CES - Of CES, Billy G., and jumping sharks

"Maybe I'm getting old (ok, that's a given -- I am getting old) but there's something decidedly yawnish about this year's CES. "

So I managed to slip away from the chains that bind me to my InfoWorld hovel and schlep out to Las Vegas for the annual gathering of the geek tribes, otherwise known as the Consumer Electronics Show.

Maybe I'm getting old (ok, that's a given -- I am getting old) but there's something decidedly yawnish about this year's CES. Having assumed the mantle of The Big Show from Comdex at the turn of the millennium, CES is still an anarchic sprawling mess, but attendance seems a little down from last year's 140K. The cab and bus lines aren't as long. Attendees are leaving town faster. Vendors are grumbling about being gouged by the Vegas tourism Mafia. Even the hookers seem more morose.

Worse, there's little new to report. Flatter flat screens, fatter wireless connections, and now you can send YouTube videos directly to your TV, isn't that special? When the most exciting news is the absence of something -- the possible extinction of the HD-DVD format -- something is clearly amiss.

Not that there weren't highlights. Bill Gate's last-ever CES keynote was a snoozer, naturally, but it was preceded by an exceedingly clever video montage of Billy G's last day at work, with cameos by Bono, Jay Z, Jon Stewart, George Clooney, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Al Gore, and nearly every other Big Hollywood Name who isn't currently doing time. They all pitched in to make fun of the world's second richest man. Thus disproving two cliches: money can buy friends, and Microsoft can do something well, even if it's only poking fun at the boss.

The real action in consumer electronics is in the convergence of mobile devices and groovy new web services. There's a little of that here, but it's lost amidst the booming subwoofers and the barking booth bimbos.

That's why shows like CTIA and smaller confabs like Demo and All Things D are where the really interesting stuff can be found. Steve Jobs had better hope he can pull another rabbit out of his hat at MacWorld -- or at least a 3G iPhone -- or his show may soon suffer the same malaise.

Bottom line: CES has jumped the shark. (Note: The phrase 'jumped the shark' has also jumped the shark.) That doesn't mean it's going away tomorrow. But Comdex went from its highest all-time attendance to being defunct in about four years. An increasingly irrelevant CES could suffer the same fate. And then I'd have to find somewhere else to sneak off to during the second week in January.

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Robert X. Cringely

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