"Software is eating the world," the legendary Silicon Valley investor Marc Andreessen said in his influential Wall Street Journal editorial which served as a sort of state of the technology industry address in 2011, a bullish argument for the supremacy of internet startups. It's no surprise that the trend is taking over even at International CES, the 46-year-old trade show that has seen the debut of some of the most exciting advances in gadgets, from the VCR to the CD player, high definition televisions, and smartphones.
While there is no shortage of hardware innovations being unveiled at this year's convention, the internet startup industry has a growing presence. Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian, one of the internet startup industry's most ubiquitous advocates, graces the cover of the official CES magazine i3. Executives and representatives from Amazon, Facebook, Foursquare, Tumblr, Twitter, and YouTube are slated to appear on a panel in the middle of the week. A new "entrepreneur-focused" keynote will feature Silicon Valley darlings David Lieb of Bump Technologies (born as an iPhone app), Cyrus Massoumi of ZocDoc (a website for scheduling doctors' appointments), Eric Vishira of RockMelt (the "social media" browser), and will.i.am, whose iPhone camera add-ons are the most tangible product of the lot. That panel is moderated by Jeff Jordan, a partner at Andreessen's venture capital firm, Andreessen Horowitz.
The internet startup industry has a growing presence
The startup-centric Eureka Park may be cordoned off in one of the secondary halls, but the section is 50 percent larger than when it debuted last year. The official Eureka Park news channel is sponsored by social news startup Launch.it. The Consumer Electronics Association has also teamed up with the Startup America Partnership to "showcase and celebrate some of the most innovative startup companies" on the Startup America Live Stage, which will feature four days of startup-focused programming.
This year's show also features panels on some of the startup industry's favorite topics, including patent trolls and internet regulation, as part of the "Innovation Policy Summit." There's also the Wall of Apps, a first-time exhibit of 11 mobile apps, and the Mobile Apps Showdown, a demo competition that follows the similarly-structured Last Gadget Standing. The CEA even awarded a coveted booth at the show's first official press event to Prymd, the winner of Startup Weekend hackathon, a memory game that helps you remember names and faces.
Many of the younger startups being welcomed by the conference this year are developing nifty hands-on hardware. But in the past, a company like Moonrider would be unlikely to choose CES as the time to launch its Art Jam Rich Media Ad Unit platform, which "enables the creation of HTML5 interactive ad units which deliver unique audio visual brand experiences on desktop and mobile devices."
Is CES turning into SXSW?
So is CES turning into SXSW Interactive, the hip startup trade show that launched a handful of blockbuster hits like Twitter and Foursquare but attracts mostly forgettable apps with cute names? Part of CES's strength has always been its ability to adjust to the times, evolving from a spinoff of the Chicago Music Show heavy on audio technology to what it is today. (Veteran conference goers invariably cite inflexibility as the reason why CES's forerunner, Comdex, bit the dust.)
A really cool web startup could win over media and attendees at CES, geeks who can be counted on to appreciate originality and cleverness even if it's made of bytes, not atoms. But despite the CEA's efforts to reach out, most internet startups wouldn't think of exhibiting at CES. A prominent booth starts at around $20,000 for just the basics, way too much to justify for most young internet companies, especially considering that the investors and buyers in attendance are there to look at devices, gizmos, and Wifi-enabled appliances. A SXSW badge is $700 to get into the panels and official events -- but a startup can make a splash via street marketing and after-hours networking at SXSW without even registering.
With smartphone makers saving their best announcements for their own proprietary events, apps and social media startups offer a way for the convention to participate in a large swath of the technology sector that arguably has the most momentum right now. Unfortunately, the internet startups CES has managed to draw so far are pretty lame, with the hackneyed "x-meets-y" elevator pitches that are likely to make attendees eyes glaze over. That doesn't mean the conference can't remake itself as a destination for internet startups, but at the moment they're more of an awkward novelty than a real attraction.