Microsoft bails from CES tech trade show after '12

Will also end its 14-year run of keynotes with Ballmer's Jan. 9 turn

By Gregg Keizer, Computerworld
December 21, 2011 04:35 PM ET

Microsoft today announced that next month's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) will its last as an exhibitor.

"We have decided that this coming January will be our last keynote presentation and booth at CES," said Frank Shaw, the head of Microsoft's corporate communications, in a blog post Wednesday.

As Shaw noted, January's CES will also be the last time that a Microsoft executive gives the gigantic trade show's opening keynote. Former CEO and current chairman Bill Gates delivered his first keynote in 1994 and ended with the 2008 CES. Current chief executive Steve Ballmer, who has taken the stage the last two years, will do so for the final time Monday night, Jan. 9.

"We won't have a keynote or booth after this year because our product news milestones generally don't align with the show's January timing," said Shaw.

Microsoft decided to downsize its role at CES, Shaw also said, because the company was "look[ing] at all of the new ways we tell our consumer stories," Among those new avenues, Shaw cited Microsoft's home-grown events, website, and the retail stores it's launched in more than a dozen locations, as well as social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter.

"It feels like the right time to make this transition," Shaw said.

The show sponsor, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), echoed Shaw in its own statement today.

"Both CEA and Microsoft have agreed that the time has some to end this great run [of 14 keynotes]," a spokeswoman said.

CEA also confirmed that Microsoft will not seek booth space for 2013 in the Central Hall, where it's had a massive presence for years.

Microsoft's move is reminiscent of Apple's decision in late 2008 to end its active participation -- which also included booth space and the delivery of the keynote address -- after the January 2009 Macworld Conference & Expo.

Shaw's list of alternative ways to communicate Microsoft's product messaging was similar to the ones given by Apple's head of marketing Philip Schiller three years ago. At the time, Schiller said Apple was "reaching more people in more ways than ever before" and that "trade shows have become a very minor part of how Apple reaches its customers."

Like Shaw, Schiller also pointed to Apple's retail stores and its own website as alternatives to trade shows.

"This is all part of the very long decline of the various technology trade shows," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "A trade show like CES is a very difficult and expensive selling environment, and although they may be a good way to connect with small retailers, the very largest technology companies don't have to sell that way."

Gottheil saw parallels between Apple's and Microsoft's decision to pull out of major trade shows like Macworld and CES.

"Microsoft isn't simply copying Apple, but like Apple, they have the kinds of products and the kinds of messaging where you want to get across something deep and complex, and you want to get this across without distractions of other products," said Gottheil.

Microsoft has stepped up the number of self-made events it has hosted this year, and like Apple, has shifted to invitation-only product launches or meetings with media and developers.

Last month, for example, Microsoft used a such a meeting to unveil more details about its upcoming online Windows Store -- its version of Apple's Mac App Store -- and to announce the late-February availability of Windows 8's beta.

The latter was a departure for Microsoft.

In early 2009, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced the availability of Windows 7's beta during his CES keynote.

The CEA declined to answer questions about how Microsoft's future absence will affect the trade show.

The association's spokeswoman, however, did note that it had already heard from companies on its waiting list which wanted to discuss taking up the exhibit space slack.

Microsoft has used CES to introduce major products -- such as the Xbox in 2001 -- the show has been the scene of some infamous gaffes, including the "Blue Screen of Death" that popped up on a Windows PC during Gates' 2005 keynote.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer , or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is .

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