Is mobile now out of the picture at CES?

Is mobile now out of the picture at CES?

The annual Consumer Electronics Show or CES, coming up in January, bills itself as the world’s biggest electronics show. It’s been the site of killer mobile product announcements, with dozens of phones appearing every year, but if I’m to believe my current inbox, the mobile bloom may have faded from this show. For consumer smartphones and tablets, CES may be over.

Yeah, yeah, we’ve had a couple of years of Android tablet madness at CES. 2011 in particular was out of control, with somewhere near 100 different tablets being shown off on the floor. It was like a shopping mall in Shenzhen. But that seems to be dying down now as well, as manufacturers consolidate and original equipment manufacturers funnel into a smaller number of front-line retail brands.

What trade shows are really about

Trade shows aren’t really for public introductions of products. The cool press events you hear about are really sideshows. Trade shows are actually all about connecting buyers and sellers. Component makers talk to manufacturers. Manufacturers talk to retailers. Big buyers and investors survey the whole scene and plot their moves for the year.

Over the past few years, though, the mobile scene in the US has seen a steady decline in the number of players. Carriers are consolidating, and the number of manufacturers is dropping. There’s less of a reason to come to a trade show to consolidate meetings.

I’ve been talking to the US-based major wireless carriers and manufacturers, and coming up pretty empty so far. They’ll all be there, sure, but I haven’t heard about a single big phone or tablet manufacturer press conference yet – and we’re now less than a month before the show. Of the carriers, only AT&T has announced a press conference.

Some of the PC companies that have historically made big introductions at CES have backed away from mobile, too. Dell used to have a big presence; it’s out of the mobile scene. HP’s mobile division has committed suicide. Lenovo doesn’t dare enter the US market.

The world outside the US is still a big place with lots of buyers and sellers, though. That’s why Mobile World Congress (MWC) is still vital. The big wireless trade show in Barcelona still connects phone makers with carriers, because all of the world’s carriers attend – that’s hundreds of potential customers for each phone manufacturer, from hundreds of different countries. With a global market that big and diverse, it still makes sense to introduce new devices at MWC.

With the decline of Germany’s CeBIT, America’s CES ran for a few years as the world’s preeminent electronics show. But now the IFA show has been rising to replace CeBIT, and that seems to also be drawing more attention away from CES.

From the press event perspective, meanwhile, companies see how Apple has managed to dominate the news cycle with its solo events, and they want that same obsessive coverage. Samsung, Microsoft, and LG have all been striking out on their own recently. Microsoft has even stopped doing its annual CES keynote.

Components: Boring but worthy

With the big OEMs and the relatively few US carriers out of the picture, CES seems to have become a place where core technologies and component vendors try to get the attention of smaller hardware manufacturers, and where small app and accessory makers try to get the attention of the big manufacturers and carriers.

The opening keynote epitomises this new world: It’s Qualcomm. Qualcomm makes most of the processors in the world’s smartphones. It doesn’t make a lot of consumer products – it makes things that go into consumer products. Unfortunately, Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs (right) also has a reputation for snoozy keynotes: He tends to wax imaginative about the future rather than announce a hot product you’ll be buying next year.

Nvidia, Intel, and AMD all look to be having a sizable presence at the show. And my inbox is full of requests from companies making GPUs, touch sensors, wireless modules and screens.

These component vendors are looking to appeal to large and small manufacturers. The guys you care about, the Samsungs and HTCs, are the buyers in this case – not the sellers. Indeed, a slew of Chinese equipment manufacturers send a bunch of people to CES to see what kinds of new products they can propose to their own customers.

Back to a TV show?

Because of the way carriers dominate phone sales, smartphones are an unusually cramped market over in the US. That’s not the case with TVs and home audio, of course. Anyone can sell those, and everyone does.

As I’ve been watching my CES inbox, I’ve been seeing a flood of headphones, speakers, and home audio announcements, for instance. So it’s not like CES is going to be a bunch of empty halls. It’s just getting back to its core mission: After a few years of mobile intoxication, the rest of the consumer electronics industry is back to the forefront.

Phones or no, rest assured that ITProPortal will be covering the best of CES in Vegas next month. And I think that a low-key CES may make Mobile World Congress, in late February, an even bigger deal.

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