The 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show doesn’t officially start until Tuesday, but Monday was and always has been the day that matters. In the hours between 8am and 5pm, the consumer tech industry’s biggest players whip out the big guns and try to one-up each other with the best theatrics, the best products, and the strongest buzz among the CES crowd. Before a black-turtleneck-wearing Steve Jobs ever got on stage to promise “One more thing,” before Jeff Bezos, and Larry Page, there was Monday at CES, a day when companies lay down disgusting amounts of cash to prove they’re the ones to watch. They’ve been doing it for decades. And despite what you have heard about the death of CES, they’re still doing it. And this year, Samsung won Monday.
The writing on the wall of CES
Fact is, the gadget industry is changing. We increasingly rely upon a few gadgets to do everything, thanks to the wonderful proliferation of apps. That means we need fewer of these gizmos that pump through the veins of CES, keeping it alive.
“Software is the thing,” writes Wired’s Mat Honan. “The physical shell that it comes wrapped in is increasingly meaningless as upgrade cycles grow relentlessly shorter and relentlessly more cross-platform.”
This argument lies at the heart of the CES death prophecies. It also happens to be true. Our smartphones are not just phones, of course; they are our cameras, our game consoles, our music players, our calendars, our Web browsers, an alternative to our PCs. The more we mash together our gadgets, the fewer gadgets we need. As the number of gadgets we need diminishes, so too does the life force of CES.
Combine this with the fact that the Big Tech players – Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google – all choose to skip CES, and you get a seething puddle of pontification about the demise of the annual convention we love to hate. As Buzzfeed’s Matt Bucanan explains, these companies have figured out how to harness the power of the blogosphere and social media – not to mention their supreme name recognition – to make the idea of a yearly pilgrimage to the desert seem antiquated, even insane.
Samsung vs. Sony: The only real competition
Again, all of this is true. But it is not the whole story: Hardware remains massively important. (Honan calls it both “very important” and, a few paragraphs later, says “it doesn’t really matter.”) Apple did not become Apple simply by making great software (which it does) or by creating a vast ecosystem of high-quality, third-party apps (which is has). Apple became Apple by making gadgets beautiful, inside and out.
Samsung knows this, but has chosen a different path – a path that flows perfectly through the fleeting body of CES.
Samsung is hardware; it leaves the software (mostly) to others. And that formula has worked for the South Korean giant. The Galaxy S3, powered by Google’s Android OS, is single device in the market that truly challenges the iPhone, having reached ‘most popular smartphone on the planet‘ status in November. Its LED TVs are top-class, and nobody does Ultra HD (UHD) better. Its Series 9 laptops have won heaps of praise. And I dare you to find a more awesome refrigerator from a Samsung competitor. As I said, Samsung is hardware.
As CES goers saw Monday afternoon, this hardware-centric blueprint will continue to guide Samsung throughout 2013 (and presumably beyond): Better Series 7 Ultrabooks (powered by Windows 8, of course), bigger and better UHD TVs, better cameras, better refrigerators. Better better better.
Samsung is not, of course, the only hardware-centric player out there. LG made a big play for attention this year, with ad campaigns splattered across the Web, and plenty of boozy parties to get CESers lathered up for this year’s lineup. But as for Monday goes, LG didn’t even try; it blew its entire load weeks before, around Christmas-time, leaving no new products to unveil at today’s big event. And Panasonic? It spent less than 30 minutes announcing… what? Exactly.
Sony was the only Samsung competitor that, well, tried to compete – and compete it did. Its cavernous “booth” housed at the Las Vegas Convention Center, where the real CES magic takes place, Sony showered thousands of us with free food and drinks, and endless bright white tables filled with all its latest offerings, from NFC-enabled speakers to UHD TVs. Unlike most other events – including Samsung’s – we journalists were able to actually touch the products we’re supposed to tell you all about. And when the show finally started, the smiling Sony executives managed to get us, the cynical press, excited about the company’s 2013 offerings.
Samsung, by contrast, was a bit too cool. It’s corporate theatrics a bit too polished, a bit too removed from the real world of turning on a great gadget for the first time, the tech world most of us know. Giant 85-inch televisions elevated out of the floor. Impossibly tall and beautiful product girls walked out on stage with impossible posture and impossible smiles. Not a single Samsung executive flubbed a line. It was professional to the letter. It was damn near Apple-like. Steve Jobs is rolling in his grave tonight.
Further, even Sony’s hardware lineup was, in some areas, more impressive. But the Japanese company lacks the momentum of its Korean competitor. While Sony was busy losing hundreds of millions of dollars, seeing its PS Vita portable gaming device stumble, and killing off its woefully unpopular Xperia S tablet, Samsung racked up record sales and billions of dollars in profit. Samsung is, after all, the largest hardware maker on the planet. On the faces of the Samsung elite on Monday, you could see the arrogance only a winner can exude. And at the end of the day, it was clear that Samsung had bested all the rest.
Of course, the haters will point out that not even Samsung debuted any “game changers.” It didn’t blow our minds. It didn’t change the world, or even try. This lack of “Wow!” is yet another ridiculous criticism tossed upon the CES screw-pile. Had Samsung announced the same lineup at its own, non-CES event, we would be pouring over every millimeter of the hardware. But alas…
As I see it, CES is the perfect venue for Samsung, which sits on a precipice of greatness. On one side, the pitfall of its sluggish past. On the other, dreams of Apple domination. By making a big showing at CES, Samsung shields itself from the intense scrutiny that comes with throwing its own “Look at me!” event like the rest of the Big Tech crew, while simultaneous positioning itself as the Alpha dog of the hardware-focused consumer electronics world.
In other words, CES is the perfect platform for Samsung in 2013. And Samsung provides a healthy, beating heart to CES, which is evolving along with the wants and needs of us, the consumers.
As we head into the bulk of CES over the rest of this week, we will see miles upon miles of new gadgets from more than 3,000 companies. Each one will be vying for attention, for recognition that its particular thing is the one to get excited about, to write about, to buy. But these companies have already lost the race. Samsung, with all its gloss, has won the game that is CES. It won not by being the most professional or by putting on the most elaborate show – though it did both – but by convincing us all that it is, still, the leader of its pack, the commander in the hardware war against Apple and all the other ilk that choose to shun the greatest consumer electronics show we have.