Why Apple (officially) skips CES

This may seem like the most obvious Backstage entry ever, but it’s worth mentioning for those who have wondered why Apple skips CES – at least, why it doesn’t have any official presence on the show floors. Even after the huge video games industry walked away from CES a decade ago, this show has grown radically in size, and the sheer number of products and announcements here is now staggering. For even the most savvy attendee, it’s like walking through the government’s patent office on the day that 60% of the year’s new supposed inventions are being filed. There is just so much, and so many overlapping claims from different people, that it’s hard to know where to begin.

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There are two consequences to having such a huge show. First, even the most attentive consumers – read: gadget lovers – hear so many conflicting messages about new products and services, that they don’t know which to buy. Many of the announcements aren’t actually followed by releases for months. So CES becomes a collection of things for electronics geeks to keep watching and comparing over the next quarter- to half-year.

Second, members of the media here have to struggle to figure out what’s important. And that’s just too hard for many or most mainstream publications, which want to cover the event, but not spend five days digging for goodies. So rather than hitting the floor, researching what’s there, and filing a late report on what was actually good, mainstream journalists use keynote speeches as a proxy, and focus disproportionately on what’s said there. For instance, the big topic of discussion between editors for two major newspapers at the CES Press Room earlier today was getting seats at (and providing coverage of) the Microsoft keynote. What actually important 2006 products did Microsoft ultimately debut there? Not a lot. But that’s where the journalists were.

Officially, Apple just stays away. It lets Microsoft and Sony make speeches on their new music download services (which are promised (again) to be better than the last ones), HP announce support for Real’s download service, and five other companies announce or hype new download services no one will actually care about. Apple also lets Toshiba, Samsung, LG, Archos, and ten other companies announce competing, confusing new digital media player offerings at the same time, fighting for attention and relevance. The press releases come out, the products get shown, and they’re quickly forgotten. Yes, Apple employees show up at CES to track what’s going on. But one gets the sense that most of what happens here is almost irrelevant – a lot of money and time spent by thousands of companies that will ultimately attract only handfuls of customers.

Why not take part in CES? Apple is bold (and now powerful) enough to create its own spotlight, and then doesn’t have to share it. Better yet, after all the CES clatter has ended, the company has seen all of the cards that have been put on the table before it shows its own hand at Macworld. This gives the company an oratory advantage: foreknowledge. Last year, when Bill Gates’s CES keynote demos continually crashed or wouldn’t work properly, he (and Microsoft) came across looking ridiculous on stage. In a later sly reference to those crashes, Steve Jobs – himself dealing with an unexpected problem – simply flipped to a backup computer, noting that Apple had bothered to think about this before delivering the speech. Would he have been so prepared if Gates hadn’t so conspicuously and repeatedly dropped the ball days earlier?

This approach also helps the company control the delivery of its media message. Journalists and their camera crews don’t have to choose which press conference to cover, figure out what’s worthwhile, or try to create a compelling message. Apple knows mainstream journalists are equally important, and pressed for time. So it delivers almost all of the big announcements to them (and thus, the world) in a single keynote speech at the start of Macworld, and then makes key executives and representatives available for immediate follow-up. It’s efficient, and the resulting press coverage is incredibly focused as a result.

Combined with a favorable “home crowd” packed with fans, the result can be electric. If the company has announced something really compelling, the lines start forming literally as soon as people know they can buy whatever Apple’s announced. And months later, when you look at Amazon and other sales charts, Apple consumer electronic products have outsold … well, everything shown at the Consumer Electronics Show. That really says something.

If following Apple and its products has taught me anything, it’s this: there’s tremendous value in simplicity and focus, most likely more than having the combined strengths of 100 new and different products packed into one device. Standing in the center of the CES maelstrom underscores this lesson a hundred-fold.

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