What Happens In Vegas…

I guess the key to really experience the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas is to get a pass to a bling-bling after party, thrown by a well-known company in some hard-to-get-into sort of place (ropes, bouncers, and the like). Me, I was just lowly convention hall scum, intrepidly seeking tchotchkes while asking questions of the knowledgeable exhibitors.

This year’s CES was just about the biggest massing of humans and electromagnetic radiation that I’ve ever been privy to. Taking the shuttle bus between the various exhibits was a maddening experience; I’d frequently find myself on a shuttle bus between two venues with a semi-hostile driver and confused patrons of technology in Vegas traffic jams.

But, whining and self-deprecation aside, I found a few things in Vegas to write home about.

Firstly, AOL LLC (my employers) had a swanky exhibit area in a dome-like tent outside the Central Hall, and threw a great Tuesday night party with wine and subtle ambient electronica playing in the background. We displayed various wares, particularly our AOL Vista Gadget. Sometime in 2006 I remember meeting with Microsoft about prospectively building something cool for Vista. Flash forward a few months later, and there’s code manifested and demo-able at CES, built pretty rapidly. And we’re launch partners of Microsoft when Vista goes out the door in a few weeks. Rock on! Actually, this says something about the ease of development on next generation operating systems (it’s all going to be, like, totally RAD), and the victorious programming paradigm that has emerged where desktop software applications are built like you would build Web pages.

Then, there’s the actual showroom. CES historically wasn’t really about computers — COMDEX was. But CES is a big uber fair that celebrates, amongst other things, digital convergence and so before long I found myself checking out a lot of computer hardware.

You pick up on things that you may have missed because of all the navel gazing you do while at your day job. For instance, it was at CES that I learned that AMD aquired ATI last year. ATI makes some of the graphical hardware components that go into my Motorola RAZR phone, amongst other things. THE AMD guy suggested that the union of the two would help AMD compete with Intel, particularly with respect to mobility and laptop components. My favorite hardware (for the moment), the MacBook Pro, is now a mixture of Intel Core 2 Duo and ATI Radeon X1600 chipsets, which means it now officially contains products from companies that compete with each other. Cool! I hope all this makes laptops cheaper still.

Oh, and speaking of hardware, I played with the HP Voodoo hyper-tweaked gaming hardware (liquid cooled), and sat on the ultra-rigged chair that connects to the Voodoo box and gives you shocks and jolts as you play the car racing game. This is like the Ferrari of hardware units, custom built for every installation. The HP guy said Robin Williams had one — ’nuff said.

Then Edwin and I visited the World’s Biggest LCD TV. Samsung came out with a 100 inch LCD TV (purportedly the World’s Biggest) and we strolled over to Sharp, who came out with a 108 inch LCD TV (also the World’s Biggest). Hah! I love it when big corporations play the mine’s bigger than yours game.

It occurred to me at CES that the intense competition between Blu-ray vs. HDDVD for the hearts and minds of consumers contains a lot of confusing market speak. For instance, the expression “HD TV” may confuse consumers into thinking that “HDDVD” is a fraternal technology. The expression “Hi Def” occurs everywhere — there’s even HD Radio. There’s a difference between a media format on disc and broadcast quality. I wonder if that distinction is lost because of all the homonyms that are floating around?

In a whimsical testament to the device age, when the AOL crew (consisting of Edwin, Brian, Seth, Jared and myself) were told that our wait to get into a Vegas steak house would be 3 hours (and we were starving), Edwin whipped out a cell phone, surfed the Web, and made a reservation at the same steakhouse and got us a table in 30 minutes. Now that’s life hacking.

There’s a lot that can be said about some of the troublesome aspects of CES, like the implicit gender inequality that sort of permeates the whole place. Sure, it’s Vegas and all, but there are booth bunnies everywhere (all women!), using their, ummm, shall we say sheer pulchritude to sell you (men!) everything from Vonage phone service to the World’s Biggest LCD TV. Sure, sex sells. But when a bevy of women in naughty nurse outfits strolled by (yes, you KNOW what I mean by naughty nurse outfit) I wondered what sort of brand persistence was sought.

Oh, and then, Apple stole much of CES’s thunder. They make this mondo disruptive product announcement that’s a game changer, convergence be damned.

But I suppose what makes CES worth it are the asides — the hallway conversations, the serendipitous meeting of minds, that kind of thing. It’s not just about the convention center floor. AOL’s CTO had a great technology roundtable that recharged my batteries a bit. It was great to speak openly and to brainstorm amongst technologists. A surprise perk was the chance to hang out with Brian again. We spent an evening shooting the breeze about life at some casino bar with a surprisingly sincere and intense 80’s band. CES is big enough to make it a reunion spot for old friends.

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