Microsoft is pulling out of CES, and it's not a good thing

CES won't be the same without Microsoft. But Deb Shinder is not even sure Microsoft will be the same without CES.

In a couple of weeks, I along with well over 100,000 other folks, if last year's attendance numbers are any indication, will be heading to Las Vegas for the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES). The trade show/conference has been around for a long time, since 1967, and it's one of the largest gatherings in a city that caters to conventions.

Microsoft has had a strong presence at CES and COMDEX (a more computer-specific trade show that was held in Las Vegas each year from 1979 to 2003). For many years, Bill Gates appeared there to give a keynote speech and demonstrate the company's latest and greatest products. Steve Ballmer has been delivering the CES keynote since 2009, after Gates officially retired from Microsoft in 2008.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to hear earlier this month, Microsoft's announcement that CES 2012 would be its last year to have a booth at the show and that Ballmer would no longer be giving those traditional kick-off speeches.

"But ... I thought we were so happy together"

As someone who is heavily involved in Microsoft technologies, I look forward to Ballmer's keynotes as one of the highlights of my week at CES. I admit I was taken aback by the news, sort of like the spouse who didn't know there were any major problems in a marriage and is stunned when the other participant, out of the blue, asks for a divorce. Maybe, I should have seen it coming.

The wording of the blog post by corporate vice president Frank X. Shaw that dropped the bombshell felt like the kind of thing a deserting spouse says to let the other down easy.

"Our product news milestones generally don't align with the show's January timing." It's nobody's fault; we've just grown apart.

"We're looking at new ways we tell our consumer stories." I'm tired of being tied down to you. I want to get out there and play the field.

"It feels like the right time to make this transition." It just hit me that I'm not getting any younger and if my dream of buying a Corvette, dying my hair, and dating younger women/men is ever going to come true, it's now or never.

"We'll continue to participate in CES as a great place to connect with partners and customers." I hope we can still be friends.

As always when a long-time relationship breaks up, there is plenty of speculation about who did what to whom. There were rumors that Microsoft didn't leave at all, but rather got kicked out of the house -- perhaps for being old and boring. But other sources say that's not the case, that in fact the CEA asked Microsoft for a three-year commitment last year and got only a one-year deal. That indicates that Ballmer and Company have been thinking about ending the relationship for a while now.

Emulating Apple again?

Maybe I'm like that guy with the hammer to whom everything looks like a nail, but I can't help noticing that once again Microsoft seems to be following Apple's lead. Steve Jobs dropped out of the Macworld Conference & Expo in 2008, and the company pulled out altogether the next year.

In past articles, I've written about my frustration with Microsoft's copying many of the behaviors and practices that I like least about Apple, and it seems as if they're doing it again with this decision to leave CES. Apple's recent distain for trade shows, its insistence on announcing its new products at super-hyped "special events," where it could be the one-and-only star, is a manifestation of the arrogance so often attributed to the company (and to Jobs personally).

Going head to head with CES? Probably not

I've seen some suggestions that Microsoft should go Apple one better. Instead of holding ad hoc "single star" events to introduce its new stuff, Microsoft could actually compete with CES by holding its own regular annual consumer-focused trade show, bringing in vendors whose products run on Microsoft technologies. I like the idea, but I don't think it's going to happen, for a number of reasons.

First, by all counts Microsoft does intend to stay involved in CES in the future, through its partners. Even though the company won't have its own booth there, the place will be full of products that are based on some form of Windows, from computers to phones to network devices to audio equipment to entertainment products to car systems. Many of those that don't run Windows themselves are designed to work with Microsoft technologies or within Microsoft infrastructures.

Another reason I don't think this is realistic: Microsoft seems to be cutting costs all over the place; this has been going on for the last three years, since the "business realignment" memo from Ballmer in 2009. Taking on the hosting of a new, big, expensive event doesn't seem like the sort of thing Microsoft would do right now.

On the other hand, I think the probability that Microsoft will hold more one-off events partnering with hardware vendors (as they did in New York in November for Windows Phone) is very high. And there's nothing wrong with that -- but does it have to be an either/or proposition?

The end of CES as we know it

Some pundits are saying that CES has outlived its usefulness, and Microsoft is basically just deserting an already-sinking ship. If that's the case, maybe the decision makes sense from Microsoft's point of view.

On the other hand, CES certainly doesn't appear to be dying. Attendance last year was almost 150,000 (149,529, to be exact, according to an independent audit performed by Veris Consulting). Attendance of industry professionals from outside the U.S. was up 30 percent over the previous year. Sure, the show had a couple of bad years during the worst of the recession, with the numbers falling to just over 113,000 in 2009, but it made a big recovery in 2011 -- with Microsoft intact as a major presence.

But some in the industry are asking if Microsoft's departure as a key presence at CES will, itself, lead to the deterioration and eventually discontinuation of CES itself, citing the gradual demise of COMDEX after IBM opted out. The fear is that Microsoft's leaving will start a trend and other large tech companies will follow suit. Even if CES survives, it could end up a shadow of its former self (as happened with MacWorld).

As someone who has suffered from the inevitable sensory overload that comes from spending a few days walking about the Las Vegas Convention Center, being pummeled with visions of gadgets of every kind and color, I can admit that there might be something to be said for a leaner and meaner CES. A smaller show would allow us to actually process a larger percentage of what we see and remember where we saw it. It might mean smaller crowds to fight our ways through. Maybe, if the tech giants did all dump their CES booths, there would be more room for real innovations coming from smaller companies that often get lost in the shuffle.

Still, I'm not pleased with Microsoft's decision to call it quits at CES. I have fond memories of gathering at the Microsoft booth to see demonstrations of Windows Media Center and a new thing called IPTV. I remember watching other attendees play with Windows CE-powered watches and being fascinated by laptops with SideShow displays. No, none of those became wildly popular (although some, such as WMC, certainly deserved to), but the point is that many folks wouldn't have ever seen them at all if not at CES.

CES won't be the same without Microsoft. I'm not even sure Microsoft will be the same without CES.