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Will Anyone Actually Show Up at CES on Wednesday?

Although CES is slated to open to the public on Wednesday for the first time since 2020, there has been a rush of cancellations by major vendors.

CES 2010
A scene from CES in 2010. LGEPR, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

A given at the first of each year is CES. Formally called the Consumer Electronic Show, the event practically takes over Las Vegas for a few days every January, and every company that even dabbles in electronics is on hand to show off their latest offerings.

How big is it? In 2019, more than 182,000 people attended and more than 4,400 vendors exhibited their wares. How important is being there to vendors? In 2020, Apple made its first appearance at the event in 27 years, if that tells you anything.

In 2021, when there was no in-person event due to COVID, organizers pulled out all the stops to create an engaging virtual event, featuring a live digital performance by Billie Eilish as a lead-in to a discussion session on digital performances in whic Ryan Seacrest spoke with Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa.

This year the event returns to being in-person and is scheduled to crank up on Wednesday at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Like most other events in the Age of Covid, it’s going hybrid, meaning it’ll be available digitally for those who don’t want to risk sharing breathing space with others for long periods during a pandemic.

Of course, the planning for 2022’s event took place during a time when it appeared that coronavirus was on the run due to the effectiveness of available vaccines, but that was before the double whammy of Delta and then Omicron caused the daily number of new COVID-19 infections nationwide to soar to north of the half-million mark since Christmas.

However, despite assurances from CES that the show must go on (which, no doubt, it will since it’s hard to stop a train of this size on short notice without massive financial consequences), attendees are likely to be entering a venue in which social distancing will be no problem since hardly anybody will be there.

If it does go on as planned, and if crowds to arrive, it’s sure to become a super-spreader event.

Vendors Dropping Out

I’ve wondered how Omicron and the current spike in new cases would affect this year’s show, but I didn’t bother to look into it. CES is generally off my radar (I’m mainly interested in conferences that focus on open source software), although my inbox at this time of year is filled with invites from PR folks looking to set up interviews with the press at the event.

This morning I received an email from KIOXIA America, a company that sells flash memory and solid state drives, to let me know it’d made something of an 11th-hour decision to not attend the upcoming in-person event.

“KIOXIA America has been reviewing the latest information on the rapidly evolving public health environment, and after careful consideration has decided to cancel our on-site presence at CES 2022 in Las Vegas. Instead, we will focus on support of our virtual digital activities at CES where we will highlight our latest flash memory and SSD innovations through the CES digital exhibitor venue, and our own virtual booth platform.”

This was an announcement that wasn’t easy for the company to make, since it’d been planning to use the venue to launch a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the invention of NAND flash, which it’s now going to push back to a later date.

This got me wondering how many other vendors were pulling out of the upcoming CES. It turns out there are plenty.

Wikipedia reports that going into Christmas Day forty two exhibitors, accounting for 7% of the exhibit floor space, had already canceled — and vendors have been dropping out like flies since. On Thursday, Vanity Fair reported that the latest to cancel their in-person presence at CES were AT&T, AMD, BMW, IBM, Lenovo, Mercedes-Benz and Procter & Gamble.

The list of companies that have already cancelled reads like a corporate Who’s Who, and includes Microsoft, Google, Intel, Amazon, iHeartRadio, Meta (aka Facebook), Variety, MediaLink, and T-Mobile, whose CEO Mike Sievert had been scheduled to deliver a keynote. Most of the companies that have been cancelling say they still intend to have a presence on the digital version CES.

CES: The Show Must Go On

Meanwhile, Consumer Technology Association that puts on the show, insists that come Wednesday the doors will open for public attendees as planned.

The association’s president and CEO, Gary Shapiro, said in an article he penned for the Las Vegas Review Journal that was published on Christmas Day, “CES will and must go on. It will have many more small companies than large ones. It may have big gaps on the show floor. Certainly, it will be different from previous years. It may be messy. But innovation is messy. It is risky and uncomfortable.”

“As we look to CES 2022, we confront a tough choice,” he added. “If we cancel the show, we will hurt thousands of smaller companies, entrepreneurs and innovators who have made investments in building their exhibits and are counting on CES for their business, inspiration and future. If we do not cancel, we face the drumbeat of press and other critics who tell the story only through their lens of drama and big name companies.”

Interesting words coming from an organization that’s usually making sure the public knows that CES is the place where all of the major tech players gather.

“We are mindful of concerns that CES could be an event where the Omicron variant can spread,” Shapiro said. “We are leading the way in requiring masks and vaccines, recommending testing and offering free tests. We respect that some do not want to take the risk involved in travel to Las Vegas, even in the vaccinated bubble of CES. But with significant safety measures and fewer people, there is plenty of space for attendees to socially distance.”

That’s all well and good, but we already know from Todd Lewis, who launched an in-person edition of All Things Open in October, that even without Omicron, staging a safe conference during COVID is no piece of cake.

Personally, I’m glad I’m not going, and if I had been intending to attend, I’m positive I would have cancelled by now. I’ve missed all of the conferences I usually attend since the pandemic began in 2020. While I’ve missed I would have had, I know that there will be plenty of conferences to attend after we finally get COVID-19 under control

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