Reflections on another strange pandemic-era CES

In the weeks leading up to CES, we made a difficult decision. With omicron cases skyrocketing around the country in the lead up to the holiday travel season, we canceled our flights and re-strategized. It made for a chaotic last few weeks of the year, but as long as the show continues to be held the first week of each year, those of us who write about hardware for a living won’t be able to take much time off during the holidays, regardless.

We certainly weren’t the only outlet to arrive at the decision after looking at the numbers. Engadget, The Verge, PCMag and CNET were among the long list of organizations that determined the risk simply wasn’t worth the reward this year. It wasn’t an easy choice, by any stretch. We complain a lot about CES — it’s hard, stressful and sometimes bordering on miserable — but it’s long been a valuable opportunity to see, firsthand, what trends the year will hold.

It’s a fascinating mix of near-term consumer technology and speculative sci-fi, an opportunity to meet with industry leaders and mingle with startups in the scrum of Eureka Park. Chances are good you’ll bring back a head cold or flu, along with a suitcase full of dirty laundry and industry swag (what my friends in the comics industry have lovingly deemed “the con crud”), but that’s just a consequence of being jammed in a convention center full of people in the dead of winter.

Of course, the cost-benefit analysis changes considerably during a pandemic. To date, there have been 57 million reported cases and 831,000 deaths from the virus in the U.S. alone. And, of course, only looking at the latter figure doesn’t take into account things like the lasting impact of long-COVID on the human body. Nor have we likely seen the full impact of holiday travel on the total number of cases. Ultimately for us, only one decision made sense — we’d covered CES remotely and would do it again.

I don’t begrudge those who chose to attend (certainly I was considering how fascinating it we be to document a relatively sparsely attended show). Entering year three of the pandemic, we have a much better picture of what this virus is and how it spreads than the last time CES was held in-person, back in January 2020. We have vaccines and boosters now. The show’s governing body, the CTA, instituted mandates and mask rules, among other things. But we were far from alone in our decision.

In addition to the media outlets opting out, a number of major companies joined suit. The incomplete list includes GM, Google, Lenovo, Intel, T-Mobile, AT&T, Meta, Twitter, Amazon, Microsoft, Peloton, TikTok, Mercedes, BMW, Velodyne, IBM, Proctor & Gamble, OnePlus and Pinterest. For a few weeks, high-profile dropouts were the major news coming out of CES — almost certainly not the kind of coverage the CTA was hoping/expecting in the lead up to what was supposed to be the triumphant return of the tech conference.

The organization’s president, Gary Shapiro, penned a fiery op-ed that ran in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Christmas Day, under the headline, “CES will and must go on in Las Vegas.” By “go on,” Shapiro means in-person, of course. The exec was drawing a line in the sand: Innovation is necessary for our future and an in-person CES is necessary for fostering that innovation. Shapiro waved away media coverage of the show dropouts as “the drumbeat of press and other critics who tell the story only through their lens of drama and big name companies” and after expressing sympathy for those who opted not to attend in-person, equated the suggestion of canceling an in-person event to “living in fear.”

A pragmatic argument could have been made that organizations like the CTA are important for consumer tech and a show like CES is necessary for its survival. Instead, the op-ed set the bar impossibly high for an event like CES. People were already, no doubt, wondering about the import of the show in an age of virtual conferences, and failing to offer the sort of life-altering expectations outlined in such a piece only furthers those question.

The truth is that technology is mostly iterative. That’s doubly the case with an event like CES, where the focus is — at least in theory — on products that are designed to come to market. That means most of what you see each year are a slightly faster processor or a screen with a bit better resolution. I’ve been covering this industry for a long time now, and I can tell you that if you’re banking on revolution every year, you’re setting yourself up for a life of disappointment.

This is something we’re all inherently aware of that gets obscured with a lot buzzwords (take a shot every time you see the word “metaverse” and see if you make it out of hall 1) and fantastical sci-fi presentations like the one we saw from Hyundai. As we head into the final day of the show, I spent part of the morning thinking about the last time I saw something debut at the show that I would genuinely classify as “life changing.” I will come up with something, I’m sure of it, but right now, I’m coming up short.

Ultimately, concerns that stories about companies not attending the show would eclipse the actual news from CES were put to rest as soon as the show started — the reason most of the press coverage highlighted dropouts in the lead up to the show is because the show hadn’t actually started yet. The outlets that cover CES covered CES — albeit remotely, in many cases. It was a strange experience as someone who has attended many in-person CESes, but it was something we were prepped for with last year’s all-virtual show.

It was, again, a mixed bag. Thankfully, the online version of the show was less of a mess than last year. Press conferences were much easier to watch on the platform. Though actual discovery is still an issue — that’s the thing that’s ultimately lacking when the show moves online. Suddenly the opportunity to stumble on an interesting startup in Eureka Park transforms into another email pitch hurdled into my bottomless void of an inbox.

That’s a point of agreement I have with the CTA — those startups without a platform ultimately have the most to lose if we move away from in-person events altogether. For that reason, I can certainly sympathize with those who felt the need to go forward, in-person. That and the fact that deposits, hotel fees and plane rides have a bigger impact to the bottom line of some brand new startup than, say, GM or Google.

In the intervening weeks, I received a number of emails from startups telling me that they were also opting not to attend — and among those that still were, messages that they were pushing back their news. If a product is announced and no one is there to cover it, is it really news? Many have questioned the value in announcing a product during the busiest week of the year, and that question becomes even more pronounced when no one is present to cover it. I suspect that an immediate result from much of this is that the traditionally dead weeks following CES will not be so dead this year.

The truth about CES is that it’s constantly evolving. It’s not easy to see up close, but take a step back and those macro trends fall into stark relief. Reflecting on the biggest news of CES 2012 was an interesting exercise in tracking those trends. Chief among them was the event’s move away from being a mobile show and welcoming in things like automotive, which now comprises a sizable portion of the show.

In its fine print, the CTA notes, “The official name of the global technology event is ‘CES.’ Please do not use ‘Consumer Electronics Show’ or ‘International CES’ to refer to the event.” Heck, even the change from the Consumer Electronics Association to the Consumer Technology Association was a clear indication that the show was trying to grow beyond its earlier parameters. And honestly, it had been a successful one.

Thirteen years ago (I mentioned I’ve been doing this a long time, right), I wrote a story titled, “CES 2009 suffers 22 percent attendance drop.” As I noted in that 2012 retrospective, that year’s show was its best attended — a growth that would continue for the next several years and peak in 2019.

People have declared CES dead before. In fact, they’ve done it a lot. But continuing to grow the show means continuing to evolve — and meeting changing expectations around how a show looks. I missed seeing friends and colleagues this year. I missed walking the halls of Eureka Park and eating at that dark little Italian restaurant across from the Convention Center where Pia Zadora does shows on Friday and Saturday (Vegas is a profoundly strange place).

But I also didn’t hate being at home in bed by 10PM ET practically every night this week. Nor am I sure I can say our and other sites’ coverage necessarily suffered from not being at the show in-person this year. As I’ve said, I don’t do CES the way other attendees do. If this pandemic ever ends, I’d like to go back some day. But if I don’t find myself looking at iPhone cases in the Mirage on a cold winter day in early January, I can’t say I’ll be that upset about that, either.

In the weeks leading up to CES, we made a difficult decision. With omicron cases skyrocketing around the country in the lead up to the holiday travel season, we canceled our flights and re-strategized. It made for a chaotic last few weeks of the year, but as long as the show continues to be heldRead MoreHardware, TC, ces 2022TechCrunch

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