Apple’s future shouldn’t be at CES, but at global in-store events

By Jeremy Horwitz

Every year, journalists start CES with faint optimism and conclude with disappointment; as the song goes, they thought the future would be cooler. At some point right as the show is ending, someone will typically float Apple — which officially skips CES every year — as either the cause of the show’s boredom or its future savior. Right on cue, analyst and former Apple marketing director Michael Gartenberg today published the latest version of this pitch, titled “It’s Time For Apple to Go to CES.” I agree with much of what he says, but respectfully disagree with that conclusion.

I’m uniquely positioned to discuss this topic for a few reasons. I created CES’ incredibly popular Apple product exhibition area, the iLounge Pavilion, which kept growing until it filled the equivalent of more than two football fields. During the same time, I covered virtually all of Apple’s major events, including speaking with people behind the scenes. Last but not least, I’ve held no stock in Apple and have no stake in its success or failure, other than as a customer.

My position: Apple’s 2009 withdrawal from trade shows may have been justifiable back then, but the overall impact has been negative. Additionally, Apple’s related decision to move most of its product launches to a single quarter each year has damaged the brand, despite the strength of Apple’s sales and stock. However, unless certain highly improbable changes are made at CES, this particular trade show is not the right venue for Apple. Instead, the company should leverage its incredible retail infrastructure to do something different.

Apple and trade shows

In December 2008, when Apple withdrew from exhibiting at future trade shows, the company described them as “a very minor part of how Apple reaches its customers.” It also downplayed the importance of professional shows such as NAB and regional shows including Apple Expo Paris. The logic seemed simple: Why prepare a keynote and staff a booth to reach perhaps 100,000 attendees when Apple Stores collectively had “more than 3.5 million people visit every week?”

To Apple-focused journalists, the real reason behind the change was becoming clearer: Then-CEO Steve Jobs was looking thinner with every keynote, and as his illness progressed, he had more important things to accomplish than working on speeches. No one else could take ownership of Apple’s keynote process at that point, and without a keynote — pulling the cloth off of surprises that would then be offered for public examination — an Apple trade show booth wouldn’t be exciting.

Sure, Apple participated in trade shows as marketing events, primarily to spread the news on new products. But the keynotes also became cultural events, actually setting the tone for both the technology industry and arguably human progress as a whole. What if everyone could easily access the real internet from a pocket-sized device? What if a portable computer could be made so light and easy to use that kids and grandparents could figure it out? There was good …read more

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