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CES 2012 and technology trade shows: What's the real ROI of attending?

9:27 PM, Feb 9, 2012   |    comments
The Consumer Electronics Show is held annually in Las Vegas.
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Annual tech industry expo the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has just wrapped, introducing a slew of 2012's best new high-tech gadgets, apps and online services. But having absorbed the conference's record 20,000 new product debuts, provided courtesy of 3100 companies who demoed across a record-breaking 1.861 million net square feet of exhibition space, we're still left with more questions than answers. Chief among them: With launches in key categories like smartphones and tablet PCs largely taking a backseat to thinner connected TVs and expanding cloud multimedia services, does the show still remain relevant for entrepreneurs and small business owners?

"Yes, CES is still relevant," argues Tim Stevens, editor-in-chief of technology news and reviews site Engadget. "But its importance is rapidly shifting away from being a venue where big manufacturers are making big announcements to an event where small- and medium- sized companies are introducing key debuts instead. Predictably, this year's top name-brand gadgets share several common threads, being thinner, lighter, cheaper and faster as a whole. But whether you're looking at bigger screens on Windows Phone devices or 4G LTE high-speed networks, we're talking about logical improvements, not boundary-pushing upgrades, in all areas. Innovation is mostly coming from outside elements."

A four-day circus show of blaring loudspeakers and LED display-lit product demonstration areas patrolled by leather-clad models, dominant themes from this year's event clearly included wireless interconnectivity, online streaming and sleeker, more powerful mobile devices. But from ultrabooks (lightweight laptops that mimic tablets' miniscule dimensions without ditching the keyboard or desktop-level performance) to streaming multimedia and cloud storage services from Acer and Lenovo (offering content sharing across both mobile and stationary gizmos), gains are largely incremental. Evolution, not revolution is clearly the order of the day, with promising business-minded developments - e.g. Motorola's Droid Razr Maxx, a slim smartphone offering 20+ hours of continuous talk time - in short supply, and mostly marginalized in show headlines. Even BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (RIM) chose to play it low-key, using CES as a springboard to showcase its PlayBook OS 2.0 operating system instead of introducing a new iteration of tablet hardware.

As Stevens points out, in 2012, we're seeing a move away from bigger purchases like desktop PCs to smaller, more portable devices like smartphones and media players - perennially popular with business owners. But tablet PCs and cellular handsets are also becoming obsolete much quicker than traditional devices, as phones steadily get cheaper and faster, and slate computers gain in power, meaning yesterday's mind-blowing debut is often next month's also-ran. That's a problem for harried executives focused on tapping technology to enjoy immediate returns and cost-savings, who seldom have time to follow every new industry twist and turn, or constantly upgrade and convert company hardware. Once the leading port of call for business leaders seeking an easily digestible snapshot of the coming year's top devices and trends, CES - like other tech industry trade shows - has suddenly become just another pit stop on an endless train of potential publicity ops. With market leader Apple AWOL as always, and Microsoft now bowing out (noticeably departing with a whimper by focusing on the attractive, but predictable 4G LTE high-speed Nokia Lumia 900 Windows Phone), one has to wonder. Given that marquee reveals - e.g. the launch of the iPhone 5 - are increasingly reserved for custom press events year-round, where's the real ROI in attending?

Tellingly, the answer is unlikely to lie in major consumer announcements surrounding advances in apps, gadgets and online services. Forget breakout debuts like razor-thin 55-inch OLED (strikingly crisp and colorful) sets from LG and Samsung, or Asus' Eee Pad MeMO, a 7-inch, Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0)-powered tablet with beefy quad-core Tegra 3 graphics processor, selling for just $249. Useful at attracting the media spotlight as such showpieces are, anyone can easily learn about them by grazing the Web or following the action on popular blogs and newswires. Rather, the most compelling upsides for executives considering attending may be gained by simply using the show to stay abreast of new startups, research competitors and network or pursue potential leads.

With CES 2012 and other mainstream technology shows' focus clearly starting to lean more general interest, major announcements from a CIO's or CTO's perspective are few and far between. Knowing this, a single 48-hour stint is generally enough to identify new prospective partners, or locate relevant items capable of empowering your workforce by facilitating communications, improving productivity or fueling revenue growth. Wandering the back alleyways of expo halls searching for suppliers capable of providing quality goods at better costs, or more scalable or affordable CRM, document-sharing or inventory management solutions may pay dividends. But nowadays, merely taking the temperature of fellow attendees often feels more rewarding. Allowing observers to quickly grok which commercial trends are cresting - hint: mobile/hands-free electronics, fitness gadgets and healthcare systems are experiencing a sudden resurgence - is an immediate benefit. But equally crucial to business owners and operators is the chance to gain a sense of which trends are being over-hyped or undervalued firsthand, before committing large chunks of enterprises' time and budgets to leveraging them. Case in point: Ultrabooks, which despite their massive media presence, are garnering a mixed reception amongst industry insiders, with many feeling they're a simple re-branding of notebook PCs that fill a need that growingly-sophisticated tablets already have well-covered.

Moreover, for marketing, sales or biz dev executives looking to pitch strategic partnerships, goods or services, even with advance appointments, making actual face-to-face contact at events like CES can be scattershot. Vendors' presence isn't just often spread amongst an array of far-flung booths, meeting rooms and presentation areas (I counted at least three separate Samsung-reserved spaces). Key personnel, many of whom have precious little time to digest pitches or absorb printed collateral (also unlikely to make the trip home), can frequently be difficult to locate. As disconcertingly observed multiple times firsthand, greeters hired to staff these disparate and distant locales likewise seldom had access to individual emails or phone numbers, let alone colleagues' schedules.  Even when specifically told to visit John or Jane Smith to further discussions by seemingly promising prior points of contact, consider. You're often better-advised to resume conversations via phone or email when they're not distracted putting out 100 other immediate fires, and save the hassle of dealing with woefully under-informed or -equipped colleagues. There's no understating the importance of being able to put a face to a name. But with over 150,000 attendees at CES alone, good luck tracking down the party in question or trying to stand out in a sea of crowded faces.

Happily, says BBC tech reporter Matt Danzico, outside of opportunities to personally close prearranged deals or connect with key providers (eminently possible, despite the above headaches), the real payoff at today's high-tech tradeshows primarily lies in strategic promotions and intelligence gathering. "Startup culture was really prevalent this year at CES, far more so than it has been in the past," he explains. "The show even featured a designated area for up and coming businesses called Eureka Park. Some of the more interesting pieces included HzO's WaterBlock technology, which you can use to coat electronics to make them waterproof, and devices like Invoxia's NVX610 VoIP phone for more audible iPhone-powered teleconferences."

Unlike in past years, he suggests, suddenly it's the small- and medium-sized companies, not electronics industry giants such as LG, Panasonic and Sony, who are suddenly contributing most to technology's advance. "If there's one recurring theme that sums up CES 2012, it's that startups were revolutionizing while bigger companies were just improving upon the products that they already had. That speaks volumes for the state of the tech industry as it stands right now: Startups making waves while older companies struggle to catch up. It's a complete role reversal."

Ironically though, says Danzico, there may be little incentive thus far for consumer electronics giants to really move the needle. With business owners and general shoppers alike still scrambling to catch up with the huge wave of innovations introduced in the last two years, timing is hardly auspicious for newer, even more advanced hardware upgrades. All of which points to less earth-shattering news coming out of household names at major tech industry shows, which are often expensive, overcrowded, distracting for development teams, and choked with competing announcements. Besides prompting more notable debuts to be birthed throughout the rest of the calendar year, it also paves the way to hear increased noise from companies whose banners previously never flew before over crowded exhibit halls. While startups' presence was just a minor footprint on the floor by comparison with majors this year, realize. With first-time exhibitors with near retail-ready products being able to buy floor space for a fraction of standard prices, expect their influence to only grow over the coming years.

Make no mistake: CES remains a major beacon for thousands of entrepreneurs and executives, and reliable early bellwether for where 2012, 2013 and beyond are headed. Nor does it suddenly face extinction at the hands of individual gala events or more sparsely-attended conventions devoted to specific audiences or verticals. But like any tradeshow hoping to draw a crowd in today's increasingly harried and chaotic commercial world, it must inevitably evolve to remain relevant. Moreover, tomorrow's leading draws may, ironically, be the very scrappy young companies to whom its doors were once closed due to financial or political reasons.

- Written by Scott Steinberg (@GadgetExpert) for news10.net's Game Guys

About SS: Small business expert Scott Steinberg, a noted keynote speaker and strategic consultant, is the author of "The Business Expert's Guidebook" and host of "Business Expert: Small Business Tips, Trends and Advice." Among today's top technology analysts and expert witnesses, he's been hailed as a leading high-tech authority from NPR to The Wall St. Journal. The head of strategic consulting and product testing firm TechSavvy Global, he's an entrepreneur and part-time parenting guru who's served as an industry insider for 400+ media outlets from ABC to FOX and CNN.

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