More than 2,700 exhibitors descend on Las Vegas Monday, each ready to show off their latest and greatest tricks at the annual Consumer Electronics Show.
But good luck finding many of the gizmos and gadgets on store shelves: Though CES is supposed to give gearheads a peek at the future, it is often better at displaying "vaporware" — would-be innovations that never materialize.
Some of this is par for the course: Much like the auto show that's running concurrently in Detroit, CES is meant to have a fantasy element to it — stuff that ought to be but isn't yet and may never be. The real sin is in showing off what are supposed to be real products to retailers and press, then not delivering.
But that happens all the time at CES. So why do exhibitors risk turning off potential customers? Because they feel the alternative — showing up at the show empty-handed, or not showing up at all — is worse.
In 2005, John MacFarlane used the show to launch Sonos, his home audio company. MacFarlane's first product, a digital music streaming system for multiple rooms, was a huge hit that earned awards and accolades from nearly every tech reviewer. Even better, McFarlane had a production line up and running, so he was able fill customer orders on the show floor. Then came CES 2006, and Sonos wanted a repeat of its beginner's luck.
“We succumbed to the pressure of having something to talk about at the show,” says MacFarlane, who decided to “pre-launch” a new product — a slimmed-down version of the original Sonos system. But the new version didn't actually ship until April, four months after it had been launched at CES. “Was that the right thing to do? The general opinion here is ‘no’," MacFarlane says now. "Unless you have the product sitting on a shelf, something can still go wrong. My advice is to only launch if you’re ready to ship — otherwise you can lose your credibility.”
At least Sonos was actually able to deliver eventually. At last year’s show, the buzz surrounding Apple's iPod/iTunes combination helped spur a new type of over-hyped launch —the strategic media partnership. Microsoft, Intel and Motorola were especially vocal in promoting alliances with media brands that, a year later, have fizzled or haven't come to fruition at all. (MSNBC.com is a Microsoft-NBC Universal joint venture.)
Last year, Microsoft promoted the URGE music service, which it created for Viacom's MTV. But while MTV is just beginning to promote the service, Microsoft is throwing its weight behind the Zune Marketplace and the potential of satellite TV on Media Center PCs and Xbox 360s.
Motorola made a splash with iRadio, designed to bring hundreds of music channels to homes and cars through cellphones, but the service is still unavailable to nearly all U.S. consumers. Intel announced 10 content deals for Viiv, its misunderstood hardware platform for media, but consumers and analysts still seem baffled about what exactly Intel is talking about.
Gadgetmakers are equally guilty of making false promises. Samsung trotted out a “largest ever” 82-inch LCD and received plenty of headlines but little else. The huge screen is still not for sale.
Of course, some tech companies eventually do make good on their claims, which generally results in complete forgiveness from gear-besotted geeks. Tivo’s long-awaited Series 3 high-definition video recorder did, indeed, show up in stores this fall, as did Sony's Reader for digital books.
But there’s one trade show trick that can force consumers and reviewers alike to hold a grudge. Under no circumstances should a tech company attempt to launch the same product two years in a row. Fool them once; it’s over. But come January, don’t be surprised to hear more than one company hyping a long-term partnership or long-awaited product that sounds dreadfully familiar.