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lead paul offline

When I was a kid I had a box of “electronics.” Basically, it was cannibalized parts from various decrepit gadgets, like RC cars, walkie talkies, and cassette players. I always dreamed of mashing together a few circuit boards and making something new, but obviously had no knowledge of that process. But I kept the box. There was something intrinsic to that tangle of wires and transistors that felt like technology to me.

CES is televisions, and car stereos, and iPod nano armbands

I still have collections of useless electronics. I don’t take them apart anymore, but I keep them around “just in case.” My old GameBoy Advance that I don’t have any games for. Adapter dongles for anything to anything. A Sanyo Xacti, that little Nike+ step sensor thing, an armband to hold the iPod nano I gave away to an ex-girlfriend.

Sometimes, CES feels like the box of electronics to me.

This is my 8th trip to CES, the annual consumer electronics tradeshow in Las Vegas. There are other similar tradeshows, like IFA and CeBit, but CES is the best one because it’s practical and American. CES traces its roots to long before the PC revolution, and computers and phones are still a sideshow here. CES is televisions, and car stereos, and iPod nano armbands.

Before the rise of the tech blog, CES was primarily for industry insiders. After all, much of what is shown at the tradeshow isn’t released until the holidays. CES’s January positioning makes sense for products on an annual release cycle: a company releases a product in the Fall, sells a bunch of it, and then a few months later announces the follow-up so retailers can start planning all over again.

In this way, CES has nothing to do with the internet. Or, at least, it’s populated with companies that aren’t very good at the internet. Now that Microsoft is gone, none of the major internet players are here: Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon have no official presence here, but they all cast a large shadow. Companies like Samsung and LG demonstrate their “Smart TVs”, with clunky “app stores” and sub-par Netflix UIs, a few feet away from their latest washing machines. It’s kind of cute, it’s kind of sad.

CES is regressing back toward a show for insiders

It’s sort of like CES is regressing back toward a show for insiders. Tens of billions of dollars of 2013 electronics sales are represented on these show floors, but few of the devices here will make headline news. They’re the boring things that everybody needs, like TVs and blenders, not the things that change the world. And even the weird, edgy, forward-looking devices will be easy for the mainstream to overlook — people will go crazy over a laptop with a touchscreen when or if Apple builds one, but the dozens of laptops here experimenting with touch and bizarre hinges will hardly register a blip outside the tech blogosphere. 4K TVs will be mentioned in newspaper trend pieces, but no single 4K TV really matters. 100 decent Android tablets don’t matter, only one great one — which is more likely to be announced by Google or Amazon at a standalone event than by any of the well-meaning hardware companies here in Vegas.

But the devices at CES are the raw materials of the future — the circuit boards and wires in my gadget box. Maybe rough around the edges, or a little boring and simplistic, or maybe great… they all mean something to me. That clock radio might show up in my local Best Buy in a few months, or it might be never seen again, but it’s still part of the story. If Apple ever builds a TV, it will be built on the innovation that’s been showcased at CES over the decades. The Chinese knockoffs you’ll find deep in the halls are a sign of a vibrant industry, an inevitable symptom of success and growth. The dozens of me-too Fitbits on display point to more than a trend; the little points of innovation present in each one add up to a generational leap in wearable fitness. At CES it’s important to see the trees and the forest.

The devices at CES are the raw materials of the future

Now that I get most of my news in the newspaper, I can’t get any of the little news, the little gadgets, the little impressions that the modern tech site reader takes for granted. I’ve got to go out on the show floor and see if for myself.

So that’s why I’m here. Why I’m braving the allergenic dust, and the long cab lines, and the bizarre night life of Vegas. I’ve missed my gadget box.

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