How hardware startups changed the face of CES

It was all bad timing, really. Just ahead of CES 2012, Microsoft announced that year's event would be its last, blaming product schedules that just didn't match up with the annual show. There was no question that the tech giant's absence would be felt the following year, the first time in recent memory the Consumer Electronics Show wasn't kicked off by a Microsoft keynote. It signaled, perhaps, a slight shift away from the days of huge companies dominating the event's headlines -- a phenomenon helped along by the recent attention-grabbing successes of a number of crowdfunded projects, many of which were present at the show.

The move from Bill Gates to Steve Ballmer was one thing, but a CES without Redmond? That was just unheard of, a specter that loomed over the show, even as the CEA happily announced it had sold out the company's floor space in "record time." In the end, of course, Microsoft was still at the show, albeit in a less overt form, by way of third-party machines from Sony, Samsung and the like, and in the form of a cameo by none other than Ballmer himself -- a sort of spiritual baton-passing to the company's keynote successor, Qualcomm. Heck, even the Surface Pro reared its head backstage at the show.

Timing, too, played havoc with this year's mobile announcements, with many manufacturers holding off news until next month's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Even RIM opted to forgo the CES press conference, choosing to hold its own event to launch its long-awaited BlackBerry 10 operating system, later this month, and joining in on a larger industry trend of breaking away from the industry's noisiest week.

The relative absence of mobile announcements from the major players in the US market (even Sony, which debuted the Xperia Z, opted not to make the device a centerpiece of its press conference) allowed manufacturers like ZTE and Huawei, largely unknown in the States, to hog the mobile spotlight. Instead, focus from the majors was on the world of Ultra HD, a fact that highlighted one of the biggest concerns with these sorts of shows: product overlap. It's hard not to notice when two of the biggest companies at a show use it as a platform to make a big deal about 65- and 55-inch versions of previously announced 84-inch sets.

But the vacuum of excitement created by the major players contributed to a perfect storm of sorts, mingling with the on-going explosion of crowdfunded projects put into play by the likes of Kickstarter and Indiegogo. The real stars of the show weren't the multinational corporations, but rather the startups that couldn't necessarily afford the astronomical fees required to set up a booth at a show like this. And while this certainly wasn't the first year that crowdfunding has had a presence at the event, there was a sense that 2013 was the year that it truly came into its own, delivering the promise of real, marketable hardware, rather than the sort of vaporware that seems ever-present at CES.

No better was this demonstrated than with the Pebble smartwatch, the Kickstarter phenomenon that seemingly managed to drum up as much excitement as one of those high-end TV sets the majors were hawking. What these projects lack in resource infrastructure, they make up for in adaptability, producing genuinely unique takes on the tech space. It's hard to imagine major corporations experimenting with products as they launch press conferences and ad campaigns designed to pat themselves on the back for adding a few fractions of an inch to a smartphone screen.

Then there were the 3D printers making a big showing compared to the year prior, in which MakerBot unveiled the only high-profile entry in the space. This year, 3D Systems gave the company a run for its money, in the form of the portable Cube (which employees were carrying strapped to their chests while walking the show floor) and the CubeX, with its enormous basketball-sized build platform. Kickstarted company Formlabs, meanwhile, showed off the massively impressive FORM 1, which could bring pro-level 3D printing into the home. The success of such products has contributed to the hardware explosion in their own right, offering up the capability of rapid prototyping in a home environment. Bre Pettis showed us the Square Helper, a credit card iPad accessory that one 3D printer owner is selling -- an example of the "desktop industrial revolution," the MakerBot CEO loves to talk about.

And if CES can be regarded as a sort of testing ground for those far-off conceptual products like the foldable display, crowdfunding has that very thing built-in. If users don't support a product, it doesn't get made.

"Crowdfunding is a natural," SticknFind creator Jimmy Buchheim told us during an interview. "It allows us to bring products to market fast and lets us know whether the products are good or (if we have to) go back to the drawing board."

And certainly there's a lot to be said for the sort of pre-show buzz such campaigns can elicit -- there weren't too many projects that we were more excited to play around with in the lead up to the show than the Oculus Rift.

It will be fascinating to watch how such a shift will affect the show moving ahead. If small companies continue to draw as much or more attention than the big guns by walking the floor in hopes of meeting press members and buyers, it may impact the amount of money they will actually spend to exhibit. The hidden treasures have always been a highlight of shows like CES, but 2013's event seems to have signaled a shift toward a potential future in which they are the focal point.

It's a trend we certainly welcome, both with regards to the slight leveling of the playing field it brings to hardware startups and, perhaps, toward a push for creative thinking amongst the larger companies moving ahead. Hopefully the CEA will expand its effort to embrace these small companies, as well. If the big manufacturers continue to commit to launching products on their own terms, at their own events, crowdfunded companies and their ilk may well prove to be the future of CES.