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An Insider’s Look at CES 2018

January 17, 2018

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This is an excerpt from an original article written by Steven Sinofsky, former President of the Windows Division at Microsoft, celebrated author, technologist, and board member. For the full rundown on CES 2018 from Steven’s perspective, click here

CES is huge, and it matters. CES 2018 was interesting but not earth-shattering, but if you go thinking it is going to be earth-shattering then you will be disappointed this year just as you would have been for just about any show in the past.

After my 3 days and 87,207 steps I offer these five observations about the direction of products and technology on display at CES.

  • Voice. There’s a massive investment in voice control across all platforms and gadgets—voice control was at essentially every booth. This is primarily driven by the momentum and easily accessible SDK of Amazon Alexa (which can make the mundane more fun to demonstrate) and the incredible fast-follower investment from Google (showing the strength of evangelism). Neither Siri nor Cortana had much of a presence. It is still early as described later in this post, but the short version is that it is far too early to either pick a winner or importantly to define what that might really mean if a winner comes to be. The real question is if voice, particularly in the consumer home, will have platform returns like Windows, or like Android, or like HDMI
  • Electronics for the home. Across entertainment, operations, and security the “home of the future” does seem to be making significant strides in usability, desirability, and utility. This is how CES evolves—what seems awkward and “for rich lazy people” one year, becomes reasonable, practical, and available for everyone seemingly overnight. CES is a fantastic place to see this evolution—the trivial such as the evolution from knobs to buttons to touch screens to the complex such as disconnected to wired to wireless to the massive such as analog to digital. This is also a year where I think it is fair to say that the leadership in operating the home has passed from Japan and the US to Korea (Samsung and LG), with China companies working hard to be the third player (and with a captive local market).
  • Cars. Cars are a funky thing at CES. The old school “in-car entertainment” North Hall has been replaced by massive innovation booths from car makers, in-car chip makers (like Nvidia), and other autonomous/electric transport. In many ways this is a weird place for cars since the attendees aren’t in the industry and the primary voice from auto makers seems to be “look, we’re innovating like tech companies” rather than showing off any actual products. There’s not much news in this space and there’s a lot of big-company “innovation talk” that is mostly content-free.
  • No wires. There are no wires at CES. The only wire that exists is from your high-speed internet to a router. After that everything is wireless. It is really great to see. Perhaps the one exception is HDMI but TV makers don’t talk about that anymore since they basically want you to use their apps/control centers to get to internet services. It is quite a lesson in terms of “disruption” when I think about all the booths (square footage) previously devoted to wires, wire management, connectors, plugs, hubs, routers, extenders, and so on. Perhaps this is the biggest “physical” change to the show. As far as wireless, Wi-Fi (and for audio, Bluetooth) is part of the infrastructure and not even a separate part of the show like it used to be (HDMI still has a dedicated area).
  • But still too much technology at the endpoint…a consistent theme over the past 3–5 years of CES for me has been “why so much complexity at the edge”? How many SIM cards do you need? How many ARM processors running a modified Android or Linux OS? How many devices need a full user-interface? Now, how many active listening microphones? This continues to be the case. I believe, especially in cars and home devices that need to last for 10+ years, that edge complexity is the deal breaker (in both new and existing endpoints). I might want a cool standing desk, but I certainly don’t want one with a tablet running some fork of Android built-into the desk. I would love a voice controlled appliance but I don’t want it to be microphone enabled with a voice runtime that might be different than another microphone and voice runtime in the lights or security system. I want a screen in my car, but not if I can’t use what is on my phone or if I must switch screens to change the climate controls. This to me is the biggest “issue” that CE makers need to grapple with in their effort to innovate and differentiate.

All of these together are just a reminder that CES encompasses and touches nearly everything we do every day. CES, to be important for product people, does not need to have the next wave of disruptive technology. CES “just” needs to show how everyday life will get better next year or the year later. Will I be able to get a home security system without a home remodel? Will I be able to replace my door lock with one I can track kids coming home? How will cooking change? These mundane things all take time and show incremental progress every year—cooking can improve without the replacement for fire and heat. I really dislike that people judge the conference (or frankly any tech announcement) on whether the new thing is wholly new, replaces everything, and seamlessly fits into life with availability today. That’s just not how innovation happens…most of the time.

This report is just me. I just walk around from booth to booth and take notes and pictures then let everything sort of stew for a couple of days. I’m just one person and can’t get everything right or cover everything. I definitely don’t try to compete with the amazing teams at places like The Verge, Mashable, Engadget and more that cover all the press events and the like. I look at CES through the lens of a product manager or technology manager trying to understand how the broad landscape is evolving. Just one person’s view.

FYI, I mention products here not because I am picking best of show, endorsing, or investing in them. I mention them as evidence for larger points. Everything here is just me with no one else involved and with no agenda.

After a quick summary of the overall environment, this report examines what was on display across the following themes:

  • Voice
  • “Hey Google”
  • Television and Display
  • Headphones and Audio
  • Home Appliances
  • Autos and Transportation
  • Augmented Reality/Heads Up Displays (AR/HUD)
  • Mobile
  • PC
  • Qi Wireless Charging
  • Robots
  • Health
  • And the Rest…

Sure it is a lot, but I am using a lot of pictures this year and each section is mostly about collective observations. If you want to learn the details of the products there are definitely better places—but I definitely spent time playing with and listening to demos at these stations. This is all hands-on.

To continue reading Steven’s full report, CES 2018: Real Advances, Real Progress, Real Questions, click here!

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