Musings from the Consumer Electronics Show

This week, I made my annual pilgrimage to the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show & Conference in Las Vegas (CES) – an annual event that I’ve been coming to for many years (actually, I came to the first COMDEX in 1979 as an exhibitor and when it disappeared in 2003, I started attended the CES which filled some of the void.) Today, there are more exhibitors in attendance than there were attendees back then.If nothing else, CES is amazing because of its size – more than 3,000 exhibiting companies, 153,000 attendees (final count – the biggest ever) and more than 1.8 million square feet of floor space. Shipments of consumer electronics products in the USA in 2012 are expected to exceed $200 billion. Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of CEA (the organizer of CES), announced that global spending on consumer technology devices will surpass $1 trillion in 2012.

After a few days of browsing around the show, I must say that I’m somewhat underwhelmed. While there are lots of new products unveiled – more than 20,000 – most are incremental improvements. Nothing really blew me away. After talking to various journalists and others, I learned that I’m not alone in this opinion. Not to be too critical, though, there were many impressive products and technological advances such as the brilliant displays enabled by OLED (organic LED) technology.

Last year, RIM tried to make a splash with its tablet – the Playbook. There was no new product from RIM this year. In fact, I reported earlier that RIM was not even there but I did find it eventually in a much smaller Blackberry booth that wasn’t listed in the show guides. RIM was featuring a software update to its Playbook tablet due out in February. One of the key features is its ability to run Android apps. Personally, I think if the whole Playbook ran Android with RIM’s proprietary features, it might stand a chance.

It was nice to see other Canadian companies like Vancouver’s Recon Instruments (Heads-Up sports goggles) getting lots of attention, though. Also there from Vancouver were Sierra Wireless and Absolute Software. Teradici, a developer of  PC-over-IP protocols, showed off its desktop virtualization solutions that can be used to connect business and enterprise users. Working with Texas Instruments, Teradici was showing the multicore processing power of virtualization and PCoIP protocol.

Toronto’s Clickfree was attracting a good audience with its easy-to-use backup software.

Trends: Convergence, Connectivity, Apps, Cloud

Convergence is getting into high gear. In recent years we saw entertainment, computing and broadcasting merging into common platforms. Now, it seems like phones are becoming TVs and TVs are becoming PCs and PCs are becoming ghetto blasters (according to who now uses an Intel Ultrabook to record & play), and tablets are doing everything from the get-go. Plus, everything’s getting connected through “apps” and the ubiquitous cloud that lets any device you have sync up with any other device you may have – including your car which many see as the ultimate consumer electronics product. Guess what – even baby strollers are getting connected to the internet. The new, slim and trim ultrabooks are crowding out traditional laptops and I suspect many people will buy one of these rather than going with an iPad or Android tablet computer.

Smart TVs were the rage as were apps and gadgets for these TVs. TV’s are becoming ever more useful as information displays, games consoles, entertainment devices, and productivity tools through software and downloadable apps. One model on display was transparent when not turned on. You can interact with them by gesturing with your hands and you can tell them what to do by speaking to them. They will also stay current by upgrading themselves through firmware downloads. Nice, but alas – like my PC – I have to wait minutes before I can watch the six o’clock news because of a 5-minute upgrade. Weren’t analog TVs and radios great? Use one knob to turn it on and control the volume. Indeed, I’m sure that’s a feature that SmartTVs of the future will have!

Keynotes by Microsoft, Mercedes, Intel and Ericsson Execs

On the first two days, I attended three keynote speeches: Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, Dieter Zetsche, Chairman of Mercedes-Benz and Paul Otellini, CEO of Intel. I couldn’t help but think of that dreaded phrase spoken by my highschool english teacher: “compare and contrast the character in this story”. So I did. Actually, you can judge for yourself – I’ve added links to their presentations so you can see them for yourself.

Ballmer’s presentation came across very unsophisticated with him touting Windows 8 (which was already announced last year and still not out) and extolling the virtues of the Windows phone (someone did a demo with the Nokia product – pronounced “Nawkee-ah” by Ballmer, but it didn’t work perfectly). The Huffington Post agrees, saying that “Ballmer strained for relevance.” Windows 8 with its so-called Metro User Interface (tap, touch and swipe are the latest rage) looked to me kind of like an iPhone. A KIA car on display had a sign on it: “powered by Microsoft”. Considering how often my Microsfoft products crash, I don’t think I’ll buy that car! BTW – this is Microsoft’s last year at CES. Its floor space for next year was up for grabs and was gobbled up within an hour.

Dieter Zetsche, on the other had made a well-articulated and insightful presentation about how Mercedes was evolving as the ultimate consumer product. He mentioned the Car2Go program and I was impressed that Vancouver is the first North American city to have these (you pay as you use them sharing them with other drivers). For his talk, he played on the American Declaration of Independence to explain Mercedes’s Declaration of Automotive Independence:  1.Freedom of  TIME – independence from service cycles 2.Freedom of Speech – independence from conventional interfaces, 3.Freedom of Access – independence from ownership, 4.Freedeom of Energy – independence from oil and 5. Freedom of Information – independence from congestion and rush-hour traffic.  How? By using the cloud to connect with your car to control, navigate, use crowdsourcing applied to traffic, and enabling smarter car apps, etc. These freedoms will help us deal with our dependence on oil and physical space (urbanization), i.e. mobility. He ended by saying that, with respect to competition from China, “the greatest risk is to wait until someone else takes the risk. Most CE devices are already made in China. The coolest cars are still made in Europe and the U.S. And we want to make sure it stays that way. As inventors at heart, we’d rather pay our dues than pay someone else’s dues.”

In his presentation, Paul Otellini, Intel’s CEO, talked about how Intel (with sales now in excess of $50Bn annually) had lived up to Moore’s Law – doubling the number of transistors in a given surface area every 24 months. Some chips now have more than one billion transistors. The circuit widths are down to 32 nm (nanometers) in width and will soon get down to 14 nm – so dense that millions of transistors will fit on the head of a pin. He showed off what he referred to as “reference designs” – a smartphone and an ultrabook. Intel doesn’t make these, though – their partners do. There are more than 75 new ultrabook products from just about every PC vendor expected this year. Musician travelled to Japan with an ultrabook (see Intel’s Ultrabook Project) and recorded a hit which he invited us to download from – the first 10,000 downloads are free – but I couldn’t find it! (I did eventually – see the missive on’s World Tour). He noted that PCs have replaced recording equipment to make recordings and PCs have replaced ghettoblasters to play them! More demos with Windows and smartphones ensued (including a VP from Lenovo who didn’t realize he was holding that firm’s new smartphone (with the Android OS) upside down!). It looked a lot like Balmer’s talk the day before but it came across a lot more sincerely – it’s actually nice to see the speakers flubbing a bit and use their teleprompters – it makes them look less snake-oilsy.

I also took the time to hear Ericsson’s young CEO, Hans Vestberg make a presentation about his company’s vision in connecting people globally. Ericsson, founded in the late 1800’s is a global leader in networking infrastructure. “When you start to use the combination of software, sensors, and hardware, then you can improve processes and enable new ideas to turn into business. The result will be greater than anyone can imagine,” Vestberg declared. For example, Maersk Line, the global leader in ocean freight and Ericsson have developed a unique GSM and satellite solution that will offer connectivity in the last unexplored territory in modern communications: the sea. Vestberg wrapped up his CES appearance by demonstrating a new technology, “capacitive coupling,” in which a photograph was transferred from a telephone, then hand-to-hand, through the human body, to a large screen without using radio signals.  “Ultimately, we are the network,” he said in describing the research project. Vestberg added that it’s hard to predict exactly how the Networked Society will shape up, but that we can be prepared by embracing the new mindset and enabling new solutions.

The failure of Canada’s Nortel saddens me when I see how well this Swedish company is performing in global markets. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for RIM.

One of the top recognized brands today is Samsung. Samsung was coming on very strong with all kinds of consumer devices – a vast array of smartphones – powered by Android – now the market leader along with tablets, laptops, and Smart TVs. Back in the 70’s when no one ever heard of Samsung, my company Volker-Craig was their first export customer for monitors (we gave them the design). The Korean government had a mission to make Korea a global leader in consumer electronics. They succeeded. Now, keep an eye out for Huawei from China.  They, too, will become a recognized brand (unless they change their name). They are already well entrenched in developing markets like Africa where many cell carriers are private-labelling Huawei products.

On the matter of branding – the CES Brand keynote panel featured the marketing minds of the world’s top brands. The retail and branding effects of social media, healthcare-related technologies, connectivity and the explosion of wireless were all discussed during the session. The panelists agreed that people are becoming more connected to their devices, and because of this, to each other. “Our core belief is that the entire web is being rebuilt around people,” said Facebook’s Vice President of Global Marketing Solutions Carolyn Everson. Actually, it was a little strange to see so many attendees poking their devices or yakking on their phones instead of meeting face-to-face. People were frequently colliding.

John Donahoe, president and CEO of eBay, delivered the keynote address at the Leaders in Technology dinner. Donahoe discussed how the intersection of technology and retail is having a profound impact on consumers’ shopping experience and predicted that the next three years of “shopping and paying” will see more profound change then what we’ve seen over the past 10-15 years.

In a keynote from Robert Kyncl, a VP at YouTube, he described how content, distribution and marketing of video have come together to make it a transformative and accessible viewing option around the world. He predicts that, by 2020, 75% of all channels will be transmitted or born on the Internet, due to closed systems that have not opened up.

Top Innovations

I did find some cute, clever and interesting innovations. There was a display area that featured the winning “best of show” products in various categories that range from Audio Components to Wireless Handsets. Click [here] to take a look at all of these. There was a special section, the Eureka Zone, featuring some 100 startup companies. I found two from Vancouver that recently presented to VANTEC George Mobile, a company that helps you organize your social apps and Warranty Life to manage product warranty registrations. There was also an interesting one I met from Toronto that I met on my flight called Sound Selecta with its Art JamApps making an app for those who enjoy dabbling in music creation. SurfEasy, another Toronto startup, debuted at the show with a USB key that gives consumers the ability to protect their online privacy and security on any computer or network.

Speaking of Innovation, there was a high level Innovation Power Panel comprising Xerox Chairman and CEO  Ursula Burns, Ford Motor Company President and CEO Alan Mulally, and Verizon Enterprise Solutions President John Stratton. More on this, including a video of the discussion, can be found by clicking [here]. I was disappointed that there were no original ideas presented about spurring innovation. Burns, an engineer, noted the importance of education and encouraging our youth to pursue careers in science and technology and that we should do more to celebrate tech entrepreneurship. Mulally commented on the importance of government policies relating to the business environment but didn’t mention anything specific. Stratton mentioned that Verizon has set up a couple of incubation centres to connect with innovative entrepreneurs.

Ford’s CEO was proud to unveil the Ford Fusion, a hybrid electric car that gets you 100 miles per gallon. “Fusion” is an appropriate description – not so much because of the energy efficiency but because of the fusion of consumer electronics and automobiles. Ford is introducing six electrified vehicle models this year.

Talk about fusion – there was a SMART car on display that was “fused” with speakers and woofers almost as large as the car itself – pointing out towards the rear (for outdoor parties maybe?)  I’m convinced that with a good rap song, this car will jet propel itself along without using its engine.

Fun and Cool Stuff

It’s always fun to see something unexpected. Enjoying the occasional cigar, I was amused by a Chinese company (with offices in the Valley), GreenWorld Technologies that developed a “green” cigar product line (cigarettes, too). I tried one. It tasted just like a Cuban (albeit a cheap Cuban). Although it didn’t feel and smell like one, the sensation was similar. I inhaled some nicotine and blew out a cloud of vapour that looked like smoke but that was clean and unoffensive. Although the robustos start at $89, they last a long time and refills are available for a lot less. I expect that by next year, they’ll add a feature that’ll allow the cigar to Tweet and connect, via the cloud of course, to cigar aficionados worldwide.

Also in this category, I found a charger for your cellphone that works using kinetic energy: you stick you phone on it and spin it around until it’s charged. Stick-on speakers were popular, too: tiny little transducers that use the surfaces to which they’re attached to replace bulky speakers (I bought an earlier version of this in the 80’s – but they’re much smaller and more efficient now).  The new low energy Bluetooth 4.0 wireless standard is allowing smart phones to be used for almost anything – from bicycle racing (see Vancouver’s Sound of Motion), to health monitoring of your vital signs – great in hospitals because it eliminates the cables, to controlling your home automation system and keeping an eye on your kids. A fun, but silly, innovation entailed the integration of a bottle opener with an iPhone case! You can also turn your phone into a DJ-mixing console.

Home automation and control products proliferated. A number of companies were offering smart versions of the common 110VAC electrical outlet that included integrated ports for a USB plug to let you charge portable devices and a WIFI or Zigbee capability to let you switch it on or off from practically any device (smartphones, tablets, laptops and even smart TVs) – no matter where it’s located – using an appropriate app. To connect your home heating/air conditioning and other appliances to the internet, all you need is a small, inexpensive hardware interface from Global Cache – a critical missing link.

There were some very cool camera and photography products. The camera that lets you take pictures and then focus them later won a best-of-show award (see above link). Storefront, another Vancouver company, exhibited the latest versions of its award winning NEO PhotoKiosk Software. And then there’s Tamaggraphy from Montreal’s Tamaggo with its very cool handheld 360-degree imaging device that lets you capture high-resolution (14Mp) navigable images with just one click. It’s way beyond those old, stitched-together photo panoramas from years past.

In the audio and sound category, Vancouver-designed high end audio products by Edifier won an award for its ultra-compact “Sound-to-Go” product.

Lytro won the Last Gadget Standing SuperSession competition, beating nine other finalists, including the Playstation Vita, Autom Robot, Cotton Candy, WIMM, Origami, Svivl, Basis Body Band, Lenovo Yoga and Samsung Note. LG’s 55-inch OLED TV was named CNET’s Best of CES winner, with Razer’s Project Fiona winning the People’s Choice online voting award.

There was no shortage of mobile accessories and gadgets at CES. A good example is Vancouver’s Vivick that produces and markets accessories for the full range of Apple products, including the MacBook, iPad, iPod and iPhone, as well as PC laptop tools and enhancements, portable rechargers, headphones, earbuds, Bluetooth devices and more.

Qualcomm, better known for its wireless chipsets, was showing a contact-less inductively-coupled chargin system for electric cars rated at about 3.3kw. Just drive your e-car over a small pad in your garage and presto – your batteries will get charged. No plug’n’play needed.

My Wish List

So, I didn’t see anything at CES that blew me away. What would? What I’d really like to see is not a revolutionary product but, rather, a revolutionary Canadian company making a global impact in this marketplace. With the demise of Nortel and the decline of RIM, we absolutely must do more to spur innovation. The Americans, too, are feeling the pinch from the Koreans, Chinese, and Europeans and they, as well as we, are wondering how to foster innovation.

The high-level panel discussion on innovation that I attended showed no inspiration in this regard. We need to encourage entrepreneurs to grow more companies, some of which may just become global leaders. We can start by facilitating investment through incentives while also eliminating many of the impediments to innovation (eg. securities regulations and taxes on stock ownership benefits) that currently exist.

Not to put all the onus on government, innovation and greatness starts with each of us. For budding entrepreneurs, I suggest taking a page out of Steve Jobs’s book – think different and do something that’s insanely great!

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