Wednesday, January 12, 2011

CES Wrapup: Nothing but (Mobile) Net

It seems that there were as many media pundits crowing about not attending the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year as those that bothered to go, so I don't feel too bad that I experienced its proceedings remotely via blog posts, videos and podcasts. It certainly saved me time, money and a lot of shoe leather to find the diamonds spread amongst the rough of a huge display floor. There were several key trends coming out of the show that appear to be ready to shape what we'll be doing in the content industry for the months ahead, including:
  • Competent Android tablets.
     Motorola, Samsung, Vizio and a host of other manufacturers were displaying tablet computers equipped with the "Honeycomb" version 3.0 release of Google's Android operating system. The belle of the event was Motorola's Xoom tablet, which took honors from several tech publications as a "best in show" offering. The unit featured a snappy new interface for YouTube videos and other very tablet-centric displays of content that are aimed to peg Android devices as an even-steven competitor to Apple's iPad tablets. Ever on the move (and absent from CES itself), Apple is primed to launch an iPad 2 soon, according to rumors, so the apples-to-apples comparison of Android tablets to Apple's will be ever in flux. Clearly Apple will have a sales lead for a long time in this category which it seems to have defined to its liking via the iPad. Yet Android-equipped devices, as well as new tablets from other manufacturers such as Research in Motion's Playbook, which offer full native Web access, are helping to re-open the battle in this niche from one that is focused on proprietary delivery platforms back to cross-platform, Web-centric solutions.

  • Sensors galore. From Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's somewhat bizarre keynote address via a Kinect avatar to front-and-rear cameras, health monitors, built-in barometers, smart appliances and RFID antennas, new sensor interfaces for mobile and indoor computing were the often quiet stars of CES. What was just a couple of short years ago a market that featured mobile devices tethered mostly to keyboards and, sometimes GPS location sensors, is now a market that features a rich array of sensory inputs that use the world and even our human expressions as data points in our information experiences. Ballmer's Kinect demo was trivial on one level in that he was able to have a Kinect-driven avatar reflect not just his motions on the CES stage on a computer-generated stage and to even reflect when he was moving his eyebrows and smiling. But what happens when inputs such as that get married to more sophisticated Web search applications, such as "show me all the videos that made my friends smile?" Or, what happens when millions of barometer-equipped mobile tablets connected via the Web begin to give us a radically more detailed account of weather conditions across the planet? Sensors are going to move from toys to critical leverage points for valuable content services in enterprise and consumer markets over the next few years, extending our understanding of the world more rapidly and more intuitively than ever.

  • The "app-ing" of television.
     While Google TV had a relatively low-key presence at CES as it awaits significant upgrades to its interface, there were many demos of devices that are eliminating traditional technology layers that have managed the interface between content sources and television screens. One of the more interesting demos along this line was of a new "superphone" from LG, an Android phone which was equipped with the same Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core processor used on the Motorola Xoom tablet. This phone has an HDMI high-speed digital video interface port, which was used to drive 1080p high-definition movies streaming from the phone to a large television monitor effortlessly. There was also a demo of an iPhone driving the enormous monitors used for some of the keynotes on the main stage of the conference. Manufacturers sporting today's Google TV software built into their own hardware included Sony, Samsung and Vizio. In other words, the primary interface for televisions is becoming the Web, not the cable or satellite box.

    Television as we've known it is becoming one of many apps available to audiences from Web-driven menus offering video services, be they on mobile devices, outboard devices or built-in devices. This transition has been promised before, but given the breadth of Web-enabled hardware that can now plug in directly to televisions or be incorporated into them with high-quality programming, the technology and the content are now ready to commit to this important transition. Where the Web touches an appliance - and there's hardly an appliance that it no longer doesn't or cannot touch - business models change inevitably. As apps for video destined for big screens, tablet and phone screens take off in the next couple of years, expect this trend to accelerate radically.

  • There are fewer gimmicks that keep the Web at bay. Pundits who predicted that last year's 3D TVs would fall short of well-hyped expectations are feeling good about themselves right now. It's probably a little harsh to call 3DTV a flop at this point, since units that don't require glasses are being promised in the near future, but the real issue is whether it's a technology that will enable content producers to keep a premium edge on their offerings. Already many mobile phones can crank out HD-quality video footage, consumer cameras at around $1,000 can produce cinematic-quality HD productions and some consumer cameras can even shoot 3D movies. There are too many opportunities for device manufacturers to produce gizmos with compact content technologies that enable more content to keep people immersed in things other than what comes out of major studios or game producers. More importantly, even when something like the Kinect comes along that could give one particular manufacturer an edge, the Web seems to grab it practically before it's out of the box and find ways to help it connect the world more effectively. Theatre-quality entertainment will continue to feature the latest and greatest content technologies, but none of them will give content producers long periods of comfortable protection from Web-enabled content producers adopting them and applying them to broader sources of entertainment and information.
So while there were no huge breakthrough technologies that dominated this year's CES event, there were some key table-setting introductions that are likely to dominate how we have to develop content services in the months and years ahead. They all run towards the Web, most especially mobile Web-enabled devices that interact with the world and with virtually every form of communication that's important to us. It's a fair enough time to ask, what part of "The Web will win" is hard to understand?
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