Dial-Up Chat: Stewart Cheifet Looks Back At CES

The Computer Chronicles producer and host recounts his experiences

Stewart Cheifet is an American television presenter best known for his work producing and hosting the 1983-2002 PBS series Computer Chronicles, which covered the Consumer Electronics Show on multiple occasions.

Paleotronic reached out to Stewart to ask him about his experiences as a journalist covering CES.

Firstly, what was it like attending your first CES?

My first CES was in 1990. My frame of reference was the COMDEX show which I had been attending for many years prior to my first CES.  Comdex was a very corporate, button-down trade show – featuring servers and routers and security software and storage solutions, etc. It was not very consumer oriented.

So I was delightfully shocked when I went to my first CES – it was like walking into the world’s largest toy store – at least for someone like me who believed a gadget without a battery – or a least an AC adapter – was not really a grown-up toy.

CES was also different from COMDEX in who the attendees were. While at COMDEX most people wore suits and ties, this was definitely a scruffier crowd – consumers, not just wheeler-dealers.

Also, CES featured lots of little guys – small startups with quirky products that would likely never make it to market. COMDEX was all about the biggies – IBM, Intel, Compaq, Microsoft, etc. But that was the fun of CES –  guessing which crazy ideas might actually turn into successful products.

Did the atmosphere change in later CESs? Some Computer Chronicles segments make it seem like an arcade, others very business-like. Was there a trend away from business hardware / software and toward video / computer gaming, or was there always a diversity?

The atmosphere definitely changed. In my first CES shows, it was more a gadget show and an appliance show. You really didn’t see many computers or computer products. Lots of car stereos, massage chairs, phones, radios, camcorders, TV sets, etc.

As computers matured and the market broadened from just business use to home and personal use, CES morphed into a computer trade show. And, yes, gaming became a bit part of CES – Nintendo and Sega were big exhibitors now, game software and game consoles were all over the place, and slowly mobile and wireless gadgets took on an increasingly large role.

There was still a business side to CES but that focus was largely on PCs and PC peripherals, as more and more consumer oriented exhibitors moved from COMDEX to CES.

What were your favorite presentations, launches and / or keynote speeches at CES? 

In the early days of CES there were very grand exhibits – gigantic booths – you couldn’t really call them “booths” – with live music, live performances, dancing girls, etc. So just the show biz aspect of CES was lots of fun. There were magicians, roaming “street (aisle?) performers” trying to lure you into booths. It really was a big party atmosphere. Even if you didn’t care about consumer electronics products, CES was a great show in the broadest sense of that word.

So my favorite presentations, as a TV guy, were the Broadway style big productions put on by the major company exhibitors. There was also the phenomenon of what was known as the “booth babes”  – attractive female presenters who had memorized a script about the products being pitched but would tremble if you asked them a follow-up question about the product.

Regarding keynotes, as CES matured and became more a computer show, my favorites were the ones given by Bill Gates. I think Gates probably held the record for a while as the most frequent main CES keynoter. I always found his presentations thoughtful and packed with useful information, going beyond just pitching MS products.

Of course the most famous Gates keynote was the one that flopped. At the 2005 CES, Gates was doing a demo of the new Windows Media Center and every presenter’s nightmare happened – the demo crashed. I should add that I saw many crashed demos at CES!

Which were your favorite products or software? Were there any that you knew when you saw them they were going to be flops? What about successes? Why?

I would say that most of the newly introduced products had failure written all over them. After all, that was the point in CES – show off what you thought was the greatest new consumer electronics idea and then wait for the market reaction. It made more sense to fail at CES than to fail later at a much higher cost.

I think the biggest apparent flop in the making was 3D TV. The price was high, the goggles experience was uncomfortable, and the content simply wasn’t there. It was great fun to think about, but it seemed apparent that 3D in the home was not going to happen soon without some major improvements and 3D would remain a theater experience for some time.

My guess at one big success turned out to be right – in the aftermath of Napster, and the many subsequent efforts at legal music sharing, it seemed clear to me that there was a huge market for downloadable music and portable digital music players. That technology was very hot at successive CESs and quickly improving with more sophisticated online options and improved players starting with the iPod and culminating with the iPhone and other smartphones.

There were other launches that looked like sure hits to me, or at least the technology that would eventually support new successful products.

In the mid 90’s, more than 20 years ago, I saw products that were not quite mature but paved the way for future successful technologies. Before the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect, there were demonstrations of early game interfaces that used body motion to control game characters. I thought this technology was a winner.

Way back then there was also the hint of wearables, with the early Pebble watch and the Timex DataLink watch.

The early AT&T Screen Phone was certainly the precursor to Skype and today’s video chat apps.

The roots of the TiVo and the DVR revolution were also shown at CES in the mid 90’s such as a Zenith product that let you store TV video on a hard drive and products from Time Warner and Silicon Graphics that did the same thing.

Which software or products never made it to market that you really wish had?

In the gaming arena, there used to be great software titles that required players to think and plan rather just kill people. Somehow the game market took advantage of the improved graphics, audio and video and focused increasingly on violent first person shooters. I can understand that – when I first saw Doom, probably the first shooter with incredible graphics and speed, I was wowed. It was amazing that computers could now process information that fast to offer that kind of real-time realism. So I loved what the technology enabled but was disappointed at how it shifted the gaming market into more violent games.

The best game I ever saw at CES was a fantastic simulator called Robot Wars. This was a shooter but not real-time. You programmed your robot with various offensive and defensive strategies and put it out there in the arena to battle against bots programmed by the computer. You then hit “play” and watched the results of your programming strategy. Primitive graphics, but a brilliant game and learning tool.

On the other hand, the use of multimedia in action games was totally impressive. Titles like Grand Theft Auto and today’s sports simulations for consoles, like NBA 2K, are just brilliant uses of the technology.

In your experience, which product launches were attendees the most excited for? Were they right to be enthusiastic about these products, or did they flop?

E-books made a big splash when they first came out and there was a lot of excitement about the potential, but the early readers were clunky and, most importantly, not well integrated with the software. So most of the early e-book readers flopped. It was only when Amazon came out with the Kindle and the Amazon on-line bookstore that e-readers really took off. I am amazed today to see, as I travel, that the vast majority of travelers are reading e-books rather than physical books.

There was also a lot of excitement when broadband and improved graphics, video and animation capability enabled developers to build virtual stores and virtual malls to make the online shopping experience more like the physical world. There were several clever approaches to doing this and simulating the serendipitous mall shopping experience, but that proved to be less important to users than the clear clean look of Craigslist or Google search. Amazon figured out the winning formula realizing that ratings, user reviews, easy returns, speed and free shipping were more important to consumers than elaborate graphics.

What were some of the weirdest products or software you saw demonstrated at CES?

The weirdest product by far was something called PAN, the Personal Area Network, from, of all places, IBM. This was a network whose nodes connected by touch. So if you have two people, each connected to a computing device, the PAN can be used, for example, to transfer information such as business card data from one person to another simply by shaking hands.

The PAN can also be used to move data from a person to an object they touch such as automatically sending a phone number or credit card information to a cell phone by touching it. The technology uses the salt in your skin to move the ones and zeros from one person to another. The demo made a point of explaining that even a kiss could be used to transmit data.

The most bizarre aspect of the demo was the assertion that even a dead body could be used to transmit data on the PAN since the salt stays in the skin even after death!

The technology was actually developed at the MIT Media Lab. Of course Bluetooth sort of instantly obsoleted the PAN idea. Except, I guess, for the dead people!

What were the most colorful, interesting or notable characters you met or interviewed at CES?

For me the most interesting character I met at CES was Nolan Bushnell, one of my tech heroes. He, of course, is famous for creating the game Pong, starting Atari, and developing the Atari 2600 game console. As someone who still owns an Atari game console and its predecessor, the Magnavox Odyssey game system, for me this was a visit to the temple of gaming.

Bushnell, now 75 years old, had the most insightful understanding of the technology and game industry I had ever come across. Bushnell is in the CES Hall of Fame for his contributions to consumer technology.

But even the smartest guys sometimes make mistakes. Back in 1976, a young entrepreneur named Steve Jobs was trying to find funding to start up his new computer company called Apple, He went to Bushnell and offered him one-third of the company if he would invest $50,000 in Apple. Bushnell turned him down.

CES was, after all, a trade show; were you aware of any notable deals that went down at CESs you attended?

The short answer is – no. I was covering CES as a journalist for my TV show and focused more on cool new gadgets rather than on the business aspects of the show.

In general, COMDEX was more the trade show where deals were made. The exhibit floor there was full of these little carpeted cubicles where deals were negotiated. CES seemed more about buzz and PR, which could then eventually lead to deals.

CES was unique when it started in being open to the public, not just industry people. That gave CES a rather unique vibe compared to other tech trade shows.

Finally, do you have any good anecdotes about CES? Any great parties you attended, or free stuff exhibitors gave away?

I think the weirdest part of CES was the adjacent Adult Entertainment Expo (AEE), which has always been held at the same time as CES and often in the same hotel or convention center.

In the early days, one often saw some of the best technology on display at the AEE since their products demanded speed, great audio and video and certainly innovative Internet technology and e-commerce competence.

The funniest part was roaming the aisles of the AEE and bumping into colleagues who sheepishly noted that they were “just checking it out as a curiosity”.

Regarding great parties, zip. As a TV journalist working twelve-hour days and running around almost 2.5 square miles of exhibit floor space with camera equipment, my favorite party was a quick dinner with my crew and back to the hotel to review what we had shot that day and prepping for the next day’s marathon.

Regarding free stuff, I never saw any tchotchke worth waiting in line for. I was always amazed at how many sophisticated and well compensated tech execs would stand in a long line just to get some useless little goodie that was probably worth less than a dollar. The explanation was usually, “I’m just getting this for my kid“.

“Free” is still a powerful word!

Computer Chronicles (titled ‘The Computer Chronicles’ from 1983 to 1989) was a half-hour television program broadcast on the US Public Broadcasting Service.

Created by Stewart Cheifet, then-station manager at the College of San Mateo’s educational television station KCSM in 1981, it documented the rise of the personal computer market.

Initially a local weekly program hosted by Jim Warren, founding editor of computer programming journal Dr. Dobb’s and co-founder of the West Coast Computer Faire, it was picked up by PBS and began to broadcast nationally in late 1983. 

Later, Cheifet would take over hosting duties, frequently co-hosting the episodes with computing luminaries such as Gary Kildall (the inventor of the CP/M operating system and founder of Digital Research, which developed the GEM desktop used in the Atari ST) and George Morrow, who championed the S-100 bus used in early microcomputers such as the Altair. Other co-hosts included Paul Schindler and Wendy Woods, who provided software reviews and product reports.

Despite its popularity, Computer Chronicles was cancelled in 2002. However, it has since become a valuable resource for studying computing history in a contemporary context. Its retro music and graphics are also very cool!

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