It's an orgy of consumption. A showcase of next year's last year's models. Where silicon meets silicone. Las Vegas without all the gambling, booze, or sex. It's the Consumer Electronics Show, and it can be pretty awesome. Relevant, even!
Don't let the "consumer" in the title fool you—CES is equal-parts business show, where buyers from large retail chains swap spit with executives from electronics manufacturers, jockeying for deals and colluding to develop mid-tier, high-margin products. It wouldn't surprise me to hear that many discussions are taking place to plan next Christmas's biggest deals—the items that will populate Christmas lists across the world.
But it's also a place for us to snatch a peek at the upcoming products from electronics companies and get an all-too-brief fondle of products that might not actually be available for purchase for months—if they even make it out onto shelves at all. (There's been an amusing trend over the last few years of blustering CEOs making grand, sweaty pronouncements in front of thousands of media and industry people during CES keynotes, only to slink away in the following months when they don't follow through on their plans.)
The thing is, despite the thousands of SKUs hitting the floor, we can't remember the last time a game changer was announced at CES. Everything here is derivative, and anything important enough to the world gets its own launch event—Google and Apple and Microsoft all know this. So do we.
But the basics of electronics are here. Sometimes in clever evolutions. The TVs people will buy get better every year, even if they're too derivative to get any but the most obsessed and wasteful to upgrade after a year or two. The mindset necessary to appreciate CES—and through it, the coming year in gadgets—is achieved by realizing that the best of CES from 10 years ago would be put to shame by the gadget spam heap from 2011. Baby steps turn into miles.
Also, more than anything, what makes CES worthwhile are the little guys; the undiscovered entrepreneurs from around the world who scrape their pennies into a pile and rent a tiny booth in one of the less tony Vegas convention centers and literally bark out to passers-by that their product. Their livelihood is worth a minute of our time. Those are the sort of products and people we live for: the person with a great idea who just needs a little exposure to sell the next must-have product.
Las Vegas is a town built on the mythology of fortunes lost and gained in a night; that's the dream that draws in the farting tourists, thewy dancers, and celebrity chefs. There's a reason that the Consumer Electronics Association brings CES back to Las Vegas year after year, and it's not just because of sweet deals Clark County provides to ensure the millions of dollars of hotel revenue. It's because the captains of the bleep-blorp industry actually do make and lose fortunes in a night for a week each January. And there's no better setting than Las Vegas to give them the courage to roll the dice.