Switched On: Trading up trade shows

Ross Rubin
R. Rubin|08.02.06

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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

This week's announcement that the Entertainment Software Association will euphemistically "evolve" the Electronic Entertainment Expo into a more "intimate" event (a premise hard to imagine given the attire of most female videogame characters) saw the once-thriving event accompany the ranks of fallen shows like Comdex, PC Expo and the summer Macworld Expo.

The summer Macworld Expo show disappeared because IDG's events group could not reach agreement with Apple on the venue, and Apple held even greater sway over the Mac market during those negotiations than it did in the '90s, Similarly, E3 was scaled back dramatically primarily because the hardware oligopoly of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo pulled out even though Electronic Arts was also allegedly involved in the negotiations

With each demise, particularly those champions of online media have proclaimed the death of the big tech trade show in the U.S. However, at least two events focused on consumer technology have grown significantly over the past few years. DigitalLife, held in New York and developed by Ziff Davis's events group, is not only open to the public, it's explicitly aimed at it. It's timing just before the start of the holiday shopping season lets consumer technology companies prime the promotional pump. Return on investment is easy to justify as a direct marketing initiative. The changes to E3 should strengthen DigitalLife's relevance to videogame marketing.

Furthermore, while Comdex once rivaled its size, no aforementioned show is as storied as the International Consumer Electronics Show, which served as the showplace for videogames before E3. Now in its 40th year, the sprawling scale of CES keeps bulging beyond its confines. Last year, part of the show returned to the Sands Convention Center after a several year absence as the Las Vegas Convention Center expanded. The Consumer Electronics Association, which sponsors CES, pays meticulous attention to planning the event, which begins almost immediately after the previous year's event closes. Indeed, on the day that ESA announced the scaling back of E3, CEA distributed an e-mail called "CES Up To The Minute" -- this for a show that was still approximately 231,541 minutes away.

Unlike E3, CES is not beholden to three or four key players. Surely, if Sony, Panasonic and Samsung pulled out, it would hurt the allure and prestige of the show as well as dramatically reduce the number 100+" televisions on display, but those companies generally have lower market share in major consumer electronics categories than Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo do in home and portable consoles. Furthermore, as the consumer electronics marketplace has expanded, CEA has attracted companies such as DirecTV, Intel, Microsoft, HP, nVidia, Nokia, Motorola and others to exhibit, and now the conference is even attracting more traditional and new media companies to keynote. Last year saw keynotes from Yahoo and Google, and this year Disney CEO Robert Iger will be among the keynoters.

While many once-great shows that dominated robust industries such as enterprise IT or videogames have diminished or disappeared over the past few years, there's still opportunity for big events that enable a holistic and fresh perspective. As DigitalLife and CES show, it's now less about bringing together established communities and more about introducing communities to each other.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.

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