Extremely Loud and Incredibly So-So

As much about Timberlake as tech innovation, the Consumer Electronics Show made lots of noise, little news.

It is well established that the annual International Consumer Electronics Show is among the biggest, busiest, noisiest of industry meet-ups, last week drawing some 140,000 attendees plus 3,100 exhibitors—the most ever—to that otherwise sleepy little desert town of Las Vegas. Perhaps the only thing about this year’s CES that wasn’t big, in fact, was the news.

Gadget makers mostly trucked out devices—some 20,000 of them—that were simply updated versions of existing products, and no major new technology was unveiled. The disappointing dearth of actual innovation at this year’s CES was hinted at during a panel discussion dubbed “Argue the Future,” in which Josh Topolsky, editor of Vox Media’s tech site The Verge, interviewed reps from Microsoft, HTC and Samsung. Speaking of the smartphone industry, where too often manufacturers flood the market with models that offer mere tweaks rather than real advancement, Topolsky asked: “Are we trying to create demand where there isn’t any?”

Yet, there was some genuine excitement last week. Attendees buzzed about a new lineup of television sets featuring OLED and 4K technology (see sidebar). On the media front, the flailing social network Myspace, which Specific Media last year bought from News Corp., announced (with the aid of investor Justin Timberlake) that it’s getting into the TV business with Myspace TV. Yahoo hawked an animated Web series, Electric City, co-produced by Tom Hanks.

Celebrities have become as much a story at CES as any technology unveiled there. Justin Bieber made an appearance, as did Will.i.am. LL Cool J was on hand to promote his music-centric social network, while 50 Cent showed off his brand new line of headphones.

The show has also famously become a hot ticket for media and marketing types. Even the topic of one of the keynotes was the growing presence of ranking marketing execs. In that speech,

MediaLink CEO Michael Kassan noted that companies no longer send “low-level corporate scouts” to report back to their bosses. “These are the bosses,” he said—specifically, the CMOs of many large brands. It would stand to reason, seeing that CES is not just about gadgets, he added, but about “how people buy a car, read a book, get a date, get a job.”

To drive home the point, Kassan brought CMOs and marketing veeps from Walmart, Unilever, AT&T, General Electric and Hyundai Motor America on stage, as well as Facebook vp of global marketing solutions Carolyn Everson, who said if there were one overarching theme of this year’s CES, it was connection, “whether it’s to human beings or devices.” As that trend continues, Everson said, we’re going to see fewer manufacturers who think only about “their own closed ecosystem,” adding, “I think we’re going to see the need for much more collaboration across manufacturers with marketers than ever before.”

Despite the absence of major launches, this year still represented a significant step forward for the event, said BBDO Worldwide CEO Andrew Robertson, attending his first CES. “The big shift between what one might have seen here three years ago and what you see today is that three years ago it was all about the promise of connectivity,” Robertson told Adweek. “Today, it’s there” (see sidebar).

To be sure, CES regulars going into this year’s show had already heard all about Internet-connected TVs, cars and refrigerators. But now those innovations are becoming more of a reality for consumers.

One panel discussion had the likes of HBO technology chief Robert Zitter and ESPN vp of strategic planning and development Bryan Burns musing about whether, after all the hype, 3-D TV was finally about to break through. As Burns pointed out, it also took a while for consumers to fully embrace HDTV.

Microsoft and Nokia, which have been talking about their partnership for nearly a year, are finally bringing Nokia devices with the Windows Phone operating system to the U.S. market, unveiling one model, the Lumia 900, in Vegas and wowing tech journalists.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s keynote last Monday (apparently his last, with the company bowing out of CES after 15 years) perfectly captured the contradictions of the expo. The room filled up long before the speech started, leading guards to block escalators and angry attendees to crowd around them, all furiously waving their badges. Still, after all the fuss, the presentation turned out to be noteworthy for the appearance of yet another boldface name (American Idol’s Ryan Seacrest, who interviewed Ballmer) and its ill-conceived idea of entertainment (a choir belted out Microsoft-related comments posted on Twitter) rather than for any news, as Ballmer, with his usual buoyance, simply pitched a long list of existing Microsoft products. Even the Lumia 900 was announced at an earlier event staged by Nokia.

It’s one thing to traverse the behemoth Las Vegas Convention Center in search of some hot new thing. It’s quite another for the tech journalist whose job is to make sense of the abundance of A-listers and shiny toys.

Capturing the amped-up, often mind-numbing nature of the big show was Gawker’s gadget blog Gizmodo. In his piece, reporter Mat Honan described his growing fatigue after sitting through demo after demo, “ennui upon ennui upon ennui set in this amazing temple of technology.”

The overwhelmed, the exhausted and the jaded notwithstanding, many attendees remain bullish on CES.

Even with all the tech events out there, Dae Mellencamp, CEO of video service Vimeo, said CES is the only trade show she makes a point of attending regularly.

“I always take something back from this one,” she said.