CES and trade show serendipity will live on, Microsoft or not

When Microsoft said it wouldn't return to CES in 2013, a colleague remarked that such enormous tech conferences were becoming a thing of the past.

He referred to Apple's decision to leave CES years ago, and how vendors get more out of focused events than wide-open ones, especially one like CES where 150,000 people and 2,500 vendors all crowd into Las Vegas venues, vying for space on buses, cab, hotels and for wireless access.

Still, I fought through all the crowds and limited wireless access again at CES 2012 and got the customary sore back from lugging equipment through expo hallways.

Yet, on reflection a week after CES ended, I have to say it was mostly worth it. That's not just because I found and photographed all the quad-core tablets on display (or even the quad-core smartphone) and played with the new ultrabooks or got to see Stephen Elop and Steve Ballmer embrace onstage many times. I broke the same hard news as just about anybody, I suppose, but that's not what I found most memorable.

What I most remember from CES were fairly random things, the kind of interactions that are the result of sheer serendipity. It's what many of us pick while traveling to another country, or while talking to strangers on a bus or at a breakfast nook.

At one breakfast, totally out of the blue, I met Florence Haseltine, who sat next to me and asked me where I was from.

I quickly learned she works at the National Institutes of Health, where she uses her skills as both a biologist and, mostly recently, as an iPhone app programmer. After a long career as a gynecologist and with a PhD in biology, she decided to write a free app called Embryo to help researchers and others find valuable information about embryonic research done in the 1920s before such investigations became illegal.

"It's the most popular NIH app," she bragged. "It's been downloaded 6,000 times." In her spare time, she runs a business that makes and sells a plastic travel case for wheelchairs, an idea she got after a friend's expensive wheelchair got damaged during a flight.

While waiting in line for one of the free buses to a hotel, the man next to me showed me a smartphone online game that his company in Chicago is developing. I wasn't really able to follow the game called Word-Off on the bumpy bus ride, but the game didn't interest me nearly as much as the process of how it was created.

It turned that my fellow bus passenger was Brett Gough, the CEO of Chicago-based Toy Studio, where a group of 15 developers and others are designing and figuring out ways to market games that run on various mobile platforms. It occurred to me that his operation is sort of the microcosm of what's happening in the mobilization of computing, where a lot of creative spin-off industries benefit from the heavy lifting of the mega-companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft and a scores of wireless carriers and phone makers.

Meeting Gough reminded me of literally tripping over Jean Spencer at a crowded CES booth where she and her mother were showing off Agloves. Agloves, sold for $24, are knit gloves that include real threads of silver to conduct a person's bioelectricity to enable capacitative touch on an iPhone or other touchscreen smartphone or tablet.

Spencer claimed they are better than competitors' gloves because they bring the bioelectricity from the entire hand and wrist to the fingertip. I confessed that I wouldn't need such gloves for warmth and conductivity very often, but the company had already sold 170,000 pairs in four months. What struck me in that serendipitous encounter was how an entire mini-industry had been birthed by the popularity of touchscreens.

One of the more sober and touching chance encounters i had at CES wasn't really very close at all. While rushing to a meeting near the crowded Motorola booth, i caught a glimpse of a physically disabled woman or man (I can't be sure which) being pushed on a kind of cart by one or two assistants. They were viewing displays of smartphones and seemed to be chatting over what they saw.

I saw the same group the next day at another CES venue, making their way through heavy crowds. I had to admire their sheer courage and stamina for putting up with congestion and rudeness of the throng.

A colleague later said he'd seen the woman on the cart also. "I don't think she had any limbs," he said, fairly certain it was a woman. We talked about how she was probably there to absorb the new ideas, sort of a Stephen Hawking-goes-Vegas.

No, I didn't intentionally go to CES for glimpses in a crowd or chance encounters. But in truth, just about every member of the global press could have picked up most of the hard news on new ultrabooks, 3D TV's and smartphones from the Internet. Ballmer's last keynote from CES was streamed over the Internet throughout the globe, making it seem ridiculous to wait in line two hours to see him in person.

What's arguably the redeeming point of big conferences, I suppose, is the theater of it all. We tell our bosses that we go to hear keynotes and attend endless, nearly meaningless, meetings in tiny but noisy rooms, trying to stick to a stubborn pre-arranged schedule. The most revolutionary new technology often ends up being shown behind glass, out of touch. But I've found that when I force myself to open my eyes and ears there is so much more.

After CES, my wife got me to attend a dance concert by the Axis Dance Company, which is based in Oakland, Calif., but was premiering at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. It was an eye-opening evening, with two disabled dancers in wheelchairs dancing beautifully alongside other dancers. What was most captivating for me--and the real theater--was an after-show discussion in which the dancers graciously answered questions from the audience, including a woman with a guide/assist dog and a man who said he had cerebral palsy.

The man said he had attended a workshop with the dancers earlier in the week, where he had learned much about expressing his best image, and not just the one of the perfect dance form often taught in dance schools. His comment brought a loud ovation from hundreds in the hall.

That experience made me think that what all of us want from theater, in-person performances and even from trade shows ( arguably a form of theater) is a chance to discover things and other people. We can learn as much from the audience and attendees as from the performers and presenters. We mostly want to be surprised. Keynotes and press conferences are rarely surprising, but meeting new people and hearing and seeing their experiences and what excites them about developing new ideas and products can be exhilerating.

I still think CES and shows like it are too expensive, too crowded, too disorganized and too exhausting. But for sheer serendipity, they can be pretty wonderful. Yes, you can sit at your tablet or laptop and chat up your friends and workmates and even do so in a freakishly interactive virtual world, but that still feels empty by comparison with the real world.

How else would we get to encounter the lady at the breakfast bar or the lady on the cart?

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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