CES: Looking Back 25 Years

Posted: Jan 17 2014, 5:31am CST | by , in News

CES: Looking Back 25 Years
Photo Credit: Forbes

While many felt that the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) lacked anything revolutionary, the change over 25 years is remarkable. Computer vendors and consumer electronics vendors once had separate shows. Today the shows are combined, consumer companies dominate, and most computer vendors are gone (or, in Apple’s case, morphed over). Personal computers in 1989 were mostly islands; today everything is not only networked, but mobile, and often wearable, except for the big displays. New industries are feeling the hot breath of digital disruption and, if they are smart, joining the CES fray: digital health, not imagined in 1988, is rising fast now. And, remarkably, the barons of Detroit, Stuttgart, and Nagoya have awoken to the fact that cars are now networked computers with wheels, and come to the party.

I first made the pilgrimage to Vegas in 1989 to attend Comdex(1), an ancestor of CES. At that time CES was mostly concerned with televisions and audio, mature analog technologies dominated by Japanese companies (Sony, Panasonic). Comdex had all the digital star power: Microsoft, Lotus, Novell, IBM, Dell, and Compaq were the heavyweights. Digital wannabes like Kodak had big booths. Dozens of companies were mining the PC ecosystem. Windows was at version 2.0 and Bill Gates announced Microsoft Office at Comdex that year. It was very exciting, because the PC had brought the power of digital electronics to individuals. But almost nothing was mobile or networked.

At CES 2014:

Korean companies were dominant: Samsung and LG. Samsung had ~1,000 items on display in a main booth the size of a small office building and several satellite booths, staffed by at least 100 people. LG had a 3D video demo on a 75 foot wide screen using beautiful CGI material: not new, but spectacular. The Japanese (Sony, Panasonic, and Toshiba) were still there, but diminished.

Chinese companies, non-existent in 1988, are more present each year since 2000, both slick global companies like Huawei and Haier, and gritty, no-name companies with cheap looking products and poorly translated signage.

Just about every device in the show was networked, and cell phones work now, a big difference from past years.

Video displays are still a big deal, but much evolved. This year’s flagship product is the curved OLED display in large sizes. A nice enhancement, the curved screen puts you at the center of a panoramic view, which is subtly more real, and the OLED colors are bright and warm. These are wonderful products, far beyond the 27” CRTs of the late ‘80s. They are fully digital and Internet-connected, of course.

Mobile was the dominant product theme. Samsung and LG had about as much space devoted to mobile as video displays, and mobile products are individually much smaller. Apple stayed away, as they always do, but this is a calculated part of their mystique. The other mobile electronics vendors were visible, including many Android tablet offerings. Dozens of companies were working the smartphone (especially iPhone) ecosystem: headphones/earbuds, cases, and bags. This looks like a tough business: superficially differentiated products vying for attention.

“Wearable Computing” had huge buzz and everyone with Google Glasses was wearing them. What shape this will take is not yet evident, however. [See more about Digital Health below.]

Computer companies were notable by their absence. Microsoft stopped coming a couple of years ago. Dell and HP were invisible, if present at all. Intel had a booth, but I had no motivation to visit.

Internet-of-Things is trying to rise again, reinforced by Google’s post-CES announcement of its Nest acquisition. But IoT has been hyped at least twice before (e.g., when Google launched Google PowerMeter, now forgotten). The key question remains unanswered: what is the killer app? I saw little that was new/different/exciting.

Digital Health had good energy, however. The lower level of the south hall, which seems to be the CES incubator, held a big cluster of digital health companies, and next door another cluster of “fitness tech” companies: same technology pitched to a different customer group. There has been huge progress in wearable sensors: I saw a device that looks like a big band-aid and provides most of the function of a hospital patient monitor(2). Combined with a smartphone UX and the “take care of yourself” meme that is rising in the US, Digital Health looks to have a compelling value prop.

Some “about to be disrupted” companies strode into the fray. UnitedHealthcare did a nice job projecting digital health savvy: big booth, useful apps and web services on display, cameos in several other booths, panel appearances. The US Postal Service was present too: big booth, friendly helpful people (although they did not get the memo about how you staff a booth in Vegas), but not much to talk about.

Last but not least, the car companies rolled into town. Five years ago automotive electronics, long a fixture of the north hall, was all about remote starters, big audio, and other ways to primp your ride. At CES 2014 top OEMs (BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Toyota, and Ford) had big booths(3). Most of the cars they showed had full-LED headlights, a brand new and very significant electronic feature, but this got no play. Connection from cars to mobile devices/cloud and apps in cars was the message. How the wheel has turned!

Digital electronics is the most powerful disruptive business force we have yet seen, and CES embodies it. My prediction: before long prestigious universities will exhibit at CES, to show that they see the future and can ride the next disruptive wave(4).



  1. Computer Dealers’ Exposition, held annually in Las Vegas. The personal computer/software companies moved to CES and Comdex died out in 2003.
  2. Pulse rate, blood oxygenation, respiration rate, EKG, and a stress measure, probably skin conductivity.
  3. BMW did not have its own booth, but its new i3 electric car was on display in Samsung’s booth and several others, and they were giving test rides to all comers.
  4. More on disruption of higher ed here.

Source: Forbes

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