CES and Vegas 2010: supersized vulgarity

59243615Carnival culture was on parade this week at CES. We’ve entered the Baroque phase of consumer electronics, wherein utterly unncessary techology is pumped up, supersized and repackaged with gimmicks in a desperate bid to garner consumer interest.

It’s quite appropriate for CES to take place in Las Vegas, the Mecca of vulgarity , vanity and vice. Both the city and the event seem to illustrate the concept of growth for growth’s sake taken to the utmost extreme. For decades, Vegas suburbs have been sprawling ever further into a desert in the name of progress, squandering water and energy on grandiose displays of simulated luxury. More lights! More fountains! More colossal crappy sculptures! Wider hallways! Peppier Muzak! The city is crowded with totems of greatness ripped from their cultural context. A bigger Sphinx, an updated Piazza San Marco, a cute little nip ‘n tucked Eiffel Tower. Even the restaurants are vulgar: expensive eateries serving giant portions of mediocre food from factory farms tarted up with phony Italian labels.

Vegas is therefore the most appropriate place on earth for the consumer electronics companies to showcase their overcomplicated me-too gimmickry. This is truly the zenith or high water mark of something, perhaps the apogee of late-stage consumerism run amok. 2010 is the year that the consumer electronics makers expanded mindlessly into every conceivable niche, including:

  • a glut of e-book readers and Kindle clones
  • a surfeit of iPhone clones and Android devices
  • a vast selection of ever bigger, more feature-rich televisions
  • plus expansion franchises in web-enabled cars, networked kitchen appliances, smart health care devices

There’s a name for this product strategy:  spray and pray.  The theme of the CE companies is simple:  every consumer product has electronics, and therefore everything, apparently, must have a high-resolution display, WiFi and YouTube.

59238151It’s just perfect that the Adult Entertainment Expo (aka the porno conference) takes place there at the same time. The porno stars wandering around the Venetian Hotel lobby were the yin to the consumer electronics industry’s yang: superficially appealing from a distance but upon closer inspection tired, cheap , tarted-up and nasty. At least the fleshbots were having fun. By comparison, the desperate consumer electronics pitchmen seemed like they’d turn a trick for anybody who would buy a new TV.

The whole thing recalled the dying days of COMDEX, when computer makers were experiencing the late stages of commoditization. In a desperate bid for margin, they bolted on a ghastly clutch of ever-more-complex and useless features, with bloated software programs sporting cluttered user interfaces. But it turned out that all the consumer wanted was a cheaper PC that didn’t crash. Bye bye COMDEX.

The TV manufacturers seem hellbent on replicating the worst of the computer industry by adopting the vice of ever-shortening product cycle and enforced upgrades. Ten years ago, a television set cost $300 and lasted ten years. Today, a flatscreen high def panel costs ten times as much and lasts half as long. And now the entire industry is gearing up for the next upgrade to 3D, whether we need it or not.

The issue facing the electronics makers is commodization.  Previously prestige manufacturers like Sony used to make many of their own components and could therefore command a premium price based on design and performance.  But today, the digital screens, semiconductors, and other components are sourced from the same suppliers who are willing to sell to anybody.   Result:  a glut of lookalike products.   That’s a recipe for price erosion.

To stave off commoditization, the CE companies are stuffing their devices with feature-laden software of dubious value.  This is precisely the path that the big computer makers took ten years ago.   Your next TV set will come with widgets, embedded services, data feeds, wifi, and a host of other features. Not one manufacturer was able to articulate what the point of these features was. I visited most of the big TV makers: their salesmen were reluctant to demo the TV apps. Not surprisingly, because the apps were slow, cumbersome, and disconnected from the television programs.  56463408They included AP news tickers, weather feeds, USA Today headlines, and a clutch of uninspired games.  No wonder the salesmen didn’t want to demo them. Who needs this extra layer of data smog on top of a TV show? Are consumers clamoring for an overlay of irrelevant data everywhere?

59248625Apparently what consumers really want is App Stores. Everywhere. Every manufacturer boasted of their “app store” in a craven if backhanded salute to Apple’s dominant innvovative vision. But what terrible app stores! I used to think that mobile telecoms companies lacked a strong vision for a content merchandising experience. But it turns out that , at least when it comes to presenting content in a compelling way, your cell phone company is a creative genius, a veritable Picasso or Warhol, compared to a typical electronics company. The word “uninspired” doesn’t adequately describe the miserable lack of vision.

My guess is that consumers will react with a collective yawn and sit tight.