Wednesday, January 13, 2010

9 Things I Learned at CES 2010

Lance Ulanoff

I was right: There was no one major product announcement at CES. Instead, we got themes: eBooks, 3D, ever-thinner HDTVs, slates, hybrids, and phones.


This was a good Consumer Electronics Show—busy, but in a way, more digestible than in previous years. There was not one, single defining product, but some major themes arose and more than a few lessons learned. Here's what I took away from this year's trip to Las Vegas.

1. Anyone Can Make an E-Reader
I guess it isn't all that hard to kick out a standard 5-inch e-ink screen, because CES 2010 was full of them. I kept expecting some guy to pull me aside, open his jacket and say, "Hey, buddy, I got an e-reader here. I built it in my basement." These readers are cookie-cutter products, with no differentiating features. Spring Design's looked, alarmingly, like a replica of the Barnes & Noble Nook. All of this made me worry about the viability of a platform that's so quickly become a commodity.

2. Not All E-Readers Are Alike
Then I saw The Entourage Edge, a 10-inch e-ink book/digitizing tablet and LCD combo. It's certainly an interesting product, and it made me realize I'd been viewing e-readers in far too narrow a manner. I was even more impressed with the large-screen Plastic Logic QUE, which produces expertly laid out pages that remind me of, well, newspapers. It's also designed for business, integrating Microsoft Outlook and the ability to edit Microsoft Office documents. Plus, I saw not one but two color e-reader variations. The intriguing Sprint Skiff (which, by the way, is only a flexible display if you rip of the plastic case—something that's going to be part of the product for the foreseeable future) will initially arrive as a very large black-and-white e-reader, but within 2 years, we should be reading color magazines on the Sprint-backed platform. Meanwhile, Qualcomm has a competing color reflective screen technology, which handles text, animation, and videos nearly as well as any LCD. E-readers promise to be one confused market for at least the next few years.

3. 3D Is Better in the Movie Theater
3D was easily one of the biggest stories at CES, and I did my best to sample a few of the TV sets and required glasses. For the most part, I wasn't that impressed. I think a trade show environment is a terrible place to show off that kind of technology. Flashing lights behind me sometimes made the image in front of me flicker in slightly nausea-inducing ways. It was disconcerting to say the least. The number of 3D TVs and the heavy push from both manufacturers and content providers smacked from a bit of desperation. Media companies are happy moviegoers have embraced 3D but clearly think they're losing ground in the home market. TV manufacturers just spent the last 5 years or so convincing consumers to replace their CRTs with flat-screen HDTVs. Now they want them to make another investment in new 3D-enabled HDTVs. I'm also worried about the glasses. None of us can keep track of our remotes, and they expect consumers to keep four or five sets of polarized (or more expensive shutter-based) 3D eyeglasses available in our living rooms? I'm also wondering about the content that isn't 3D. Will that be a jarring experience to go from a 3D Jets game to a 2D Miller Light commercial? My guess is that, despite this big CES nudge, 3D will crawl into consumer homes.

4. Mobile Is the Center of the Universe
This CES virtually all of our most popular stories revolved around mobile products. The biggest of them wasn't exactly a CES story. However, when the Google-backed Nexus One showed up at a non-CES-sponsored event, it quickly became the center of attention. It wasn't just phones at the show, though. Super-slim smartbooks, netbooks, tablets, and combo devices (tablets/netbooks) dominated the show. There were barely any desktop systems on display. I had trouble finding gaming PCs, which are usually pretty prominent at the show.

5. We Don't Need a Living Room PC
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer spent part of his keynote address touting the benefits of a living room PC, even though CES was full of Internet-connected TVs and set-top boxes, such as D-Link's Boxee, which don't need a PC to help them access virtually any kind of online content you can imagine. In fact, products like Boxee and the TV-integrated Yahoo TV can even access local content from connected PCs and network attached storage devices. Sorry, but I think the concept of a PC in the living room is dead—unless you consider that all electronics are now, to some extent, PCs. —next: 6-9 >

6. Plasma Lives
I was pleasantly surprised to see that not only is Samsung still committed to the somewhat superior viewing quality of plasma displays, but it even included plasma among its new 3D TVs. Sure, a lot more of the new 3D displays are LCDs and LEDs, but based on what I saw at CES, I think plasma may hang around for a couple more years.

7. Alternative OSes and Processors Are Cool
Android was one of the big stories at CES. I couldn't turn a corner without finding an Android-powered smartphone or super-light laptop. That doesn't mean that we'll all be using Android on our everyday laptops any time soon, but it does mean that developers and manufactures enjoy working with the OS. Mobile phones are, obviously, a different story. Android is the current mobile phone darling and should be even more popular after Mobile World Congress and CTIA. I also saw my share of alternative processors, mostly mobile ones from companies like Marvell and Qualcomm. Since consumers can't see the processor, it's more likely that more products you'll use in 2010 will feature Qualcomm's Snapdragon or Marvell's Armada.

8. A Terrible 2009 Sapped Some Innovation
Without a singular product like the Palm Pre to hang this CES on, I get the feeling that the horrendous economy may have sapped some innovation and sabotaged any major product initiatives that would have launched at this year's show. Overall, CES 2010 was full of incremental changes and few stunning, revelatory products.

9. Everything Is Changing
The Consumer Electronics Show has always been about the gadgets, but this year it was really the marriage of technology and content that took center stage. I spent most of my time talking about 3D movies, digitized books, newspaper and magazines, and access to your online social life and content. Everything we saw is being developed to help you access, manage, and enjoy content we thought we understood. For example, after 400 years of understanding how we consume the written word, I feel like we're being asked to choose between books and a new platform—tablets, e-readers, PCs or phones. And even though we've been enjoying television for 70 years, it's now no longer enough to have beautiful hi-definition images. They have to jump out at us from 3D screens and, eventually, connect directly to all the related data on the web, in your social network, and stored on your home network. People will write theses about this time in tech. If someone asked you want you think, tell them. You could end up in some kid's school book.


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