Jan. 3, 2020, 8:00 a.m. EST

CES 2020: Where have the tech companies gone?

Big tech companies have gradually moved away from the biggest electronics trade show of the year, but 2020’s keynote lineup and absences show a more dramatic shift

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By Jon Swartz


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CES has slowly transformed into a showcase for traditionally non-tech companies.

LAS VEGAS — CES really doesn’t stand for Consumer Electronics Show anymore.

The trade show was once the exclusive province of gadgets, gizmos and the latest and greatest personal-technology tools, but that has changed over the years. The 2020 edition, which will be held next week, shows how far those changes have come — from keynote speeches to exhibitor booths, the annual weeklong high-tech bacchanal will be distinguished as much by auto makers and airlines as chip makers and computer manufacturers.

This change has been happening for years — the name was changed from the Consumer Electronics Show to just CES in 2016 — but for an indication of how much has changed in just the past year, look at the keynote lineup. In 2019, executives from blue-chip tech giant International Business Machines Corp. /zigman2/quotes/203856914/composite IBM +0.10%  and chip maker Advanced Micro Devices Inc. /zigman2/quotes/208144392/composite AMD +0.08%  delivered the top keynote speeches. In their place this year are Delta Air Lines Inc. /zigman2/quotes/200327741/composite DAL -0.31%  , Daimler-Benz, Unilever /zigman2/quotes/205449809/delayed UK:ULVR +0.65%   and startups like Impossible Foods and Quibi.

“Why is our airline at [CES]? We believe innovation is core to our mission,” Delta Chief Executive Ed Bastian told MarketWatch, alluding to his second keynote appearance in Las Vegas. “Tech, social media, Instagram. They have a pull on our customers [some 200 million a year].”

Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown added: “It’s important to [be at CES] as we build a new technology platform for producing food. This show brings tech and consumers together.”

Some of the industry’s marquee names — Apple Inc. /zigman2/quotes/202934861/composite AAPL -1.16%  , former keynote staple Microsoft Corp. /zigman2/quotes/207732364/composite MSFT -1.08%  and Amazon.com Inc. /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN +0.70%  , for example — continue to skip the show. Facebook Inc. /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB +1.98%  and Instagram executives will hold a briefing with reporters Tuesday on business prospects in 2020, but their major product push takes place in the spring. Nvidia Corp. /zigman2/quotes/200467500/composite NVDA -3.49%  and Alphabet Inc.’s /zigman2/quotes/202490156/composite GOOGL -0.05%   /zigman2/quotes/205453964/composite GOOG -0.03%  Google, which have been major players at CES in recent years, have scaled back operations for 2020.

“CES is a great show, and we’ll be there again this year — just not with a keynote,” an Nvidia spokesman told MarketWatch. “[CEO] Jensen [Huang] has spoken on several big stages in recent weeks, and he’ll be back at CES in the future.” (Nvidia, which has hosted events for more than five years through 2019, will focus on gaming, autonomous vehicles and robotics at CES 2020.)

While domestic companies have plenty of opportunities to market themselves stateside, international companies like Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. /zigman2/quotes/209800866/delayed KR:005930 +1.85% and Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. are taking advantage of the massive stage in Las Vegas.

Indeed, CES maintains its mantle as the country’s preeminent tech conference. An estimated 170,000 people, 60,000 from outside the U.S., are expected to attend, roughly the same as in 2019. Some 4,500 exhibitor booths will be spread across the Las Vegas Convention Center, hotels and off-site locations along the Strip.

“We are undeterred by any macroeconomic concerns,” Karen Chupka, executive vice president of the Consumer Technology Association, which hosts CES, told MarketWatch in a phone interview.

The changing composition of CES headliners underscores a long and steady transformation to traditionally non-tech companies as they develop digital platforms internally, Chupka said, pointing to the expanding presences of Delta, Procter & Gamble Co. /zigman2/quotes/202894679/composite PG -4.28%  , and Deere & Co. /zigman2/quotes/207941296/composite DE -0.47% . One controversial speaker, Ivanka Trump, will discuss the future of work on Tuesday.

Accordingly, the mega-trends have shifted to 5G technology — AT&T Inc. /zigman2/quotes/203165245/composite T +2.17%  and T-Mobile US Inc. /zigman2/quotes/204659678/composite TMUS +0.49%  remain big CES players — and artificial intelligence, with what Chupka calls an emphasis on business-to-business-to-consumer solutions.

There will still be plenty of high-definition televisions, smart appliances and futuristic cars at CES. And the usual roster of tech-sector participants — Samsung, Intel Corp. /zigman2/quotes/203649727/composite INTC -0.05%  and Sony Corp. /zigman2/quotes/208567357/composite SNE -0.34%  , for example — are back with mega-booths, press conferences and behind-the-scenes meetings.

Samsung is hosting its first CES keynote speech since 2016 on Monday night, and a first look at new consumer electronics products on Sunday night. Samsung, Sony, Toshiba Corp. /zigman2/quotes/204149068/delayed TOSYY +4.21%  , and LG Electronics Inc. /zigman2/quotes/209966407/delayed KR:066570 +6.65%  , meanwhile, are returning with sizable booths.

“To understand the future, we must know where consumers are headed, as their changing tastes and interests continue to propel our company forward,” HS Kim, CEO of Samsung’s Consumer Electronics Division, said in a blog post explaining the South Korean company’s commitment to CES.

The 2020s will be defined in great measure by what Kim calls the “Age of Experience,” in which technologies such as AI, 5G, and the Internet of Things blur the boundaries between the digital and physical worlds. That will be the focus of Kim’s keynote speech on Jan. 6.

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Jon Swartz is a senior reporter for MarketWatch in San Francisco, covering many of the biggest players in tech, including Netflix, Facebook and Google. Jon has covered technology for more than 20 years, and previously worked for Barron's and USA Today. Follow him on Twitter @jswartz.

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