CES 2013: Why Should Consumers Care?

The annual Consumer Electronics Show is about to kick-off in Las Vegas, and the tide of hype is in full flood. But this year the show is under a shadow. A number of the major participants are seeing ten- or eleven-figure cash problems, and other companies — such as Microsoft — won’t be attending. Industry response to these fundamental concerns boils down to: “What — me worry?”

Reuters has just predicted the major trends at CES 2013:

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas promises a new generation of “smart” gadgets, some controlled by voice and gestures, and technology advancements in cars, some of which already let you dictate emails or check real-time gas prices.

ZDnet speculates along similar lines as to what will be The Next Big Thing. Of course, we all have a vested interest in this, and a strong temptation to offer the most optimistic outlook. But the reality is that this year there may be no “Next Big Thing.” This could well be the year that the whole consumer electronics industry runs out of steam.

Alas, even the most feverish predictions for CES 2013 are unexciting. More tablets. More smart TV. More home-automation. In short, more of a lot of stuff that no one was excited about when it was actually fresh and new. Mixed with a few half-baked concepts that don’t target any burning need, and don’t work all that well anyway.

For example, voice and gesture interfaces. Am I the only technophile who feels depressed at the prospect of waving his hands at the TV screen, trying vainly to get its attention? I’ve actually had a chance to experience this technology, and what I’ve seen has not been encouraging. If you have to repeat even one in ten voice commands, the feature is agonizing and unusable. Unless there’s been a huge leap forward (unlikely, considering current progress in basic chip technology), this stuff is ready only to be the next ‘3D’ — a useless, annoying feature that will make consumers glad only if they avoid paying for it.

Advancements in cars? Let’s be honest: the only advancement we really need is one that will eliminate cars. Allowing already borderline-psychotic drivers to dictate tweets at 120 kph has a certain sadistic appeal, but is unlikely to create a new economic boom. (Other than perhaps in the insurance industry.)

The most depressing prospect of all lies in home entertainment. The TV/stereo system has become stagnant, and is likely to remain so at CES 2013.

‘Smart TV’ is neither smart enough, nor usable enough, to excite today’s savvy, jaded consumer. TV makers persist in developing a dozen incompatible ecosystems, none of which will achieve a critical mass of apps, and all of which will only further confuse users who still don’t understand why they need five remotes to watch reruns of Gilligan’s Island. If you want to make it as powerful as a PC, stop pissing around and just make it a PC, or Android, or Mac. Anything less is just going to be disappointing. (Remember: we’ve all used PCs, Android devices and Macs. We do have an idea of what the minimum standard should be.)

Then there’s quad-definition. Quad-definitiion. When most couch potatoes still don’t know if they’re actually watching high-definition. And have no problem watching standard-definition content that’s been cropped top and bottom, or side-stretched almost out of recognition. Yeah, quad-def is definitely going to take off like a rocket.

What home entertainment really needs is for manufacturers to stand up to the content providers and telcos, and insist that they allow consumer access to technologies that are already almost old enough to be passe: video servers, non-realtime content (and, ironically, true realtime content as well), and full app-supported interactivity. Of course, that’s not going to happen. Sony fought and won the Betamax battle decades ago, but today there’s no champion to drive the industry kicking and screaming into the wild, uncharted… present.

Failing that, a more dismal alternative would be to give up on consumer electronics and simply target the 1%. Reuters already talks extensively about features and products that will mainly enhance the cars of the very rich, rather than ones that will enrich the lives of the masses. We could see the entire electronics industry give up on serving the hoi polloi, and move up-market, where there’s still money to be spent on meaningless frills. (If so, forget my previous sarcasm and look for quad-def to be the surprise hit at CES.)

In the lead-up to CES 2013, it’s more obvious than ever before that the digital revolution has been stalled in its tracks. On the one hand, by high-tech companies whose lack of vision is perfectly complemented by their lack of business guts. And on the other by entrenched corporate interests who’ve discovered that ‘holding back the future’ is a viable business model.


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