Microsoft and CES: it's complicated (not really)

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James Trew
January 9th, 2014
In this article: ces, ces2014, microsoft
Microsoft and CES: it's complicated (not really)

CES: It's a big deal in the tech world. You know who else is a big deal? Microsoft. So when the tech giant decided to hand over the baton of hosting the event's opening keynote, ending a 12-year streak, people took notice. Not only that, the software giant also pulled its entire presence on the show floor, causing speculation that Microsoft's relations with the CEA had degraded over the years, or (more likely) that it had decided the show just wasn't offering it the kind of airtime it needed for its services and products.

At CES 2014, a Microsoft stand is nowhere to be seen on the show floor. In the build-up to the event, however, a report from the BBC claimed the firm would be "returning" to the show, including an almost polemic quote from the event's head honcho Gary Shapiro stating that "Microsoft is officially back in the International CES." This, in turn, was picked up by others, dutifully pointing out that, technically it never left -- instead, conducting business away from the show floor. This much is definitely true, as we were part of one such meeting, in which we took the time to find out a little more about the real story behind Microsoft's sudden departure from the biggest show in tech.

"The keynote and the booth, we haven't done the last couple of years, but at the same time, the behind-the-scenes meetings with partners, hardware manufacturers, mobile operators and developers are all happening, and that part has actually increased," Greg Sullivan, director of Windows Phone at Microsoft told us. Clearly, with almost every relevant business partner in town, it's a great time to talk. Sullivan did go on to say that Microsoft isn't ruling out a return to the show floor in the future.

Microsoft has many limbs, so it's not just a case of one faction pulling out. Xbox isn't here either, and it just launched a once-in-a-decade console. Marc Whitten -- chief product officer for Xbox -- told us "coming here to talk about new stuff is a little weird, especially for the console market, where so much is driven in November/December." Yet Sony is here in full force, releasing new PlayStation products, and even theming its non-gaming stuff under the banner "play." Whitten also told us, in the case of Xbox, it's more to do with the timing. CES lands just after the big Christmas push, but again, this didn't seem a concern for Sony; a competitor that's generally considered to be winning the publicity war.

We're there; we're visible; and our products are in booths all over in various form factors.

But if not CES, then what? Sullivan is pragmatic, claiming that it's a simple case of reallocating budget. A presence on the show floor costs money; money the firm is deciding to spend on other things. Internally organized events like Build are becoming increasingly important for Microsoft. Especially as this gives it the opportunity to host its own show, and not jostle for attention among the thousands at CES. A tactic that Apple employed some time ago (the last presence it had was more than two decades ago), which is clearly working for them. Google, too, has never really done the CES thing, also opting for its own showcase events.

Microsoft's absence perhaps feels more noticeable due to its long tenure at the CES keynote, making its presence at the show all the more visible. Not that its show floor installations were exactly subtle, either. Its 2011 booth, for example, was a cavernous multi-story complex, almost with its own weather system.

If you spend any time wandering the halls at CES 2014, however, one thing soon becomes obvious: Microsoft is actually present throughout. Its products are so ubiquitous, that even without it trying, tablets, laptops and a host of other devices make sure that famous Windows logo is never far away. Something Chris Flores, director of Communications for Windows is only too aware of. "Although we don't have a physical booth presence on the floor, we very much have a presence on the floor [...] we're there; we're visible; and our products are in booths all over in various form factors," he said.

And here we come to the obvious conclusion. Microsoft isn't at CES (visibly) because it really doesn't need to be. It's also not an indicator of CES' credibility. We're told the software firm is also giving Mobile World Congress the same treatment -- it will be there, but mainly behind closed doors. Increasingly it looks like the large trade show simply can't offer the sort of dedicated airtime that a brand like Microsoft requires. This, after all, is the nature of business: assess the value, and make the most profitable decision. For Microsoft -- and an increasing number of big names -- that decision is to go it alone.

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