Gadget heaven and the octopus syndrome
Big shows like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES)in Las Vegas, or SuperComm and CeBit at their peaks, are hard to describe. Where do you start? What is important, what is flashy, have you missed anything important (of course you have, the show’s too big)?
After the first thousand exhibitors, everything merges and blurs, so you try to be more selective. It’s like greeting an octopus; which hands (tentacles) do you shake first?
I’ll take the easy way and start with statistics. The show’s organisers, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) reportedly expected 130 thousand people this year – there were 141 thousand last year, but the preliminary numbers in the latest CES press release put the number of attendees at 110 thousand. Although they claim to be pleased, a 22 percent drop in attendance is not normally an occasion for joy.
Really? Well, according to the CEA the level, if not the number, of the visitors has risen and more business is being done than ever before. This may well be so; when money is short, companies only send the real decision maker, the real buyers, to shows. I have seen this before, and some of the show goers comments seem to bear this out. If this is so, the networking – always a CES strong point – might have been better than ever.
Even 110 thousand attendees in the midst of an economic crisis is quite a feat and – again from the CEA press release – “more than 2,700 global companies, including 300 new exhibitors, unveiled an estimated 20,000 new technology products across 1.7 million net square feet of exhibit space this week…helping lead the way to economic recovery.”
Despite the CEA’s enthusiastic prose, I wonder just how much the economy will recover – even with the help of the 2009 CES. The economy was far stronger when most companies made their plans for the show. I wonder if the show will fare as well in 2010.
This year, at least, since the big companies all set their budgets, book their space and make their plans as much as a year in advance the major companies were all there. Name a big company that makes TVs, cell phones, computers, photo equipment, gaming, audio, video, automotive technology, GPS and more – they were almost certainly at the CES. A lot of smaller companies were there too; CES is, after all, the best stage in the sector, the place to be seen and recognised, to make a mark.
The CES is a gadget freak’s heaven, but it also has some really interesting top-notch industry leading keynoters. This year Dr. Craig Barrett from Intel and Cisco’s John Chambers spoke on behalf of the Technology and Emerging Countries program. Other keynoters included Steve Ballmer, of Microsoft, Sir Howard Stringer from Sony and Ford’s Allan Mulally. Great crew, all interesting and good speakers: consensus view – not much said of note. I suppose they will do better next time.
Organising such an diverse event is almost like shovelling smoke into a wire basket. Ok, it does give the event some sort of superficial order and I have to give them credit for trying. Still, an array of 18 ‘Tech Zones’ ranging from Advanced Digital Displays to ZigBees and passing through Digital Health, Greener Gadgets, Robotics, Stevie Wonder and Friends (sponsored by National Federation of the Blind and the Sendero Group), not to mention a slew of expected technologies like mobile broadband is a hard scheme to follow.
As if that weren’t enough, the Tech Zones are just one of the 12 ‘CE Spotlights’, that (try to) define the show’s overall organization. Other Spotlights cover content, digital imaging, gaming, international Gateways’ for international exhibitors, location-based services, wireless, ‘Sustainable Planet’, an ‘Innovations Showcase’ and a ‘Kids@Play Summit.
Another CE Spotlight, ‘Experience CEA’, featured the CEA’s own institutional agenda including: free trade, energy conservation/recycling the transition to digital television, market research, standards, ‘CEknowhow’ and DigitalTips from CEA’s consumer sites such as Great Audio, Digital Driver, TechHome and myGreenElectronics.
The ‘Silvers Summit’ is the CEA’s nod to the affluent baby-boomer market – 78 million just in the USA and some 450 million around the world – now in their sixties and waiting (the CEA hopes) to spend their cash on electronics.
Okay, I know, you just wanted to hear about the gadgets. There was no lack of them. Once again back to the octopus. Where do I start?
Once again – this is a consumer electronics show, after all – the emphasis was upon putting more great things than you can possibly use in smaller, shinier, cheaper packages. Especially for cell phones / smartphones, the show is more about ingenious convergence and consumer mashups than about electronics per se.
The mainstream plasma and LCD sets are getting thinner, bigger and cheaper instead of smaller so televisions are also doing more for less; unless, of course they are pioneering new technology.
With new technology, it is often a case of paying a lot more today for technologies that promise more, but only in the future. Among new and expensive TV technologies are LED TV – that is LED, light emitting diode and not the more familiar LCD, liquid crystal display – super thin OLED (organic LED) displays. Other new TV technologies grabbing the attention of the early adopters are the Toshiba/Sony/IBM ‘cell processor’ chip TV that uses the chip developed for the Sony PlayStation to provide a range of interactive high-end recording and playback options, and the laser TV.
There is also the WhereverTV Receiver, a small US$200 box, that works with a standard TV and a broadband Internet connection to delivers many hundreds of free channels via IPTV from more than 100 countries. A great idea, but I just checked this via their site and could only tune into a small number of the channels they list – the ratio of ‘currently unavailable, try again later’ notices to viewable channels was better than 10 to one. Would their box do better?
There is too much to talk about – in fact it would take days just to skim quickly through the descriptions of everything at the show, so let’s just look at one or two highlights.
I was pleased to see the Palm, the PDA pioneer, earn the best in show award for its Palm Pre after a few years as an also ran. Although touted as an iPhone killer, it’s got a slick touch screen, but it also has a slide out full keyboard. My first reaction was it could be a BlackBerry killer, but I admit I haven’t had a chance to play with one yet. It seems like a good well thought out bit of hardware – its got all the usual smartphone stuff – 8GB of storage, a camera GPs, WiFi connectivity and lots more.
Palm has been concentrating its efforts, lately, on Microsoft’s mobile OS. This phone, however, uses Palm’s WebOS operating system. The phone reportedly has a ‘card’ system to handle multiple open windows and uses a multi-touch screen with capabilities similar to the iPhone. I would bet that Palm will have more to announce at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next month.
Last, after all these wonders, let’s talk a bit about a scenario that must be keeping a lot of operators up at night. Skype’s disruptive potential has been steadily growing in a number of areas. Fixed operators, if they are smart, will start worrying about their VoIP business networks. Digium, the company that created Asterisk, the most important open source telephony software including for IP PBX software, has been running a beta test for several months with Skype; it will let corporate users access Skype via the Asterisk IP PBX. Today, businesses generate roughly 30 per cent of Skype’s traffic. Connecting Skype to the Asterisk switchboard should boost Skype’s business traffic considerably and get the PBX sector thinking about the shape of the future.
The switchboard connection, important in itself, but together with Skype announcements at CES – Skype Lite for Android and Java Mobil phones, the Skype screen sharing software announced for their new 2.8 beta software for Mac and Skype’s plans for an interactive connection with TV, Skype faxing and others – the highly disruptive nature of an anywhere, everywhere Skype becomes obvious. Skype is working to get its applications pre-loaded in mobiles in several emerging markets and, to complete the picture, Skype also signed an agreement with Boingo for worldwide access to any of the 100 thousand Boingo WiFi hotspots at airports, hotels and cafes around the world. No signup, just a reasonable, fixed, US$ 0.19 per minute, anywhere.
Operator beware! Skype is working hard to make both business and personal use simple, and inexpensive, no matter where you are or the device you use. Is Skype building the ultimate disruptive service offering?
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The next issue of Connect-World Asia-Pacific will be published later this month. This edition of Connect-World will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows such as: PTC, Hawaii (18-21 January 2009) and Carriers World Asia, Hong Kong (16-19 March 2009).
The theme of this issue of Connect-Word Asia Pacific will be – Convergence, communications and business innovation.
Communications with customers, suppliers, service providers, financial institutions and the like are the lifeline of any business. Today’s converged networks, converged devices and applications that take advantage of the possibilities a converged environment brings are revolutionizing the office – or the home in the case of tele-workers/ telecommuters – to deliver a seamless work environment to workers wherever they may be. The converged environment has stimulated a wide variety of innovative applications for large and small businesses alike. Many of these applications are not just new ways of doing the same things, but are real changes in the way we do business or are new businesses in their own right. Interaction is facilitated, costs are eliminated or drastically cut, and collaboration with colleagues, clients and suppliers anywhere at any time is enhanced. By minimizing the need to travel, applications such as video-presence are also starting to reduce business travel – and the user’s carbon footprint.
This sort of convergence offers a powerful way to simplify business processes, and its implications are far reaching and complex. Cloud computing, software as a service (SaaS) special applications, Swiss knife communications and computing devices, innovative applications and a host of storage, communications and network equipment will be needed to make this work efficiently and cost effectively.
This issue of Connect-World Asia-Pacific 2009 will examine the implications of these far-reaching converged systems and the impact they have not only upon users, but upon the complex ecosystem that will make these innovative communications systems possible – the networks, communications equipment, user devices, software and business applications.
Asia-Pacific I 2009 Media Pack; Click here