The blogosphere has been passionately arguing both for and against an Apple appearance at CES, which is held in Las Vegas rather than Macworld Expo's San Francisco. Sources close to the company have indicated to AppleInsider that the move is a done deal, a remarkable turn of events given that CES has long been dominated by Microsoft's product announcements issued in keynotes delivered by Bill Gates and now by CEO Steve Ballmer.
Macworld vs CES
Over the last few years, Apple's announcements at Macworld Expo have overshadowed Microsoft's at CES, as the Cupertino powerhouse released blockbuster products such as the iPhone and climbed to dominate the digital media future of online music, video, and now mobile software sales in iTunes.
In contrast, Microsoft has announced a string of products that either never materialized, were grossly impractical, or have sold poorly and received bad reviews, from Spot watches to Mira terminals to Windows Vista to Windows Home Server to the Surface to Zune. The remainder of CES tends to be little more than electronics firms showing off slightly larger TVs.
Given that Apple has the capacity to blow out the lights at CES during Macworld Expo, why would it choose to abandon its own party and join one held in honor of Microsoft? It's certainly not the timing of the event, as CES is typically held at the same time or at least within a week or two of Macworld.
One of the key reasons Apple appeared ready to leave Macworld was because of the pressure to impress consumers and shareholders with sensational new product announcements just after it had sold through its blockbuster holiday sales. Microsoft has typically made announcements at CES for products that are slated to appear later in the year or perhaps years out into the future, while Apple's Macworld unveilings tend to be available immediately or within a month or two.
All things considered, it would appear that Apple's participation at CES would be no better than Macworld for Apple, and additionally involve greater traveling expenses and expose the company to greater competition for media attention.
Apple ready for a challenge
However, that challenge is apparently just what Apple is looking for as it branches out from its past as a computer hardware company into a full consumer electronics firm with significant software products, leadership in digital media sales, and even a toe in the water of mobile gaming with the iPod touch and iPhone.
Attendance at CES would directly contrast Apple's offerings with Microsoft's, the company most closely matched to Apple's future aspirations. Over the last three years of Macworld and CES, Apple's Mac OS X Tiger and then Leopard were pitted against Windows Vista; then the iPhone directly challenged Windows Mobile; Apple's iPod and iTunes empire roundly trounced efforts by Microsoft to spread Windows Media DRM, sell its Zune music player, and expand into the digital living room; and Apple has even started making inroads against Microsoft Office with its iWork suite and its new iWork.com cloud collaboration service.
Windows enthusiast pundits have recently grown unable to seriously belittle Apple in comparison to Microsoft, but a direct contrast of the two company's efforts at CES would make the differences even more impossible to ignore. Apple could also directly contrast its offerings against other competing CES exhibitors (such as Palm), as well as benefit from Mac, iPod, and iPhone ecosystem partners who would help tint the PC-centric event in Apple-savvy colors.
Not just speculation
While the web lights up with various opinions on the plausibility of Apple attending CES, AppleInsider has obtained first hand, credible reports that the news is true, corroborating a rumor story published by Ed Sutherland of the Cult of Mac. CES officials were said to have informed some exhibitors about the matter before the start of this year's show, indicating that next year's CES will have a section reserved for Mac-oriented exhibitors.
The source noted that Apple "wants to sit amongst its competition," rather than being isolated at its own event. Such a development would mirror Apple's efforts to move from PowerPC to Intel processors, its iPhone retail expansion plans with WalMart, and other strategies to raise the profile of its products while selling to a wider audience.
However, even with participation by Apple, the days of electronics trade shows such as CES appear to be numbered. The group canceled its summer event just as IDG killed the summer Macworld Expo, and sister events such as COMDEX, Seybold, and the E3 gaming convention have also fizzled over the last decade. Apple also recently pulled out of NAB, fueling excited rumors that it might sell of its Final Cut suite of Pro Apps.
While trade shows in general have waned in importance with the rise of the Internet, Apple has funneled its resources into building its own Worldwide Developer's Convention into a record setting, sold out event. The company has the capacity to generate significant media attention at any time simply by announcing a press event of its own. Phil Schiller also noted in this year's Macworld keynote that Apple's retail stores host far more visitors every year than a series of Macworld events ever could.
That indicates that an Apple appearance at CES 2010 might likely serve primarily a symbolic move by Apple as it cements its increasing importance in the consumer electronics world at the expense of Microsoft, generic PC makers, smartphone vendors, and its other competitors in the consumer electronics industry.