And Another Thing 59

by Jon Honeyball

John Honeyball descends into the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas where he encounters portents of the world to come.

HardCopy Issue: 59 | Published: February 1, 2013

You can describe a trip to CES, the huge Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas at the beginning of January, in many different ways. It can be a descent into the pit of Hell, because jostling for position in the huge convention centre surrounded by hundreds of thousands of other people is far from pleasant – a modern day Hades by any standards. It could be called Hell because here you are in Las Vegas, a place which I can tolerate for about four days, but if I stay longer I become a gibbering idiot ready to be carted off to the funny farm.

CES Floor Show

It can get even worse, if you dare venture there as a member of the press. The Press Days are a seething riot of barely pubescent teenagers from an assortment of Internet news and blogging sites, all of whom have the manners of a cornered rat, and for whom getting the story right now – irrespective of content, meaning or even relevance – is secondary to timeliness because they live or die on an Internet click-through based real-time soccer match. This year their behaviour stooped to even lower levels than before. Queuing politely for an hour and half for the Samsung press conference was largely a waste of time when these juveniles decided it would be far better for them to just ignore the queue and barge in at the front.

It could be Hell simply because of the sheer enormity of the event itself. Each day while walking the show, I could easily chalk up half a dozen or more miles. And that’s just within the city-sized Las Vegas Convention Center itself. Add in the other satellite events happening at various hotels up and down the strip and you find yourself in the middle of a tsunami of impossible meeting deadlines, where the person you want to meet is always in the wrong place.

Against this, it’s the best place on the planet to see what the underlying trends are. Just about everyone is here, from every company everywhere in the world. Even those who don’t have much, or indeed any, official presence are there in force. Microsoft pulled out of doing the keynote last year and yet their staff were everywhere both on and off the strip. Apple, despite having no stand at all, were here in force. And then the big guns like Samsung had stands the size of city blocks, filled with staff from all over the globe.

Was it worth going? Oh yes. The underlying trends were inescapable. Netbooks have gone, vanished from the surface of the planet. Ultrabooks are still out in force, with some vendors deciding to add touch capabilities to their screens in a somewhat gasping (or perhaps grasping) effort to make them work better on Windows 8. Windows RT is really only found in the Microsoft Surface line-up, and its sales figures are a closely guarded embarrassment by Microsoft who are simply not talking real numbers. Other vendors, including Samsung, have announced that they are just not going to bother with their RT-based tablets for the North American market. Microsoft is either late to market or being canny with its Intel-based Surface Pro, depending on who you ask. I would have been impressed if the delay allowed them to use a leading edge processor, but no – it’s just the same as all the other vendors who launched their product back in the Autumn. The reason for the later launch? Who can tell?

Of course, there was the usual raft of iPhone related devices, and more Android than you can shake a stick at. This even reached the levels of the mildly absurd with the Samsung fridge that runs Evernote on its touch screen panel mounted on the front of the fridge. Another vendor turned a fridge into a loudspeaker unit, connecting over Bluetooth.

If all of that sounds confusing, it’s because it is. The market is clearly in a state of catatonic shock. The arrival of Windows 8 hasn’t been the market kicker that many hoped, and a significant number of customers, both businesses and home, have looked, said “neh” and moved on. If you are a true believer, then you too can convince yourself that what you really need is a cut down operating system with a neutered copy of Office, missing even the most basic of capabilities like Outlook. And you can revel in the UI which switches from four-year-old finger-painting Metro on one screen to fiddly old-style Windows desktop on the other. At least with Windows 8 Pro, to be found on Surface Pro, we will have the full capabilities of Office and Windows to work with. Maybe that will entice the corporations to deal out the product rather than just sitting on Windows 7 for the foreseeable future.

Re-Timer glasses at CES

These Re-Timer glasses don’t just make you look like a geek, they’re also designed to reset your body clock – just the thing for the jet-setting executive before that all-important meeting!

There is no doubt in my mind that the market is judging Microsoft harshly, but fairly, in its touch work. Windows 8 on touch is too little too late, and Windows Phone 8 seems to roll forward almost like a Gilbert and Sullivan farce, especially when it comes to essential security and OS updates.

I don’t, and won’t, underestimate the almost unstoppable force of a company like Microsoft in the marketplace – it has almost unlimited resources, both in human and financial terms, and can still act like the bully in the playground. But I cannot help feeling that this CES represented a tipping point where it started to get a slightly bloody nose in the marketplace.

What were the big trends? Well, don’t underestimate the push that will be coming this year on Smart TVs. I know that the Smart TV has always been something of an oxymoron, but there is serious work going on to make the TV the cornerstone of the home environment. There are many reasons for a vendor to do this – they have new shiny 4K TVs capable of absolutely stunning clarity, even when working with an up-scaled Blu-ray image. On native 4K material, it is beyond stunning.

Of course, there is effectively no 4K material around for the home and domestic user, and this situation won’t change any time soon. But I defy anyone to look at one of the myriad 4K TVs on show and not want one immediately. Naturally, I gravitated towards the biggest – the 4K 110-inch panel from Samsung which lifts the TV to a piece of architectural art form. But the OLED displays really took my breath away for picture quality. There is a significant and growing market out there for apps that run on both smartphones, tablets and now TVs. It’s a more fragmented market that the tablets, but there are a few leading vendors like Samsung and LG who define the marketplace. If I was an app developer, I would be looking to ensure I had something in place here, even if it was really a placeholder to judge the future market.

However, I accept that this is not helpful. To really have good coverage, you need to go for iOS, Android and maybe Windows Phone 8 for the mobile space; Android, iOS and Windows 8/RT for the tablet space; and now I am suggesting there might be a business case for developing for TVs too. Much work will be cross-platform, of course, but never underestimate the cost, both in time and equipment, to ensure you have a full set of test platforms.

If the Smart TV market is really going to expand in 2013 and beyond, then now is the time to get there. It might be worthwhile trying to do deals to get your apps pre-loaded if at all possible, because I am far from convinced that there is a vibrant and worthwhile app store market for Smart TVs. Certainly not in the same way that there is for phones and tablets.

Maybe there is a space for some special 4K-supporting applications? The very best picture quality here is really like looking through an open window to the outside. Maybe that’s the next big app market? But I can certainly see some gameplay benefitting from such a capability.

Apart from that, I want an armoured scooter, maybe a Segway, on which to roam the halls of CES – preferably armed with a cattle prod to keep the ‘yoof’ at bay. Where do I place my order?

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