The 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show ("CES") started two days ago in Las Vegas. Close to 150,000 people are milling around almost 2 million square feet of exhibition space filled with thousands of displays. Every device imaginable is playing, broadcasting, or otherwise beeping. Mainstream media types are trying to figure out what it all means. Bloggers have been flown there and often hired by companies so they can spontaneously tell the mainstream folks what’s what.

If you ever wondered what a doomed brontosaurus looked like as it struggled for its life in a tar pit that would eventually consume it, you need look no further than CES.

It could take many years and occur unevenly, with bad years followed by marginally good ones. But the only real reason CES has survived this long has less to do with its own success and more to do with the failure of its competition. There used to be other national shows (like COMDEX), many regional, and endless local trade events at which makers of stuff -- in this case, electronics, but also in most other industries in which stuff is manufactured -- used to get together with potential distributors and sellers to promote their wares. In a world of snail mail and expensive airfares, it made sense to bring everyone together now and then to disseminate information and cut deals.

Those days are long gone, as are those other electronics trade shows that used to vie for attention. CES is simply the last party left standing (which is similar to Best Buy’s strategy on the retailing side).

No company has to be at the show, and its attendance numbers hide the fact that major industry movers (like Apple) don’t show there. Microsoft has announced it is pulling out after this year. The very idea that any brand should structure and time its new product announcements to gibe with the event schedule is not only broken but ineffective; in an era when we can tell anybody anything anytime, CES is a stupid anachronism. I’ve spoken privately to huge, global brands that hate having to reveal products in January that won’t ship until the spring or later.

The propaganda value of CES is also faulty, at best. Not only do a number of promised  ‘big’ products announced there go on to utter failure in the marketplace, but the event always throws out some wanna-be fantasy of what electronics retailing should be, in the hopes that the consuming public will buy it. New music playing configurations, 3D TV, and the annual “networked home” blather get presented as somehow insightful when they’re really overtly presumptive sales pitches (if I hear about tablet computers one more time, I think I'm going to puke). The idea that any industry can get together to tell us what we should care about (and spend our money on) are long gone.

Its organizers must know that the very model of hosting such a gig is no longer valid. But it doesn’t have to be doomed. The key is transforming it into a truly two-way conversation. Here are three thought-starter ideas:

  • A giant new product dev focus group -- Maybe people attend the event to participate in real studies, interviews, or other exchanges about what they expect or want in devices and performance? CES could figure out the mechanics for making these attendees available to manufacturers or other sell-side entities. This could also lay the foundation for conversations that extended far prior and post-event, but otherwise transforming CES into the event at which the world tells the consumer electronics industry what it wants, and not the place at which the industry tells the world what it should do.
  • A networking event, only for real -- Anybody who owns more than one electronics device knows that the 800 lb. gorilla in the room is connectivity followed closely by service. More and more devices have multiple parents (my iPhone has at least three players behind it, between Apple, AT&T, and GoDaddy, and that’s not counting a single app). Yet few of the exhibitors at CES have done much to figure out how their offerings fit in with one another; they’ve all bought shared space at an event in which they make separate presentations. Why couldn’t CES take responsibility for sussing out how things work together and build that into the messaging?
  • Certify products and attendees -- The ugly underside of the consumer electronics industry is that people really don’t need most of the stuff, especially the regular upgrades and many of the peripherals and add-ons that crowd the exhibition halls at CES. There’s an even larger universe of people who play a role in the industry, from sales folks and new product developers, to one-timer entrepreneurs and all those guys from Asia who get stuffed into the “international” hall and get deprived of oxygen. What if CES took responsibility for analyzing and somehow publicly ranking both the people and the stuff they make or touch. Give everyone and everything a record that is searchable and reliable. Build an open community, based on facts, to which everyone would want to belong and use.

I really do see a chance for the consumer electronics industry to be radically engaging and transparent. CES could have a future, but it would look dramatically different than the show presently underway in Vegas. My gut tells me, unfortunately, that they’ll stick with what they know best for a long as the dinosaur can keep its head above the tar.

CES is an 1950‘s era trade show. It’s 2012, and people are there now to tell one another what they’re supposed to do, and the media will hype whatever they’re told to hype.

And then the rest of us will go out and buy whatever Apple introduces next.

What do you think?

(Image credit: when trade shows meant something)

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