Is CES still Relevant?

on December 23, 2015

When I head off to the 2016 edition of CES in a few weeks, it will be the 37th year I will be attending the winter CES show. I have actually attended more that 37 because CES used to have summer shows — I did at least 18 of those as well. But I have seen CES evolve significantly over this time and its role in our tech world continues to be important and, in my view, still very relevant.

I realize this flies in the face of many who find the show too crowded, noisy, and confusing and have decided to “watch” CES from their easy chairs or office desks instead of fighting cab lines, paying ridiculous prices for hotels and rubbing elbows with 175K of their best friends. I have been tempted to do this myself since pretty much every press conference will be blogged live, every keynote will be accessible online and, with 1700 reporters and bloggers covering the show, a desktop warrior could easily cover the show from their homes or offices.

But even with those logistical issues, I find the show itself fascinating and the ability to touch and feel products and do one on one meetings with vendors is still worth it for our Creative Strategies and Tech.pinions staff. Of course, it is impossible to cover the show completely but, by doing some scouting beforehand and setting up only the meetings I want to take, it is still worth my making the annual trek to Vegas to check out the latest and greatest tech products that may hit the market in 2016.

Since many of the media know I have gone to CES for so long, I often get questions about this show. The first is how it has changed over the years and second, what are the key things I will be looking for when I attend the show. My first CES was in 1976 and, back then, it was literally just a consumer electronics show. I skipped a few years in the late 1970’s but when I first started attending CES it was mainly about audio and video and included things like household appliances and other electronic goods of various types. PCs had not hit the scene and, while there were some primitive games systems at my first show, like the Atari game console, most of the 70s and 80’s really did not have the types of products CES has today.

These early shows also defined what were often called “booth babes” and in many ways this definition was apt. Many of the electronic vendors would hire Playboy Bunnies and Penthouse Pets to sit in their booth and sign autographs to lure customers into their area. Thankfully CES outlawed them by the early 1990s.

The biggest change to CES came in the late 1990s and early 2000 when the granddaddy of PC shows, Comdex, began to falter. Although CES had tried to get PC vendors into their show in the early 1990s, the two shows were just 40 days apart and CES itself had lost some of its luster. But with the eventual demise of Comdex, CES started really courting the PC crowd and very soon CES became a consumer electronics and PC show and, over time, the addition of various spin-offs of the PC industry, such as smartphones, tablets, IoT, wearables and other extensions of our tech world got wrapped into the show.

This is at the heart of the organization behind CES’ name change. From the beginning, the group that sponsored the show was known as the Consumer Electronics Association, or CEA. But a month ago they changed their name to the Consumer Technology Association or CTA to reflect the broader scope of products they have at CES.

This is a very important move and distinction for CTA. In the past, the main companies that were part of the organization were mostly from the CE industry. But now, their members include companies in the PC industry, telecom and communications industries and, most recently, include most of the auto makers. Companies in the healthcare industry who are also targeting consumers with digital representations of their products and services are now members of CTA.

In fact, two of the three main things I will be researching at CES are related to the auto and health industries as both are taking direct aim at consumers. As researchers, they have now come on to our radar as we research the impact of tech on many new market areas. The CEO of VW will use his CES keynote to launch their first self-driving car. All of the major auto makers will be at the show to demonstrate how smart their cars have become by using things like Apple’s AutoPlay or Google’s Android Auto or their own versions of these types of services that include embedded cellular/Wifi services inside the car. Major health industry companies like United Healthcare will be there showing their backing of various fitness trackers and how their own Web services are being used to help people navigate their health issues.

The third thing I will be checking out is the Chinese companies who at CES. Their increased presence is kind of deja vu for me. In the early 1990s, the giant Japanese players started embracing CES in a big way. Companies like Sony, Toshiba, Panasonic, etc., made CES the place they showcased their wares and, while most still have a major presence at CES today, the Chinese companies like Huawai, Hisense and at least six more have huge booths on this year’s show floor and will have a major presence. This is very significant. Some of the Japanese companies are really struggling and are losing ground to the South Koreans and now these Chinese CE companies as they move into their territory and become serious competitors. Of course, CTA and the CES show is international and they embrace companies from all over the world. But, make no mistake, the Chinese have arrived and they plan to disrupt the traditional CE players as much as possible and take market share away from them fast.