One way to gauge the meaning of what happens at the massive trade show CES this week is to focus on the products. Virtual reality systems, drones aplenty, bendable TVs, big-data solutions to complicated problems. These are just a few of the topics the techno-elite will jawbone about this week in Las Vegas.
I’ve decided to focus instead on who’s partnering with whom. Ford Motor’s elusive CEO Mark Fields got me thinking about partnerships with a comment he made to Fortune’s Kirsten Korosec on Monday. The topic was autonomous vehicles, but also Ford’s (F) ambitious list of experiments around what it blandly calls “mobility.” Said Fields: “In some cases, we’ll do things on our own. Other times (we) will work with others. It’s about what makes sense for Ford.”
Well, duh. Of course it’s about what makes sense for Ford. The trick is seeing who partners well, who goes it alone, and who makes awkward marriages of convenience that everyone knows won’t work.
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General Motors (GM), for example, made a giant bet—even for GM—by pledging to invest $500 million in the Avis of San Francisco-based ride-hailing services, Lyft. This may prove to be a bold move by GM, an opportunity to jumpstart its technology presence in the next wave of the automotive industry. It also might be a cry for help, a sign that mighty GM needed to vastly overpay just to get a seat at the kids’ table of next-generation automotive innovation.
A hallmark of the stage-managed “keynote” presentations at CES is the partner segment, an awkward few minutes where the 600-pound gorilla of an industry shares the stage with another company that has something the incumbent doesn’t have. These kabuki set pieces are worth analyzing because they speak volumes about a company’s thinking.
As a side note, the organization that runs CES proudly has announced that Lyft and Uber will be plying the streets of Las Vegas this week. This could be a true game changer for one of the most logistically challenging conferences ever.
All hail innovation.