Carnival time for tech firms

LAS VEGAS -- From the moment you step off the plane at the Las Vegas airport, you see ads from Intel and Microsoft along with signs promoting warhorse casino celebrities like Barry Manilow, Celine Dion and Art Garfunkel. This is the land of marketing-gone-wild, with promos on cabs, billboards, banners on the sides of the giant casinos and threading through the clouds as skywriting airplanes pass overhead.

They all mean one thing: CES is the place to be seen. It's the annual Consumer Electronics Show, a Darwinian circus that every technology company has to attend because 140,000 of the movers and shakers of the tech world are here to do business with one another.


Everyone wants to impress upon the world's watching consumers that their products are going to be on the hot list.

In the carnival atmosphere of Las Vegas, there are a million ways to do this. As thousands of people stream from the monorail, buses and cabs into the Las Vegas Convention Center, they're going to know that Intel has the swagger to plaster the whole side of the building with its "Multiply" ad. You can get a pitch in a limousine or on the Samsung bus.


On Saturday, the Teamsters were driving forklifts and unpacking pallets for the exhibits that go for $35 a square foot. Companies find out later whether their money was well spent.

The stakes in Vegas are huge. You could be anointed the company with the best product of the show among thousands. The free publicity and mileage in terms of buzz will give your products an edge in the market place. Consumers will be more aware of your brand and products, and the sales pitch won't be as hard to put across come fall when the mad sales rush starts again.

This year, the chief executives of Microsoft, Motorola, Disney, CBS and others are delivering the keynote speeches. Each will be evaluated by thousands of industry analysts and journalists, like horse races in the casino sports books.

The buzz is already building over whether the show will be stolen today by Apple Computer's coinciding convention, Macworld, in San Francisco. Some journalists and industry analysts are leaving early to attend CEO Steve Jobs' opening keynote at Macworld. Does Jobs alone have enough star power to pull the technorati away from CES and the allure of Las Vegas?

Some companies think the answer at CES is spending a lot more money than the other guys do.

Hewlett-Packard threw a bash Sunday night at the exclusive Pure nightclub (where the Pussycat Dolls perform) at Caesar's Palace. That kind of amusing stunt can grab the attention of jaded show-goers.

Last night, Microsoft tried to appeal to hard-core Internet fans with a giant puzzle game that included taking over the famous water fountains of the Bellagio Hotel on the Strip to showcase its new operating system, Windows Vista.

Another consumer electronics maker, Sharp, got some bragging rights Sunday afternoon with a familiar ritual of the we-can-only-build-one demo as it pulled a black curtain off the world's largest flat-panel television, a 108-inch liquid crystal display TV.


Other firms think that the star power of A-list celebrities and hip Vegas joints are the way to prove they are worthy of attention.

Last year, Sony chief Howard Stringer scored the biggest celebrities as actor Tom Hanks and author Dan Brown came on stage at the Las Vegas Hilton to promote the Da Vinci Code film - and Sony's own electronic book readers. Bill Gates could manage only Justin Timberlake at his own keynote last year.

The rivalry between those two companies shows up in many ways this week. Sony scheduled a dinner with journalists and its executives during the middle of Gates' keynote speech Sunday night. Journalists had to choose which company would have the most important things to say.

While Gates gets the strategic one-hour, kickoff speech every year before the show starts, smaller companies are reduced to the indignity of the elevator pitch. Marty Winston, a scotch-drinking public relations guy at Newstips, held an annual event dubbed "Cherry Picks" on Sunday at the swanky Wynn Hotel where dozens of small-company CEOs had the chance to present their products to a group of sleepy journalists.

Winston honed his list of presenters over six months and wound up with 62 nervous executives who knew they had only 45 seconds on stage. One was so shaky he couldn't finish his presentation and Winston, normally a strict timekeeper, stepped in and finished reading the TelePrompTer for the product.

Companies that don't show up at CES can be viewed as also-rans. That's why International Business Machines, absent from the show floor for a decade, is coming back to the show this year with its own booth and a message that says it's as good a partner for consumer businesses as its rivals.


"We have not had a major presence at the show and folks conclude that we are not in the consumer space," said Mike Cadigan, a general manager at IBM. "That's not the message we want to send. We partner with a lot of companies that show off their products at CES."

Hewlett-Packard in particular routinely says in its sales pitches that it understands consumers better because it has so many consumer products itself - and therefore is the best information technology partner for consumer businesses.

"That's exactly why we're here," Cadigan says. "In the U.S., CES is the major play."