Richard Alley, a geoscience professor at Penn State, drilled into the Antarctic a few years ago removing a half-mile ice core documenting the last Ice Age, which Alley determined had lasted 10,000 years then came to an abrupt end in only three years. That may seem an odd analogy for this week’s Consumer Electronics Show but it’s what came to mind when I saw story after story suggesting CES, too, might be winding down. I think it is. And I further think that maybe the only thing that might yet save CES in some form is Willie Nelson, or maybe Taylor Swift.
CES never used to matter much in my world. The show to attend was Comdex (and before that NCC). CES meant TVs and stereos, but Comdex, well Comdex was about computers. Up to 250,000 people in one place just because of computers.
What killed Comdex, I think, was a combination of 9/11, the Internet, and the end of the dot-com bubble. But then 9/11 came close to taking out a lot of institutions, even me.
It was the simultaneous loss of dot-com largess and the abrupt, but temporary, end to business travel after 9/11 that almost killed my career. Pre-9/11 I was being paid to speak somewhere twice a month. Post-9/11 I was speaking twice a year. Comdex was hurt even more than I was, though, because it was built on voodoo economics. Comdex owner Softbank retrenched, facing reality, the show closed, and suddenly it made perfect sense to display computers alongside the big screen TVs at CES in January, calling that change progress.
But now CES appears to be succumbing, too, to another era of reduced aspirations. Microsoft is pulling out. Half of the PC people who matter at CES live or work within 50 miles of each other anyway in the Bay Area, so why meet in Vegas? Why indeed?
It’s hard to see, in fact, almost any big venue trade show that is growing and not in trouble. The only such business I can see that defies this trend is big name music touring, which brings us back to Taylor Swift and to Willie. With so much that’s synthetic and artificial in our world, somehow the idea of seeing and hearing a real person onstage has gained new allure, a business model just waiting to be exploited through co-marketing.
Having once paid for my kids to see the Moscow Circus sponsored by Huggies, I can imagine a logical music/technology hybrid replacing the traditional techie trade show, a little like Burning Man and a lot like Steve Wozniak’s old US Festivals where computers and music were displayed side-by-side.
Apple presents U2! (iPads around back).
With 10 million IT professionals of one sort or another in America you could tie a tech seminar and a sales pitch to anything from Usher to cricket to Scottish Games, but with no more going to Vegas (and no Justin Bieber — too young). The trade show (and t-shirt sellers) would come to us, just like Willie Nelson does.
Just like Fish.
Write that weekend off your taxes.
Somebody call Live Nation.