CES flops: A brief history of high hopes and bad guesses

Remember the Palm Pre? Anybody watching 3D TV these days, running Windows Vista or watching a movie on Blu-ray?

With this year's Consumer Electronics Show winding down, and a deluge of recap articles and slideshows flooding the Internet, it’s always important to remember that what may be exciting at CES is not always an indication of what will transform the consumer technology market.

Often at CES, one or two technologies seem to dominate headlines, while other times standout products receive a lot of attention for their specifications. As these exciting technologies enter a market full of consumers who don’t spend all their time talking about technology, they have trouble fulfilling their potential. This is a look back at those products and technologies, what made them so popular at CES, and why they didn’t pan out in the market.

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This look back at CES starts in 2006, which attracted about 150,000 attendees and made it the largest technology event in the country. Some CES events, particularly those the past few years, were dominated by one technology that established a theme. Others loaned attention to products that, while technologically impressive, were bound to fail in the market.

Every year since 2006 is represented here except for 2011, which was, judging by Google search results, mostly dominated by tablets and laptops. While the “death of the PC” debate could be raised here, it doesn’t really apply to CES specifically.

CES 2006: The beginning of the Blu-ray/HD DVD battle, and sad hope for MP3 players that weren’t the iPod

The 2006 CES was where HD DVD formally challenged Blu-ray for dominance of the home entertainment market. Just as DVD had unseated VHS with its higher-quality playback, one of these formats was expected to displace DVD.PDF]. Streaming also poses a significant threat, and with the growing presence of smart TVs, Internet TV devices like Apple TV or Google Chromecast, and media consoles like Microsoft’s Xbox One or Sony’s PlayStation 4, the future does not look good for Blu-ray and DVD sales.

However, eight years later, it’s clear the “battle” was short-lived, and neither side won. Although Blu-ray sales grew 5% in 2013, which the Digital Entertainment Group called “consistent,” that growth was far outpaced by Electronic Sell-Through’s 50% growth over the year [

Also notable at CES 2006 were MP3 players that aimed to unseat the iPod. Manufacturers employed a handful of new features to try to differentiate these devices from Apple’s market-leading MP3 player.

Engadget praised Toshiba’s Gigabeat S Series portable media player, claiming “it’ll have the skills to take on the iPod.” The Gigabeat’s secret weapon was integration with Vongo, a video download service offered by the cable network Starz that allowed users to download movies and watch them on the go. CBS News suggested that the 2 or 4-gig Samsung YPZ5 could compete with the iPod Nano, while CNET got excited about the SanDisk Sansa Connect’s built-in Wi-Fi for adding and sharing media.

While these devices could very well compete with the iPod line on a technological basis, Apple was just a year away from making the market irrelevant with the introduction of the first iPhone.

CES 2007: The year Windows Vista won Best of CES

That’s right, the OS that has since become something of a curse-word in the tech world was once a CES darling.CNET UK blog was “convinced you’ll be gagging for a taste of the new OS” after seeing demos at the show. Little did they know what the PC market was in for.

Just weeks before Microsoft would release Vista to the public, the company raised expectations by showing off some of Vista’s new features at CES. A

Of course, nobody really could have predicted that Windows Vista would have bombed as badly as it did. But considering its history, it’s always fun to remember that people were once excited for Vista.

CES 2008: Devices that did one thing the iPhone did

Just six months after the iPhone reached the market, CES 2008 made it obvious that manufacturers weren’t really concerned that it would displace certain devices.

The BBC touted Smart GPS devices at CES, particularly the Dash Express GPS device from Dash Navigation, which “aims to harness the power of its community to avoid traffic jams.” This was an admirable pursuit, as this capability is still lacking from modern GPS apps. But with the iPhone on the market, and Android in development, the writing was on the wall for the navigation device market.

Similarly, we at Network World highlighted the Sansa Clip, a small iPod competitor that boasted four-times the storage of the iPod Shuffle and retailed for just $79.99. It was just another example of a product that entered the market too late.

CES 2009: The year Palm Pre was named Best in Show

Remember the Palm Pre? If you do, you’ll know it was pretty exciting -- once.

The first webOS smartphone turned a lot of heads at CES 2009, when the market was still wary of all-touchscreen devices and still open for competition. CNET partnered with the Consumer Electronics Association to issue awards for CES 2009, and chose the Palm Pre as its Best in Show, crediting the webOS experience and organization features. Acknowledging that other smartphones available at the time handled similar functions, CNET said “the Palm Pre is the first smartphone to truly deliver on this in a seamless way.”

Unfortunately, the Palm Pre wasn’t received as well when it hit the market later that year, receiving poor reviews across the board and falling well short of sales expectations.

CES 2010: The beginning of the 3D revolution that never happened

Hype may have been at its highest for CES 2010, thanks mostly to the promise of high-quality 3D TVs showing up in consumers’ living rooms. Such an advance in the TV market catapulted CES publicity beyond the tech media and appealed to the interests of all TV-watching consumers.

PC World declared that “the 3D-product plans for the coming year represent the initial salvos of the coming 3D revolution.” Most major manufacturers introduced their 3D TV products at the show, and Panasonic’s 3D plasma-screen won Best of CES. With 3D movies dominating the box office at the time, it was easy to imagine those awkward 3D glasses becoming commonplace in consumers’ living rooms.

Fortunately for people who wear prescription glasses, the 3D TV revolution never quite materialized. Vizio recently announced that it will no longer support 3D TV in its products, opting instead for the promising 4K TV, and ESPN, an early proponent of the technology, has abandoned 3D programming.

CES 2012: Ultra hype for Ultrabooks

About a year and a half after Apple’s iPad set the tablet market in motion, PC makers needed to appeal to customers who were excited about the convenience of the tablet form factor but still needed a laptop for serious computing. Hence the ultrabook hype at CES.

It made perfect sense. ultrabooks are thin and efficient enough to take anywhere without cords, and many of them even double as tablets. Mashable called ultrabooks the “star product from CES 2012.” Wired warned, “if you’re coming to CES, bring a cool ultrabook or innovative tablet or don’t bother stepping off the plane,” predicting that the ultrabook was “poised to disrupt the traditional notebook space, and with good reason.” In early 2012, Intel bet $300 million in a marketing fund on ultrabooks, predicting that the devices would account for 40% of the PC market by the end of the year.

Before that year was over, it was clear the ultrabook wasn’t the savior the PC market had hoped it would be. Figures from October 2012 showed that only 10.3 million ultrabooks had been shipped. The ultrabook couldn’t get over the same problems that plagued the PC market as a whole.

Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies and the startup scene for Network World. Follow him on Twitter @ntwrkwrldneagle and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is cneagle@nww.com.

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