Microsoft ousts rivals from CES marquee as show moves online

FILE - This April 12, 2016 file photo shows the Microsoft logo in Issy-les-Moulineaux, outside Paris, France. Microsoft took five hours to resolve a major outage of its workplace applications on Monday, but has not clarified what caused the outage. The company said the outage, which affected users ability to log into Office 365 applications, began early evening Monday Eastern time. Microsoft did not reply to questions Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020 about what caused the outage, but said on its service-status Twitter account that it had identified a recent change that caused problems. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)
FILE - This April 12, 2016 file photo shows the Microsoft logo in Issy-les-Moulineaux, outside Paris, France. Microsoft took five hours to resolve a major outage of its workplace applications on Monday, but has not clarified what caused the outage. The company said the outage, which affected users ability to log into Office 365 applications, began early evening Monday Eastern time. Microsoft did not reply to questions Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020 about what caused the outage, but said on its service-status Twitter account that it had identified a recent change that caused problems. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File) (Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

This week, Microsoft had a big test on its hands — how to help transform the world's biggest gadget show into an online-only event.

The choice of Microsoft to power this year's CES and create a virtual showcase for its 1,800 exhibitors gave the tech giant a big promotional boost over its best-known cloud computing rivals, Amazon and Google.

But it also posed reputational risks, as organizers of this week's event tried to cobble together a trove of web content and mostly prerecorded panel discussions in a way that could at least partially evoke the gaudy, high-energy convention that takes over the Las Vegas strip each January.

At times, it was hard to pretend this year's virtual CES was a live event.

“Don’t tell people we’re recording in December,” said panel moderator and venture capitalist Rajeev Chand, jokingly admonishing a Twitter executive after his comments revealed that their debate on user privacy, aired Tuesday, was taped nearly a month earlier.

The Consumer Technology Association, the trade group that runs CES, said it made a final decision in July that its premier event would be virtual, then put out a request for bids and evaluated more than 40 digital platforms before announcing its choice of Microsoft in October. The tech company already had some experience hosting its own big events virtually during the pandemic, including last year’s Build and Ignite conferences, each of which had roughly 200,000 participants.

But Microsoft's marquee involvement in CES is a change from recent years when Google and Amazon dominated the annual Las Vegas convention with ubiquitous marketing and splashy displays — even a theme park-style ride — as they competed against each other to showcase their digital voice assistants.

Microsoft, by contrast, has kept a lower profile as it's shifted from a consumer-focused business to one focused on selling its software and services to big organizations.