Too often, the measure of a successful conference is based purely on attendance, rather than the quality of the experience for the people who attended.
By the former metric, this year's Consumer Electronics Show was a success. Organizers report 140,000 attendees this year, its best turnout since 2008 (crowds dropped to 110,000 in 2009 and 120,000 last year).
But as one of those 140,000 -- who endured endless cab and shuttle lines, horrible mobile-phone coverage and cancelled/missed meetings -- it would be hard to say I left with a positive outlook. And it's not because of the logistical challenges, although they are certainly a factor.
It's because nothing at CES really wows anymore -- at least not recently. It's just incremental evolutions of more of the same. The tablet and car audio stories were expected to be the big news, and while both delivered, neither really wowed. Of the 70-some tablets showed off by various manufacturers, none really stood out from one another. Pandora was by far the leading digital music service being integrated into all manner of new devices, but only the number of deals raised eyebrows, not any one deal on its own. And more rappers introduced branded headphones (Ludacris and 50-Cent), but didn't Dr. Dre do that three years ago?
But there is a silver lining. There were more music industry execs attending this year than in recent memory, and from what I heard it was mostly to hold meetings with consumer-electronic firms about licensing and partnership possibilities. The music industry needs desperately to support more distribution models for its music, and new gear and new tech is the way to do that. But making that job harder is the sheer vastness of options out there. Mobile phone. Web-connected TVs. Tablets. Car infotainment services. Internet-enabled game consoles and DVD players. Wireless home entertainment systems.
And that brings us back to the problem with CES: It's impossible to leave the show with a firm grip on the gadget trends in the year ahead. There are just too many, and too many companies vying for each vertical.
So in the end, if the point of CES is to capture the entirety of the consumer electronics world in one snapshot, then perhaps the dizzying, confusing, frustrating mess that CES has become is indeed a successful accomplishment.