The epicenter of the mainstream high-tech world is the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which is expected to draw a record 150,000 attendees to Las Vegas this week to experience the mass manufacturers' vision of technology's future. More than 3,000 exhibitors will crowd 1.87 million net square feet of convention space to show their innovations, including ultra-hi-def 4K and OLED TVs and Android-powered cameras, and the new advancements in every field would seem to reinforce the conference's importance.
But astute observers who look past the confab's sea of shimmering billboard-sized screens, supercharged smartphones and tablets, and surprise cameos by auto manufacturers from Kia to Subaru may find what's not on display equally telling.
The theme for industrial giants including LG, Panasonic, Sony and Samsung is "evolution, not revolution," but despite their marketing efforts around novelties like touch and voice controls, vast sea changes are quietly happening off the average shopper's radar. As the following trends reveal, there's far more to this year's high-tech industry than augmented reality-enhanced eyeglasses, sensor-enabled wristbands and celebrity headphones, all merely faint echoes of the larger ripples echoing throughout the $195 billion CE business.
Transformation of Computing and Consumption Habits
As Intel pioneer Gordon E. Moore observed, computing power essentially doubles every 18-24 months – a rise in chip performance that translates to increasingly powerful and efficient devices. But despite the attention that a growing array of turbo-charged mobile gadgets sporting multi-core processors, dedicated 3D graphics hardware and near-field communications capabilities courtesy of firms like AMD and NVIDIA are commanding at CES, sheer technical readouts and form factors aren't the notable advancement here. With more than 1.2 billion smartphones and tablet PCs expected to be sold this year, according to Gartner, it's the fundamental shift in computing and consumption habits that mass access to high-horsepower, affordable and portable computing devices will bring.
User-friendly experiences, streaming media and freemium apps and cloud services are no longer simply industry watchwords, with Digitimes predicting that tablet shipments will actually top those of laptops for the first time this year. They instead represent a portent of what's to come from home computing, as we train tomorrow's generation to expect on-demand access, immediately approachable interfaces and increasingly bite-sized and disposable content that's accessible at every turn – primarily, right from their pocket. Consider the way touch and voice commands, first introduced in smartphones and tablets (and so elegantly illustrated across Apple's "iDevices"), have both empowered the computer illiterate and filtered down to a dizzying array of devices, including digital cameras and TVs. Or how applications – "apps" – have fundamentally changed the public's vernacular.
A record-breaking 1.76 billion iOS and Android apps were downloaded the week of December 25th-31st alone, according to Flurry Analytics, with an estimated 89 percent of the 45.6 billion total downloaded in 2012 available completely for free. Note that all are accessible virtually anytime, anywhere, and playable on a huge assortment of pocket- or purse-friendly devices that travel wherever users do and increasingly feature specifications that rival traditional computers. Firms from Lenovo to Asus aim to expand the computing continuum through both premium and value-priced offerings in 2013, while others look to pursue heightened connectivity through deeper integration of social network streams or content that beams across platforms with the push of a button. In all cases, with PC sales flat, each hopes to reshape how we interact with news, media and interpersonal exchanges, even as computer manufacturers (see: Intel's ultrabooks) increasingly hope to crib a page from their playbook.
The net result: End-user expectation and usage patterns shift dynamically, while hardware and software become more commoditized, with convenience a growing differentiator. If the entire world is just one click away, singularity and value become key selling points, as do the more human elements of technology – a win for everyday shoppers.
Crowdfunding of Startups and Devices
While the overwhelming majority of high-tech innovations still arrive through traditional channels like startups, incubators and corporate R&D departments, crowdfunding (online fundraising) platforms are continuing to grow as an alternative.
Buoyed by pledges from everyday Internet users responding to text and video sales pitches, media darlings like the app-enabled Pebble watch and Zombies, Run! app doubled the field's investment reach to over $2.8 billion in 2012. Nowhere is its impact more telling than in the gaming world, where multimillion-dollar software projects pioneered by independent developers and funded by fans such as Wasteland 2 and Project Eternity rank among the category's most promising new offerings. One canary in the coalmine that points towards an increasingly crowdsourced future: fan-funded low-cost or open-source consoles including the GameStick and Ouya are suddenly prepared to vie with big-ticket platforms like the PlayStation 3, Wii U and Xbox 360 – a historical first.
The passage of the JOBS Act last April, which allows businesses to raise up to $1 million through the share of equity ownership, promises to flip investment on its head, once the SEC weighs in with official guidelines. With over one million campaigns successfully funded to date, and over 525 crowdfunding sites currently available, such developments are only expected to catalyze a further gold rush in equity-based solutions, leading to a sharp rise in independently-produced hardware and software products. But while research firm Massolution says equity- and reward-based crowdfunding continues to grow by nearly 300 percent, expectations should be tempered. According to Kickstarter, of the 34,580 total projects successfully funded on the site, just 380 raised over $100,000 – barely enough to cover the cost of low- to mid-level marketing campaigns at most major manufacturers.
Clearly, change is coming quickly to the consumer electronics world. However, as with trends such as 3D printing and home manufacturing, it may be slower to materialize and less pronounced in the short-term than many anticipate. But in the same way that indie bands and app makers have rocked the music and software publishing worlds, expect independent consumer electronics manufacturers and inventors to enjoy an influential footprint in the field going forward.
The Shift Toward Practicality Over Performance
In previous years, CES represented a key battlefield for industry giants such as Microsoft, Dell, HP and Nokia, none of whom will pursue a significant showing at the event outside of potential partnership appearances. While the show still offers one of today's most powerful platforms for galvanizing public interest around key announcements, attention has shifted to in-house events or alternative venues such as Mobile World Congress. Alternately pursued by these parties as a cost-cutting measure or a means of commanding greater media attention at more targeted inflection points throughout the year (as Apple does with its press conference), these practices have led industry watchers to question the expo's continued relevance. Still a tentpole event that sprawls from the Las Vegas Convention Center to neighboring hotels, it's worth noting that this year CES is less about individual industry players than major overarching trends – many of which will be overshadowed by the gala's own outsized personality.
Example: Among the oldest and last great frontiers in terms of screens, television sets remain a key field of engagement around which both enterprising startups and powerful incumbents will galvanize in 2013. However, the battle to introduce 4K (so-called "ultra hi-def" sets with four times the current resolution of current 1080p models) vs. OLED (crisply colored and high-contrast units) is more distraction than defining point. Which is to say, demand for the sets – for which little native content exists, standards remain unclear, and prices sit prohibitively high, averaging $15,000 and up for what few models exist – will be more manufacturer- than consumer-driven in the immediate future. Vexed by the rise of value-priced televisions and commoditized flat-panel hardware with tight margins, manufacturers need to create a premium category to sell to replace the void created by the underwhelming demand for 3D sets.
But while much noise at CES will concern their arrival given the need for a successful coming-out party, the field's most innovative developments may actually concern topics like user experience and connected content exchange and delivery instead. Smart (a.k.a. connected) TV, for instance, potentially represents a more practical, affordable and promising venue. Consider that the delivery of streaming media, apps and two-way communications tools provides greater access to high-quality content and direct interactions with sets themselves, rather than the high-touch, low-interest distractions second screen experiences offer. The key challenges here: cracking the public education piece, better communicating key benefits to shoppers and retraining customers to actively vs. passively interface with sets.
A head-spinning range of TVs now includes online access to real-time news, games, streaming music and video, and more. But each boasts its own interface and ecosystem, with a recent NPD Connected Intelligence survey revealing that so-called smart features are dumbfoundingly confusing. The benefits of options including casual videoconferencing or access to thousands of online TV channels are becoming increasingly clear. How to communicate these to customers, provide hardware-optimized content and make them simple to use is the big sticking point.
Promising advancements in many fields such as healthcare, mobility and telecommunications will be on display at CES. Ironically, though, given the show's entertainment-focused bent, it's just such practical solutions that often take a backseat to the gobsmacking spectacles that viewers demand from its three-ring media circus. But look on the bright side: If you really do believe the future of technology lies in 110-inch TVs that cost more than cars (or, for that matter, cars capable of driving themselves), stop on by – the greatest high-tech show on earth is only getting started.