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Visitors navigate an aisle on the trade show floor during the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada January 11, 2012. CES, the world's largest consumer technology tradeshow, runs through January 13. (STEVE MARCUS/Steve Marcus/Reuters)
Visitors navigate an aisle on the trade show floor during the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada January 11, 2012. CES, the world's largest consumer technology tradeshow, runs through January 13. (STEVE MARCUS/Steve Marcus/Reuters)

Technology

Why CES is bloated, insane and too big to fail Add to ...

The big companies can get away with this sort of thing. And afterwards, when the show floor closes for the day and the attendees disperse into the Strip, it's the big companies that hold the best parties – money-is-no-object blowouts for which entire nightclubs are reserved and normally buttoned-up regional sales representatives and account executives get absolutely hammered.

However, big-name CES and small-name CES may as well be two entirely different shows. The small companies live in another world. The back of the halls at CES is the tech industry's toned-down version of a Moroccan bazaar. Confined mostly to booths the size of solitary prison cells, are hundreds upon hundreds of companies you've never heard of, such as Hong Kong-based exporter More Charm Ltd. or phone accessory-maker Magic Protection Technology Co. or OhMiBod, which builds iPod-compatible sex toys.

Most of these booths have one or two company reps on hand. Those reps quickly learn the art of reading and judging the importance of each passer's CES badge, which displays their attendee type (buyer, exhibitor, media, etc.) and affiliation. Depending on the badge, a rep will quickly introduce themselves and begin a short pitch about whatever it is that company is selling. Nine times out of 10, the person hearing the pitch will nod politely and then walk away.

Some booths are so small, even the elevator-pitch approach isn't worth the effort. In the very back of the south hall, I walk past a cubicle-sized booth of undecipherable signage, its lone occupant asleep in his plastic folding chair.

That's in part why CES is a terrible place to show off a new product. It's too big, too sprawling, and in parts drowned out by the chaotic din of sweaty, annoyed delegates and the same Maroon 5 song that all the speaker companies are perpetually blasting.

There are all kinds of undeniably cool gadgets on display here: 3D printers and solar-powered radios and ludicrously thin TVs and wearable health monitors and movement-activated intruder-detection systems that send alarm notices to your iPad. But in the overwhelming bigness of CES they all just melt into one amorphous gadget, and by the end of the week nobody can really tell one ultrabook from another.

Most significantly, there really aren't that many blockbuster new products to speak of, beyond the wasteland of cheap plastic iPhone cases and low-end Android tablets. During a few minutes of loitering at the RIM booth, I overhear the following conversation between a RIM staffer and an exhibitor who wandered over from a nearby booth.

Exhibitor (pulling out his iPhone): “When are you guys gonna make something like this?”

RIM staffer: “You mean like a touchscreen? Because we have...”

Exhibitor: “No, you know, like something fun.” (Waves iPhone.) “You know, like this.”

The staffer had nothing to show him because, like almost every other big company at CES, RIM doesn't really have any new products to show off here. In fact, Microsoft got so sick of contorting its product release schedule around the CES dates that they're greatly reducing their presence at upcoming years' shows. (Behind closed doors, Microsoft also balked at paying the CES exhibitor fee.)

As a product showcase, CES is a mess. There's really only one reason everybody still comes to this show: The accidental networking.

During the bus ride from the hotel to the convention one morning, I get to talking with the founder of a company that specializes in digital forensics – pulling data off hard drives (one of their biggest customers is the U.S. government).

I ask him what he thinks of CES. He says there's really no reason his company should have a booth here. The odds that an attendee will walk past and suddenly decide to buy hard drive data extraction services are basically nil.

But then he tells me about his evening at the bar the night before, when he went to grab a quick drink and serendipitously ended up seated next to one of the more influential hard drive industry analysts in the country.

Even in Silicon Valley, this sort of thing doesn't happen with the frequency it does during the week of CES in Vegas. For analysts, reporters and the hungry executives of struggling small companies, the odds of getting face time with a Steve Ballmer or a Stephen Elop at CES are about as good as the odds of running into 50 Cent in the convention restroom – which is to say, way better than normal. (Like Snooki, 50 Cent was at CES to try to sell you headphones.)

That's ultimately why CES is probably going to live on for a long time, despite its unwieldy sprawl, despite its dearth of blockbuster product announcements, despite it being so very easy to hate. Even if Microsoft's defection prompts other big firms to do the same, even if the media stop showing up, CES is still the only place a microchip supplier from Taiwan can run into a netbook maker from Israel one minute and a smartphone engineer from Germany the next. The sheer number of backroom deals that get done in Vegas every year during that one week in January is so large that even companies such as Facebook and Google, which don't have their own showroom presence here, send some of their people to Vegas anyway. In that respect, CES is too big to fail.

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