Nicholas Pell
Jan 19, 2012

CES 2012 was just more of the same this year

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is one of the most ballyhooed events in the world of tech. CES has gained a reputation over the years as the place where new innovations debut. But is this reputation as the centerpiece of innovation deserved?

Two things really stood out at this year’s CES: First, OLED televisions, the next logical step in the steady march toward higher resolution on thinner televisions. While not an innovation per se (the technology was invented in 1980), the mainstreaming of this technology might be what the 2012 CES is remembered for. The Microsoft Surface 2.0, a table (that’s not a typo for “tablet” -- it’s a literal table) computer for multiple users, something out of a Philip K. Dick novel, is another noteworthy roll out for this year’s CES.

But what else did the 2012 CES offer us? Mostly just more of the same, or slightly tweaked innovations from years past. A hardwood floor cleaning robot would be nice to have around the house, but it’s not clear how this stands head and shoudlers above the near-ubiquitous Roomba. The Samsung Galaxy Note got a lot of buzz, but seems retrograde if anything -- a stylus in 2012? The Neat Company provides a perfect example of consolidation taking the place of innovation. The company helps people keep paper documents digital and in the cloud, combining printing, scanning and cloud computing, but not introducing anything particularly innovative into the mix. Blu Homes offered a tool to allow people to build and preview pre-fabricated homes in digital space. Cool, but little more than a dumbed-down version of Autodesk Revit.

It can’t be said that technology itself is entering a period of consolidation, rather than innovation. Indeed, Patexia covers some manner of engaging (and often astounding) innovation on a near daily basis. Other examples of the expanding world of tech include the TED talks, which center around innovation in a very broad sense, from methods of communication to cloud computing. Some TED talks are just that -- talks. Other talks at TED debut new products of the future that are still in the prototype stage.

So what does this say about CES? While CES is certainly a gadget fest, it can hardly be said to be a center of innovation. Rather, CES is little more than the largest trade show in the world of consumer gadgets. While it’s always interesting to see what Apple, Samsung, Nokia and the rest of the usual suspects have coming down the pike, this is hardly the place where they debut their most forward-thinking products. Further, the preponderance of peripherals (one CES debut is an iPhone peripheral that tracks how well you sleep every night) also speaks to this orientation. The CES isn’t so much about debuting the hottest new breakthroughs in the world of tech as it’s about finding ways to sell products for last year’s most popular devices.

None of this is meant to be a criticism per se. Certainly every industry needs trade shows to learn about new products. Small vendors in particular have an opportunity to play with the big boys that they don’t have any other time of year. Still, the breathless waiting for what CES will unveil seems a little out of place. Keep in mind that the products outlined above are the best of what came out of this year’s CES. The also-rans, the products you didn’t hear about, are likely the overwhelming majority at CES. If this is the best CES has to offer, it’s difficult to understand what role they have in the innovation community.