has earned its reputation as a disconnected confab and echo chamber.

So, why bother with it at all?

It’s not an easy answer, particularly if you’re not one of those people who fall in love with a new gadget every month. But CES, with all its flaws, is still a bellwether for the technology industry and worth watching , particularly as personal technology becomes more important in daily life.

On a high level, the very criticisms of CES — that it’s a hardware show in a software world, that it needs star companies to make it interesting— are indicative of shifts in the industry at large.

Devices seem to have reached a plateau for the moment. They can get slimmer, faster, lighter and bigger and have more battery life or come in new colors. Those are all useful changes, but rarely feel like anything to write home about. Innovation is increasingly coming from the software side of things, from content partnerships and novel applications of technology, which make gadget-driven news a little less interesting.

That’s apparent at CES, which has also taken pains to focus on content, entertainment and trend news and to foster conversations about what it means in a world on track to have more mobile connections than people.

CES also continues to serve as an important stage for smaller companies and others who don’t have the star power to get much attention when they have their own events. Press releases and launch events are great when you’re Apple, but the chaos of the CES firehose also gives smaller companies the chance to catch the eye of someone important as they wander through the convention.

But, most of all, CES is still one of the best places to see what’s coming down the pike and what companies are dreaming up.

Sometimes you need all the prototypes — connected home models that offer a glimpse of a “Jetsons”-like cars that drive themselves, and devices that empower users to track potential fitness or diet problems before they become chronic conditions — to see the big picture about our lives.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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