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The Future I Saw at CES 2012

2012 January 15
by Greg Satell

All of us want to know what the “Next Big Thing” will be, me as much as anybody.  One of the best chances to do that is at CES, the Consumer Electronics Show

This year the show featured over 3000 exhibitors and 150,000 attendees.  I had the opportunity to spend the past week at CES 2012 and toured the floor with Shelly Palmer, host of NBC’s Live Digital, so had a great vantage point to see what’s what.

While most of the action happened away from the convention center, in hotel suites and meeting rooms, the wares on display did reveal some important underlying trends.  Most of the innovation wasn’t strictly with the technology itself, but how products interact with each other to enhance user experience.  Here’s what I saw:

Apple Envy

While Apple didn’t attend CES, its presence was felt nonetheless.  The most obvious manifestation was the ultrabooks on display.  These are basically Macbook Air clones and everybody seemed to have one.  They are light, powerful and many will retail for less than $1000.  Expect to see them everywhere this year.

Probably even more important was all of the subtle ways the market is trying to duplicate Apple’s seamless ecosystem.  A good example is Intel’s Pair and Share app which let’s you move media from mobile devices to PC’s across platforms so you can alternate from small to big screens as if they were one device.

The most significant effort to catch up with Apple was Microsoft’s Windows 8 platform.  If you are a PC user, prepared to be pissed off.  Once again, they have failed to take into account that millions of people have invested time and effort to learn the old interface and will find the new one disorienting – a usability nightmare.

However, as a business move, it might bear fruit.  While they remain dominant in desktops and notebooks, Microsoft’s market share for connected devices has fallen below 50%.  Windows 8 is a true “mobile first” platform and they need to make headway against iOS and Android if they are to stay relevant.

Once again, business strategy trumps consumer experience for Microsoft.

Evolution of Screens

The most impressive technology was the OLED screens on display.  OLED uses organic compounds that emit light and don’t need a to be backlit.  This makes for much higher black levels, better contrast and a superior picture.  LG showed off a 55 inch OLED that will retail for about $5000 and prices will go down rapidly over the next few years.

Picture quality isn’t the only advantage of OLED’s.  They can also be flexible and transparent as Samsung showed with this amazing Smart Window:

We can expect this technology to revolutionize in-store displays.  Store windows will be able to double as touchscreens, allowing consumers to demo and purchase products as they window shop.

Michio Kaku expects that OLED technology will eventually be thin enough to serve as flexible paper and cheap enough to cover entire walls economically.  There are even greater possibilities with combining OLED screens with molecular computers at the atomic level, creating entire environments where every surface can be, in essence, a tablet computer.

The Web of Things

One of the big themes at CES 2012 was connected homes.  Both Samsung and LG had complete end-to-end solutions on display.  However, I’ve always been a bit skeptical about the notion of refrigerators that order our milk for us.  As a general rule, we tend to prefer technologies that increase control over our lives rather than ones that relinquish it.

There were, however, other efforts with more promise.  Motorola Mobility’s 4Home Connected Gateway helps you pair all of your connected devices, such as TV, home security and energy management and control them from mobile devices.  Ford Sync allows you to connect everything to your car’s entertainment system on an open standard that developers can add to.

I’ve written before about the Web of Things, which will enable our devices to communicate with other machines on a unified set of standards.  CES 2012 made it clear that the vision is advancing fast.  IBM recently announced MQTT, a machine to machine protocol which aims to be that standard and there are other similar efforts underway.

Citizen Media

One of the lesser noticed developments at CES 2012 was Canon’s new line of cinematic cameras, which offer professional quality video at close to consumer prices.  They will be priced around $20,000 but do the same job as those costing $200,000.

Every time there is that kind of price drop, you get a whole new set of players competing with major corporations.  We already have platforms like Victors and Spoils and Poptent which allow for the crowdsourcing of ads and other marketing content, now we can expect the same business models to arise in entertainment production.

All this is happening against the backdrop of platforms such as Google TV, Apple TV and Xbox putting broadcast TV, video-on-demand and web content platforms such as YouTube on a unified interface.   In other words, amateurs, upstarts and the big guys will be vying for consumers attention on a much more level playing field.

It is an entirely new day in the entertainment media space.

The Evolving Digital Ecosystem

One thing that CES 2012 made clear is that we are in a “filling in” period for technology. Most of the forces that drive innovation are at bay.  Processing and storage capacity aren’t really an issue at the moment, 4G has been launched and we won’t have another bandwidth standard for a decade.  HTML 5 won’t be completed for a few years and so on.

Moreover, we can expect a fairly orderly progression until the computing environment shifts drastically around 2020.  We have a good idea what standards we have to work with and what we can expect from them.

What’s going on now is, in a very real sense, more important.  The technology we do have is getting much, much more useful.  It’s becoming integrated, intuitive and more reliable.  We’re not so much chasing the next big thing, but fulfilling old promises to the average consumer.

As Heidegger once wrote, technology isn’t a creation as much as it is an uncovering.  CES 2012 revealed that the consumer is becoming as important to the tech industry as the electronics.

– Greg

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Jason permalink
    January 16, 2012

    Great article – just wanted to point out that while Windows 8 boots up into the Metro UI by default, you can get to the traditional desktop just by clicking on the desktop tile for it. Alternatively, you can hit Win+M on your keyboard and it’ll take you straight there. So MSFT actually did consider the consumer experience.

  2. January 16, 2012

    Yes I know. However, that isn’t the only problem. The fundamental logic of how you navigate has changed and to get back to the new interface is far from intuitive.

    I can see how they believe (not without merit) that the new navigation is superior, it requires a learning curve. Many people (including me) are still pissed off about the changes to office. They added a lot of new functionality and the interface is smoother and more logical, but I still have trouble doing things I used to do easily and this is years later.

    For me at least, the payoff doesn’t justify the effort. I used to know how to use it, now I don’t. The time and effort that I put into learning the old interface has been wasted.

    Nevertheless, I do get your point. Thanks for your comment.

    – Greg

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