Tens of thousands of people wasted their time at this week's Consumer Electronics Show.
I know, I know. Last year I covered CES with my teammate Karl Thiel for Motley Fool Rule Breakers. We came away with a lot of content that proved popular for the site, including profiles of four stocks whose fortunes we saw improving after having a chance to get up close and personal with their products.
What's changed? Nothing, and therein lies the problem. The big stories are still:
- Windows Phone
- Windows 8
- 3-D television
Ho-freaking-hum. Where are the breakthroughs, people? Please don't say ultrabooks. Copying the MacBook Air doesn't count as innovation, which is why I believe you're more likely to encounter genius engineering following the tweets of my Foolish colleague Jason Moser. He's at the Detroit Auto Show this week. Check out what he's learning about one of my favorite Breakers, Tesla Motors.
The difference between innovation and improvement
Incrementalism is what makes CES boring. Little by little, companies add features to bulk up demos and floor models to be ready for the Big Show. It's like Halloween but without the candy.
Take Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) . American Idol host Ryan Seacrest joined CEO Steve Ballmer on stage Monday to unveil several improvements but no innovations. There were new Windows Phone handsets from HTC and Nokia, a voice-activated Xbox, Kinect for the PC, and unspecified talk about Windows-powered tablets. Anyone hoping for new stuff left the keynote disappointed.
Mr. Softy wasn't the only one announcing the news equivalent of cold leftovers. Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) talked up a device deal with Lenovo years after promising to better compete with ARM Holdings in powering smartphones. Panasonic and Samsung touted smarter TVs as Stream TV picked up where Sony left off last year in pitching glasses-free 3-D television. Haven't we heard all this before?
Yet blaming CES for the failings of its attendees is misguided. Should we blame the organizers of the old COMDEX show for failing to remain relevant as CES grew in popularity? Maybe, but I suspect the shift was much more about rising consumer interest in geekery than poor planning on the part of COMDEX's organizers.
Today's Consumer Electronics Association, which produces CES, faces a similar dilemma. Here's a closer look at three forces conspiring to make the show irrelevant:
1. Innovation happens too quickly. Thanks to the rise of cloud computing, businesses and products can be built in weeks rather than months. The Web also makes official launches unnecessary, as Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) has proved over and over. Simply throw some code into the wild, call it beta, recruit feedback, improve, and iterate. Call it the Googlization of software development if you like.
2. Most news is trans-fat news. See above. When Microsoft CEO Ballmer dismissively speaks of Windows 8 tablets as something he "kicked off" at CES last year and is more excited about this year, it's trans-fat news. Filler that sounds salty and delicious ("ooh, tablets are coming!") but is so lacking in specifics that it causes indigestion.
3. The biggest names are missing! Finally, the pachyderm. Mobile computing is the biggest trend in tech, yet the two most important companies in the space -- Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) and Google -- didn't attend CES. They have their own shows, product schedules, and followings. Pitching a tent in Vegas would have been a vanity exercise, especially when the Mac maker already gets away with spending less than 1% of revenue on advertising.
Good conferences for tech investors
Rest assured that even if the Rule Breakers team has sworn off CES for now, we aren't done attending tech conferences. To the contrary -- we've set aside time and resources to attend South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, in March. We're also pursuing developer and showcase conferences sponsored by some of our favorite innovators.
Tech conferences aren't dead. But big events will only ever be as relevant as the newsmakers they attract. For CES, which is losing Mr. Softy as of 2013, the list is growing smaller with each passing year.
Where do you get tech ideas? Do conferences matter? Please weigh in using the comments box below.