Of CES 2012 and missed expectations

Ah, Las Vegas. I had hoped never to return. Yet there I was last week, in the ticket line at the Vancouver airport, cursing myself for making it in time and bringing my luggage and passport.

"Maui or Phoenix!" an attendant began to shout, pacing back and forth between the ticket counters. "Anyone going to Maui or Phoenix needs to step to the front of the line!"

We made eye contact. For one brief second, I thought she was beckoning me to a less wretched destination. "I... I'm going to Las Vegas," I said with my hand half-raised.

She stared at me blankly. "Maui or Phoenix! Anyone going to Maui or Phoenix, step forward now!"

A man in a Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts waddled past me. I looked at him with a loathing, jealous look. His flight would be long, but he would soon be sipping margaritas and sunbathing. I would be nursing my chapped lips and trying not to step on blisters during long marches between casino hotels. I would be hurrying along sidewalks just narrow enough to dispense deep lungfuls of car exhaust. I would be getting friction burn from the strap on my new messenger bag.

My mood bottomed out three hours later, when I emerged from the walkway into the McCarran International Airport. I encountered the slot machines that would haunt my waking hours for the next week. Oh, please, not again.

Then, somehow, it wasn't as bad as I thought.

I'm not saying Vegas is any less awful of a city than when I went there last year. I'm not saying it's any less grotesque or absurd. My friends tell me they know people who work there, and they tell me those people are happy. They say you can make a good living there, with good restaurants, endless entertainment, and a reasonable cost of living. What's not to like? I don't think I'll ever see Vegas that way. Maybe this city just attracts a certain kind of people—people happy to go there on vacation, to settle there, to raise a family there. Maybe, when the rest of us get dragged there despite ourselves, we can't help but hate it.

And maybe, after a while, we start to tune out the bad parts.

Last week, the garish lobby of the Venetian felt like a fact of life, not a cause to stop, mouth agape, wondering why anyone would build such a thing. The people at the slot machines looked like regular people just going about their regular days, not wretched souls unknowingly paying for the hotel's marble columns and impossibly kitsch indoor canals. The overpowering fragrances at the Trump Hotel and the Wynn didn't make me want to choke on my own vomit. All I did was chuckle to myself. "Hah. It still smells like vanilla in here."

Somehow, it all seemed normal. Normal like a crazy homeless man you see on the street every day on your way to work. Normal like an old lady wearing big sunglasses and a fur coat and too much perfume, trying to accessorize away the years that stole her beauty. Normal like little Jimmy getting sent home from school because he smashed a slug with a rock and poked at its guts with a stick.

This year, Vegas just seemed like a quirky backdrop to CES, not an attraction in and of itself. That was lucky—because while I tolerated Vegas better, the show seemed a lot worse to me.

"Hello there, how are you? Come right in. Here's our new product. It looks like the product we released last year, but don't be fooled, because it's slightly different. Have you seen our new tablet? It runs Android and has a black bezel and tapered edges. Have you seen our ultrabook? It's thin and light and cheaper than the MacBook Air. Yes, it is going to be obsolete in three-and-a-half months when Ivy Bridge comes out. So, how's the show been for you guys so far?"

Meeting after meeting, hotel suite after hotel suite, that's what the friendly PR reps we all know by name told us. We smiled, we nodded, we asked questions. We took pictures and wrote it all up in the hotel room at the end of the day, our feet throbbing and our eyelids drooping from the exhaustion. We posted it all on TR because that's what we do, and new products are new products. There were even a few small veins of glittering excitement in the dull, grey bedrock—the high-DPI Transformer Prime, the 7-series mobos.

But the veins were too few and the rock too hard and thick.

I remember Computex 2007. It was my first trade show, my first trip to Taiwan, and my first time being in Asia. Asus announced the very first netbook there, the original Eee PC. Intel demoed the first Atom-based handhelds. Via showed me the first x86 motherboard the size of a business card. OCZ let me try its first brain-wave-powered game controller. I got first-hand word—anonymously, of course—about upcoming processors and graphics cards. I drank my first glass of snake blood in an outing with other press guys, and for the first time in my life, I flew home with the fulfillment of having covered an exciting trade show.

Were there any firsts at this year's CES? None come to mind. CES 2012 was a show of second tries and third wheels, like the $529 Tegra 2 tablet from Toshiba and the convertible ultrabook from Lenovo that folds flat with the keyboard exposed below. It was a CES of me-toos and maybes, where prototypes of dubious value intermingled with MacBook and iPad lookalikes. There was no big, earth-shattering story this year; nothing like the birth of the netbook at Computex '07 or the unveiling of Nvidia's Project Denver at CES '11.

Last Friday, I packed my bags and grabbed a cab back to the McCarran International Airport. I smiled and nodded at the TSA officer who grunted a sarcastic "bonjour" after seeing my French passport. I ate an unfulfilling lunch at the Chili's near security. I figured out why my iPhone could get onto the airport Wi-Fi and my laptop couldn't. I spoofed my laptop's MAC address, got online, and hammered out our last bit of CES coverage for the week. I closed my laptop and stood in line at the gate. I realized how crowded the plane would be and made a last-minute run for the washroom before boarding.

I got into my seat and waited for the plane to take off. And then, for the first time in my life, I flew home from a trade show feeling nothing but disappointment.

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