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Gadget show in Las Vegas cursed by flops

| Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012

NEW YORK -- The largest trade show in the Americas must be a great place to show off new products, right• Wrong. The International Consumer Electronics Show is quickly becoming a launch pad for products that fall flat.

When the annual conclave kicks off next week, organizers expect more than 140,000 people -- roughly the population of Syracuse, N.Y. -- to descend on Las Vegas. They will mill around 1.8 million square feet of booths and exhibits, equivalent to 31 football fields.

The 2,800 or so exhibitors hope to set the tone for the year by showing off tons of tablet computers, throngs of 3-D televisions and untold numbers of slim, light laptops called ultrabooks.

But a look back at the products heavily promoted at CES in recent years reveals few successes.

• In 2009, "netbooks" -- tiny, cheap laptops -- were a hot category at the show. They did have a good year, but interest was waning when Apple Inc. obliterated the category with the launch of the iPad in 2010.

Another big, eagerly awaited launch at the 2009 CES was Palm Inc.'s webOS software, running on a new generation of smartphones. Those devices debuted later that year to good reviews and dismal sales. A year later, Palm was sold to Hewlett-Packard Co., which killed the product line in 2011.

• In 2010, TV makers made a big push with 3-D sets, hoping to ride the popularity of 3-D movies such as "Avatar." Sales turned out to be disappointing as buyers balked at wearing glasses and found little to watch in 3-D. The technology is not going away, but 3-D looks to be just another feature among many of today's high-end TVs.

Other manufacturers at that show hoped to ride the success of Amazon.com Inc.'s Kindle with their own e-readers. They failed, though Barnes & Noble Inc. made some inroads later in the year with its Nook. That rivalry played out away from CES.

• In 2011, there were more than 100 brands of tablet computers on display, all trying to ride the coattails of the iPad. Many of them did not even make it to the market; those that did could not dent Apple's market share.

Amazon's Kindle Fire tablet did start to crack Apple's hegemony late in the year, but it was not shown at CES.

A big part of the "curse" of the show is that the company that has been driving trends in the industry, Apple, does not show products there. It does not have a booth, and its executives don't give speeches. It has not had an official presence at all since the 1990s, though some of its employees go.

It's not that Apple dislikes CES in particular. It just does not do trade shows. When it has something new to sell, it puts on its own press conference. That way, it can control everything.

Microsoft Corp. seems to be adopting the same strategy. It revealed last month that the 2012 show will be the last one that its CEO will kick off with a keynote speech. That ends a run of 15 straight years. It's also the last time Microsoft will have a booth at the show.

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