What did you say?
I can’t hear you.
This could have been me anywhere last week at CES, the annual consumer electronics behemoth that ended Friday in Las Vegas.
In the vast halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center, where giant televisions or radios or computers were constantly blaring, with no real sound discernible over the massive cacophony. After several days, it felt like a low-level headache, an endless buzz of very loud nothing.
In the hotels across the city — each different in the ways that make no difference and the same in ways that do — where the Top 40 music never stops for even a moment, with Katy Perry oh-ing over and over again.
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
You’re gonna hear me roar!
And when Katy was not roaring, Miley Cyrus kept coming in on a wrecking ball, was never hit so hard in love, all she wanted was to break Liam Hemsworth’s walls and was, in turn, wrecked by him. (When I think about it for a second, I realize that this is not unlike how small tech entrepreneurs feel a lot of the time about VCs, the press and the endless hamster cycle of startups.)
And then again at the party Twitter had in the penthouse at the Cosmopolitan Hotel on Wednesday night, with electronic music blaring, as I was trying to grok what its sales head Adam Bain was talking about related to magician David Blaine, who was then poised to stick a nail or a knife or something in his arm.
Why he would do this, I still do not know, because I could not discern Bain’s explanation over the loud thump-thump of the relentless beat. But there Blaine was, hired by the newly IPOed company to wander the rooms and perform various tricks for the large crowd of people — clients of the social networking site, employees, press and just those who wanted to say that they had managed to squeeze into the highly controlled elevators and into the stunning space overlooking the Strip.
If Blaine’s pin-cushion act was not your thing, there were @-decorated eclairs and a special drink called “The Hashtag.” It had both lavender tea syrup and Blue Curaçao, along with something called a Szechuan flower. It looked both nauseating and intriguing at the same time.
It’s also one of those aggressively named drinks you want to go along with at CES at the endless rounds of parties and dinners and events, which very soon degenerate into a kind of forced march of fun. It’s Vegas! Why not?!? It’s a blue drink, just like Twitter blue! Get it?
“Would you like one?” yelled the bartender at me, more of a weary order than a query.
I pretended not to hear him and bit into the @-pastry. It was blue, too, but delicious.
I took off from San Francisco at 7 am on Monday, flying east into a stunning sunrise, in a plane packed full of sleepy Silicon Valley geeks and the non-geeks that market what they make.
In many ways, more than the red-hot center of tech, CES has largely become a marketing event, with various digital CEOs arriving to razzle and dazzle rather than to show off any significant innovation. About 150,000 people descend on Las Vegas to do this — setting up giant booths and prepping splashy parties and blowing up things like a huge plastic kangaroo for Hopper (whatever happens to all these things after the event is an ongoing mystery for me) to flack whatever needs flacking.
This happens as soon as you get off the plane, with come-ons starting immediately on the concourse and not stopping until you get on the plane home.
I’d like to say the famously long lines were as long as they’d always been, but they were not this year. Many people had been delayed back east by the severe cold snap, causing flights to be delayed all over the country and making it easy to sail through the typically clogged airport.
But I did not know that at first this year, emerging from the terminal into the baggage claim area at 8 am, expecting to face an onslaught, brave the gantlet, shove my pull bag into the fire. I was in that frame of mind when I spied the name of a top Yahoo executive — Jackie Reses — on a limo placard. Perhaps because I could not bear the thought of waiting in a massive taxi line at this hour and the take-a-chance air had already gone to my head, I found myself briefly calculating exactly how much trouble I would get in if I should say I were her and ride to my hotel in style.
Such a caper — and caper is the exactly appropriate word for it — would be a thoroughly Vegas thing to do. Elvis would do it. Sinatra would do it. Clooney would do it. The guys from “The Hangover” movie would definitely do it. But I did not have the set they did, I suppose. So, I trudged off to get a cab — which turned out to be an easy thing, missing an obvious bullet by nixing my imaginary limo heist.
As soon as they get to CES, a lot of people like to start griping about how much they hate it and how it is an endless slog and a horrible drag and any variation on however did they end up in Vegas once again. Yet here they are, year after year, prisoners willfully entering prison again and clanging the gates shut behind them for the duration.
I don’t pretend to hate it, because I do not, despite the noise, the crowds, the endless come-ons by PR people trying to sell a story where there often is not one. I’ll bite enough times, of course, because it’s part of the game to find meaning, a pattern, some sort of sense in what has been put on display in the latest incarnation of CES.
This year the big theme emerged almost immediately: Wearables. There is, of course, no CES without a major meme to chew over, to ponder with graveness, to pundit about by people who are frequently wrong, but never ever in doubt.
Essentially, wearables are a class of gadgets that allow the human race to “quantify” itself and then parse the data collected about steps or miles or calories or time slept. While this category is selling well, these devices are still in their nascent stage, with no real actionable data rendered. I wore a Fitbit Force throughout CES, for example, which told me I walked a whole lot. What it did not tell me was the impact the unfortunate lukewarm churro I gorged on earlier in the day had on my body or what getting up at 4:30 am to do a TV appearance did to my health.
Still, everyone went nuts for the smart “onesie” for babies from Intel and a company called Rest Devices, called Mimo. It monitors things like breathing rates and sleep position, via a tiny turtle-shaped sensor, and data is then sent to a smartphone or even a coffee cup. Despite the fact that there have been many versions of this type of thing for many years now, all of which have come and gone, the TV-ready collision with the wearable meme made the Internet-enabled onesie what passes for a huge hit at CES.
I have no idea if Mimo will make it, but I can list all the various and sundry themes like this from past CES events that never really took off in the consumer space. That includes enthusiastic hype over 3-D television a few years back, which soon turned to disdain after sales lagged. Mobile digital television had a brief moment in the sun, which soon set, along with giant coffee tables with Internet-enabled screens.
And is it hard to forget the endless kickline of tweeting refrigerators? There was a new one this year again, from South Korea’s LG Electronics. It was offering a service it called HomeChat, using the popular messaging app in Japan called Line. Using it, you can apparently communicate with your home appliances.
Let me spell it out for you here: No one wants to talk to the toaster — or at least very often.
It’s the same with washing machines you can turn on with a smartphone, which have hit the market to tepid response. Nonetheless, at the massive Samsung booth, this was touted to me by a very energetic demo person, part of its Smart Home initiative.
“Can my app magically haul the clothes down from the bedroom and then fold them afterwards, since my kids refuse to?” I asked, a question that was met by complete silence. I thought so.
Still, there were what I count as real innovations, such as Samsung’s newest dishwasher with a new technology called WaterWall, which is kind of like a car wash for your plates.
Maybe not as sexy as a onesie that talks to a coffee cup, but at least it’s a tech leap.
Once you get over all initial noise, CES settles into a groove of waking up, trolling the floor for interesting items, going to special meetings set up in advance, all capped by an endless stream of parties from all the tech giants.
My time this year was largely informed by our new partnership with NBCUniversal News Group and its many outlets: NBC News, CNBC, MSNBC and the “Today” show. Our new Re/code staff worked with them all to prep as many appearances as possible and to work with their reporters on various stories we did and those they were doing.
How I got the 5:30 am CNBC slot, I still do not understand. In any case, on Tuesday, I was running through the casino at 4:30 am, rushing to get to the camera set-up miles away on the floor of CES. Why I thought it would be quiet then, I also do not know, but people were out partying as hard as ever and I caught snatches of conversation as I breezed past.
“Let’s get f*#@ing f*#@ed up, for f*#@’s sake,” yelled out one young woman, who already seemed well on her way to mission accomplished on this metric.
“I don’t mean to be racist, but …,” declared another dude in an ironic T-shirt, although I was thankfully well past earshot before I could catch whatever appalling thing he would say after that opener.
“I just switched from Apple to Android. I hate the operating system, but I love the screen,” said another man in line for the taxi (yes, there was a line at 4:30 am), in what amounted to the only interesting observation I had heard so far that day.
It was freezing in the main convention hall as I went on the air, talking about — well, I forget now. It might have been my piece the day before about what Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s keynote later in the day would contain. I said she would immediately say the word “mobile,” followed by a rollout of content-focused stuff starring TV news star Katie Couric and the New York Times’ David Pogue.
When she did just that hours later, I looked like Miss Cleo, the psychic, but it was really just due to ever-leaky Yahoos who told me much of what was in her highly scripted appearance.
Mayer’s keynote was typical of the many that happen at CES. The crowds of clients and press shoved into a hall, the swirling lights onstage, the pumping music, all followed by a cavalcade of announcements, very few of which pass for actual news.
Mayer’s speech was better than most, although she laid out no real vision herself. Rather, she was a kind of nerdish MC for the various Yahoos she trotted out in succession. The still-glittering Couric. The adorkable teen techie from Summly. The snarktastic Pogue, who launched Yahoo’s handsome new tech site from the stage in an awkward drum-roll-please act. And, as is expected, the famous singer at the end, which was John Legend.
Apropos of nothing that had gone on before, he sang a version of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” which was quiet and lovely, providing a brief respite before I was disgorged into the screamy casino at the Las Vegas Hilton.
“Can you believe that Miley Cyrus?” said one woman to another as I passed through the crowd, just as “Wrecking Ball” played loudly over the sound system. I concur, especially since my two young sons seem to now think twerking is the height of hysterical repartee.
On the way out the door into the actual outdoors, I ran into the sweeter-than-sweet David Karp, the entrepreneur who founded Tumblr and sold it to Yahoo for $1 billion, just before it ran out of money. As we briefly chatted, I could only think that, in his hoodie and hipster jeans with his trademark floppy locks falling over his eyes, the waifish Karp looked about as out of place as could be in these garish surroundings.
He had just been onstage talking about new ads on Tumblr — a topic he had previously shown disdain for — that Yahoo would be running. I guess someone has to pay the bills, but as I noted in the blog of the event just minutes before: “He actually says: ‘Engagement-pricing options.’ Someone in Brooklyn is weeping now.”
Right then for him, so did I and thought: This will only end in tears, so escape back to New York, Dave!
For all the noisy spectacle, it’s the parties where much of the action happens at CES and the various dinners and drink meetings that everyone has. In fact, there are many people who come to Las Vegas every year and never ever set foot on the floor of the convention center or gaze upon one of the bazillion screens arrayed there.
Instead, they and their expense accounts drift to and fro, usually in what one person at the show called “stupidly expensive” town cars, to see each other in hotel rooms, in pricey private dining rooms of the best restaurants and in the many, too many, clubs.
I got scads of invites to such events — it’s not me, everyone does — most of which I did not attend. Private equity firm Silver Lake had a party at the Mandarin Oriental, while iHeartRadio hosted a live performance of Krewella at Aria’s Haze nightclub. (No, I have no idea who that is or what they sing, but I am sure the band is on the cutting edge.)
Meanwhile, Khosla Ventures threw their soiree at the Wynn. “If you need a place to see some entrepreneurs, VCs and fun people, come hang out,” said the invite, as if these three types were mutually exclusive. Actually, now that I think of it …
Perhaps the most sought-after invite was to MediaLink’s annual fest, orchestrated by its ubiquitous head Michael Kassan. It was held this year at Mix at The Hotel. It was exactly the kind of see-and-be-seen event that works well at CES. Over here, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong. Over there, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo. This way to Google’s display ad VP Neal Mohan. What ho, it’s VC Vinod Khosla! And greetings, Chegg CEO Dan Rosensweig.
I ran into just about everyone I cover at the event, most of whom I could see pretty much anytime in Silicon Valley. Except here in the twinkly Vegas night, high above the strip with killer views, it’s definitely easier to talk, to get insights and thoughts out of people and, of course, the presence of endless custom drinks does not hurt the situation.
I actually didn’t find out too much at the party of true news use, but it’s always helpful to hear the chatter. About a top Yahoo exec who may be on thin ice with CEO Marissa Mayer. The complete guesses of who will be Microsoft CEO (no one seems to know — which is telling, in and of itself). What IPOs will be coming down the pike.
Also, a lot about how everyone was really looking forward to the next season of Netflix’s “House of Cards.” Even with a room of people who cannot agree, this much is certain: Sen. Frank Underwood would make a great Internet exec.
There was a Facebook party and an AOL party, of course, neither of which I managed to get to, but I did not miss that Twitter party at the Cosmopolitan.
Like I said, it was loud and swanky and there were a lot of blue things to eat. I asked a Twitter PR person who got to stay at the suite after the party was over, since the company had rented it for the night. “No one stays here, I think,” he said. “I guess that’s a real waste.”
Kara Swisher Drink up, tweets!
I suppose, but this was a week of waste in many ways — of focus, of steps, of energy, of time itself — so that one more empty room did not seem to be that big a deal. What was interesting was that Twitter was there, talking to advertisers, consumer electronics makers and the media about the convergence of the digital with the analog.
As I said, stuff — which has been what CES has always been about — was finally being made to come alive as the Internet of Things morphed inevitably into the Internet of Everything.
I had had a very good interview with Twitter’s Costolo about that at another event only days before, which seemed to be an eon before by the time this party rolled around in the great and never-ending noise of CES. In it, we talked about future trends, such as where advertising is going, how communications had changed, where the next great tech breakthrough would be.
“Has this been a good CES for you?,” Costolo asked me at the party, trying gamely to have another decent conversation despite the epic noise.
What did you say?
I can’t hear you.