Kay: Insider's Guide to CES: The People, Products, and Parties

The ulitmate reason why eveyone goes is—because everyone goes

The dynamic that amazes me is how far we have NOT come since high school

Another year, another CES. I’ve seen so many that they all begin to blend. But change is always afoot in the consumer electronics business, and so there’s something new every time.

The Nook e-reader
Source: barnesandnoble.com
The Nook e-reader

The following highlights different aspects of CES, some perennial, some dynamic.


Vegas is always Vegas, a little worse for wear these past few years, what with being the epicenter of the real estate meltdown, but also reinvigorated with the vibrant new complex at CityCenter.

It’s all a bit cheesy, a tad flashy, but occasionally transcendent (e.g., the fountains at Bellagio, the Cirque du Soleil). Mostly it’s a big venue with lots of hotel suites, meeting rooms, restaurants, and convenient watering holes. Be forewarned, however.

As OJ can tell you, far from staying in Vegas, what happens in Vegas sometimes ends up on the front pages of national dailies.

The Las Vegas Convention Center

This monster venue is a wonder to behold. With three major sections—North, Central, and South—the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) boasts 3.2 million square feet of total space under a single roof.

With 16 exhibit halls, the LVCC offers almost 2 million square feet of actual exhibit space, 110,00 square feet of lobby and concourse area, 144 meeting rooms, ceiling heights ranging from 25 to 35 feet, and “free” internet access throughout (nota bene: WiFi is not really designed for massive simultaneous use. Your results will vary).

The News

Of course it’s a three-ring circus, but the news of interest to me this year is the tablet announcements. Without getting into all the details, the tablet market was moribund until Apple set it off with its iPad.

Now, everyone else wants in. Even Microsoft , which launched Tablet 2.0 at CES in 2002, has to pretend it’s never seen a tablet before and reintroduce one this year. Steve Ballmer is reportedly set to do just that during his keynote.

Samsung Galaxy Tab
Odd Andersen | AFP | Getty Images
Samsung Galaxy Tab

As of the show, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab is the only iPad rival available in stores in any volume, but we still don’t know whether the public is actually buying it. At the show itself, I had figured that anywhere from 20 to 40 new models would be announced.

With a week to go, Craig Ellis of Caris & estimated 69. How he got that precise number, I’m not sure. My own estimate is that only 25-40 percent of those will actually come to market, and many fewer still will find commercial success.

Of course, there will be all sorts of other “news.” A limited list includes things like telematics (e.g., car electronics from Ford , Audi, and others), location-based services (everything from navigation to coupons), mobile health (a growing category, this year often in the form of a sensor device and iOS app, but Qualcomm has a whole section devoted to its effort), tablet and phone cases, stands, accessories (e.g., Bluetooth keyboards), tablet-while-you-wait (KeDi Communication Technology Co., Ltd. from the Haidian District of Beijing, will brew one up for you on the spot based on nVidia’s Tegra 2 dual core A9).

Plus, digital cameras galore, photo frames, high-end digital audio (don’t miss out on Dolby’s introduction), smart phones for old people from Doro of Sweden, universal phone mounts, augmented reality running on most mobile platforms, batteries and power delivery systems, glasses-free 3D TV from Toshiba , Internet or Smart TV (e.g., Google TV), wireless induction chargers (e.g., ElectroHub, N 5212), a wireless cooking thermometer (e.g., iGrill — Bluetooth iOS app with multiple probe types), robotics, Greenpeace product survey results (Thursday, 8-8:30, S227, breakfast provided), green technology (e.g. Urban Green Energy), regional events (I’ve counted one each from China, Korea, and Japan), and plenty of “pre-announcements” (e.g., the Asus press conference on Jan. 4 at Aria).

Why CES is Like a High School Dance

The Attendees

Once upon a time, vendors met developers and distributors at the show. A trade booth was a modest enough affair, a place where vendors could show their proposed wares to people who might actually buy them. All that is long gone. These days, the venue is stuffed to the gills with “students” and industrial spies.

Mostly, your competitors, in various guises, come to your booth to see what you have. But one time, wandering among the hangers on and n’ere-do-wells, with no more than a single friend by his side, I saw Rupert Murdoch. I thought: familiar face. Looking down at his badge, I saw “Rupert Murdoch” written in large letters. Security obviously wasn’t much of a concern. So, you never know.

The Floor

The show floor is a cacophony. The quality of exhibits runs the spectrum, all the way from the Microsoft and Intel booths—massive showcases of current products with sound-proofed rooms in back to show future products to the select few—to every small company with a product or service related to consumer electronics. You can bet that a lot of them will be flogging accessories for Apple products this year. Apple, itself, is, of course, elsewhere.

The Parties

The first part of my schedule to get booked up is the evenings. Everyone throws a party. Now, before you get too jealous, even if the hosting company hires a real name band—I seem to remember Counting Crows, or maybe it was the Black Crows, or Sheryl Crow, whatever—the esteemed invitees represent a pretty narrow demographic (read: geeks). Liquor flows, food is scarce, and the crowd is overwhelmingly male, overweight, and could use a shower.

The High School Dance

The dynamic that amazes me about CES is how far we have not come since high school.

Everyone is trying to get the attention of someone who is mostly indifferent to him or her, a person who in turn is trying to get the attention of someone else who couldn’t care less about that person. And so on. Thus, I get pitches from every Tom, Dick, and Harry little outfit that thinks that it has something to sell, hoping that I will write or talk about them, and I find myself scrambling to fit into the schedules of the key vendors, my customers and prospects.

My preferred mode of transportation is a bicycle, which I rent every year from an obliging local outfit. One of their guides drops the bike at the bell desk for me the evening I get in and takes it back the morning I leave.

I spend my time cruising between stalled cars and can get anywhere in the likely landscape in 10 minutes tops. I have an opportunity to be outdoors in the often lovely weather, pump the blood up a bit between sessions sitting in various rooms, and can make 29 appointments in three days. (Here's a video of my two-wheeled adventures at CES in 2008.)

The Keynotes

Would it be horrible if I admitted that in all the years I’ve been coming to the show, I’ve never been to a single keynote speech? These highly orchestrated events are usually leaked well before they run, pretty predictable in what the industry luminaries on stage say, and well covered by the world’s top technology press, whose attendance is de rigueur.

I’d much rather read about them online than try to get into the hot, crowded venues where they take place. In some years, Bill Gates would fill the hall to overflowing and even the live TV feed rooms were oversubscribed. Nope, I’ll take mine with coffee the next morning.

Why People Go

Of course, people go for all different reasons. Ken Dulaney of Gartner insists that he doesn’t make any client appointments, but simply wanders the floor for days to see what’s there. He has that luxury, belonging as he does to a firm with lots of sales staff.

I do just the opposite. Most of my 29 appointments are clients, some are prospects, and a few are companies that have products that have piqued my curiosity. To me, the floor is an obstacle course I must hurdle (or hurtle across) to get to the next appointment.

But the ultimate reason why everyone goes is—because everyone goes. Le Tout Industrie will be there.

Look for CNBC's in-depth coverage of CES 2011 online and on-air. Julia Boorstinwill report from the show beginning Wednesday, January 5 and Maria Bartiromo will anchor "Closing Bell" from CES on Thursday and Friday, January 6 and 7, 3-5pm ET.

Roger L. Kay is the founder and president of Endpoint Technologies Associates.

CES 2011 - Your Digital Life - A CNBC Special Report
CES 2011 - Your Digital Life - A CNBC Special Report