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Why CES is bloated, insane and too big to fail

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

"It make you skinny! It make you skinny!" the man shrieks at the assemblage, a phalanx of jiggling rear ends behind him.

Fujiiryoki Medical Instruments MFG Co. Ltd. makes massage chairs and sundry exercise equipment. This year, the brightest star in their product constellation is a vibrating platform, similar in appearance to a StairMaster. The presumably obese user simply has to stand on the platform and watch the fat melt away, in the style of those vibrating belt machines that housewives went so crazy for in the 1950s.

To hammer that point home, the company has hired a couple of beautiful young women in red spandex pants to stand on the machines, facing away from the crowd, their seemingly earthquake-afflicted rumps serving as a kind of illustrative sales pitch.

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A Fujiiryoki representative stands beside them, hamming it up for a gaggle of middle-aged men, most of them here on behalf of electronics retailers and myriad small- and big-box stores. The men have embarrassed little grins on their faces and sweat stains around their armpits and cell phone cameras in their hands. It's a safe bet none of them give a damn about Fujiiryoki or its products – this mildly misogynist sideshow is for them a brief respite from the soul-ruining work of wading through row upon endless row of glittery smartphone cases, gold-plated HDMI cables and selfsame iPod docks.

For a week every January, the global technology industry descends on Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show. Born in 1967, CES is the biggest trade show of its kind. Even though it's not officially open to the public, every year the show attracts almost 150,000 industry reps, exhibitors, buyers, analysts, venture capitalists, reporters, celebrities and various hangers-on. More than 3,000 CES exhibitor booths take up about 1.85-million square feet of floor space, most of it within the sprawling Las Vegas convention centre and the nearby Hilton and the Venetian hotel on the Strip.

Every tech company you've ever heard of shows up to CES, but over the years, the definition of "Consumer Electronics" has been expanded to include everything from the New York Times Company to the U.S. Postal Service. Big fish mingle with small; Peruvian media bloggers share happy hour drinks with Silicon Valley angel investors; Justin Bieber drops by to shill for a company that makes dancing robots.

CES is a bloated grotesquerie of hucksters and hype. In a sane world, it wouldn't exist. And yet it's probably never going to die.

The people who put CES together presumably chose Las Vegas because flights here are cheap, it's warm in January and, most importantly, there are enough hotels to accommodate the onslaught of delegates. But the Vegas-ness of Vegas has another indirect effect on the way CES works. With some 3,000 exhibitors all competing for attention during a four-day span, most exhibitors have to figure out some way to attract the attention of showgoers, many of who represent major retail outlets and come armed with chequebooks.

Even though the convention centre at the north end of the Strip isn't nearly as glitzy as the Strip proper, it's still close enough that nothing the exhibitors do by way of publicity stunt can really compare with what's going on all the time in and around the casinos. So when a cloud computing firm populates its booth space with young women in airplane captain's hats and short shorts, or when an headphone-maker hires reality TV phenomenon Snooki as a spokesperson, or when a peripherals company puts three guys in bird costumes has them dance to Lady Gaga's Poker Face for no good reason, nobody bats an eye. This is Vegas.

Most of the action at CES takes place at the North, South and Central halls of the convention centre, each one the size of maybe five or six football fields. Central hall, where Sony, Microsoft, Intel and other big names set up their sprawling booths, seems to be prime real estate. All the major tech firms are impossible to miss: just about every big TV-maker tends to set up a giant wall of synchronized sets to draw attention to the booth. The big booths, such as Microsoft's, are elaborate constructions of bright lights and demo tables and prefabricated walls. Behind the main booth space, the big companies usually set up private areas for media and VIPs – this is where you want to be, if only to get away from the crowds and ransack the catering table.

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The tech heavies, such as Samsung and Nokia, will dole out interview opportunities to reporters weeks or months in advance of the conference, saving the top executives for the biggest media outlets. These interviews tend to take place in the private rooms at the back of the booths and, more often than not, tend to be almost completely useless. They usually involve a product manager or senior executive going on a 15-minute sales pitch for whatever the company's latest product is. Despite having to regurgitate the same pitches dozens of times a day to a rotating cast of reporters, the spokespeople present them with a kind of forceful enthusiasm that would be disappointing if it were insincere and even more disappointing if it weren't. Every single product at CES is uncompromising, brilliantly intuitive, we think consumers will just love it.

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.

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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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