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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Quick thoughts on CES

I went to CES in Las Vegas last week, for the first time - basically a bonus day after speaking in the WebRTC session at AT&T's developer conference the day before. I deliberately avoided setting up briefings or meetings, and instead actually had a day to wander around the assorted floors and exhibition centres to "absorb".

Frankly even a day isn't enough to see everything at the show - I skipped whole areas because I was either uninterested or didn't have time/energy.

The key things that impressed me were:
  • Health/fitness wearables: this surprised me, as I'd previously considered watches as gimmicky and health-trackers as niche and just for obsessives. There's actually a surprising amount of substance here - numerous use-cases, some really exciting ways to help manage peoples' health, including both physiological and psychological aspects. That said, there's some rather creepy privacy issues here too - personally I'd never have a device that only connected via a smartphone or Apple/Google/FB etc APIs, as a lot of the apps request an intrusive level of permissions & inhibit anonymity and personal data ownership. I'm also not bothered with the watch-as-mini-smartphone angle that Apple & Samsung are playing - seems contrived. The Google-Glass clones still seem as pointless as the original.
  • Drones: both personal and industrial use-cases seem to be multiplying. Obviously this includes photography, but also surveying, load-delivery for businesses and more. I still get the sense that the personal drones are more "cool gadgets" - more interactive, less geeky and more usable than remote-controlled planes have always appeared. The stabilised photo-journeys over cityscapes and areas of beauty have shifted the idea from "flying something" (niche) to "view from above", which seems to have democratised it. I found myself checking the UK CAA rules on drones on the way back, as I want one myself! My sense is that this area is going to grow massively but unpredictably. There are clearly lots of issues around regulation, safety - and probably radio congestion at some point too. I'm going to keep close watch on this one, as it might just be the "next big thing", as it has consumer, B2C & B2B angles. I may have read too many Iain M. Banks' Culture novels to be thinking completely objectively about drones, though.
  • 3D Printing: Obviously this isn't new, but it is coming on apace, with CES showing various companies with both consumer and professional devices. I suspect this is more of a slow-burn sector than many assume, given the difficulty of printing with materials that people actually want rather than being constrained to. A point which was amply proven when I uploaded a picture of the one which prints chocolate to Facebook, to universal acclaim from my friends.
  • Selfie-sticks: I'm pretty sure that most IoT advocates didn't have telescopic poles in mind when they dreamed up the term, but for me it encapsulates the fact that consumer imagination is indeed captured more by physical objects - Things - than services or even software/apps. Together with the whole selfie phenomenon, it also shows that unexpected "emergent behaviour" by end-users often tends to trump committees of people deliberating standards or interoperability.  A recent trip to Hawaii highlighted an entire forest of what some people are calling "narcissism rods" on the beach at sunset. Naturally, CES had a variety of them, including waterproof ones. And yes, there were also some cheap drones optimised for the same task.
  • Personal mobility: absolutely nothing to do with this blog's normal contents, but there were various cool/weird/geeky gyroscopic roller-thingies that occupy the space between Segways and rollerskates. 
There were also a wide range of other areas well-represented at the show. There was an absolute ton of things in the connected home field, but I have to say that I find the whole area intensely boring, so I pretty much walked straight past it (cookers? toasters? thermostats? Yawn). A couple of things that weren't boring were straight-up pointless - and fit nicely in with Tony Poulos' "Internet of Silly Things" category. I saw a plant pot and a multi-coloured lighbulb with a loudspeaker, controlled by an app. Apparently there was a pair of sensor-laden e-socks somewhere too. The automated home-brewing beer appliance was the only thing that raised a smile.

There were a lot of 4K screens - especially curved ones - which were impressive. For about 2 minutes, until you just get used to TVs that look a bit more like the real world. It's a bit like HD audio for voice applications - nice to have, but I fail to see it as that exciting. It's basically what we've had for decades, just a bit better. For similar reasons I saw absolutely no smartphones or tablets that made me think "wow". Like before, but a bit better. 

This commoditisation and creeping sense of "meh" is a huge issue for many parts of the electronics industry, as Samsung's recent woes seem to indicate. I'm not an Apple fan-boy by any means, but I am increasingly conscious that few other device/ecosystem players have tapped into the stream of "specialness" that Cupertino manages.

Connected cars and vehicles were also around in full force, but I didn't have as much time to scrutinise them as I would have liked. A topic for another visit - as a bit of a petrolhead I'm fascinated by some concepts, but distinctly ambivalent about things like self-driving vehicles.

There were also a gazillion companies selling phone cases & external batteries. I wish CES could keep them all in a hall of their own, rather than forcing everyone else to wade through them in search of innovations.

What I definitely didn't see much of was WebRTC. Even a quick web-search only threw up a CCTV provider with a web front-end as having announcements. There was also ooVoo, which seems to be morphing from a Skype-clone into a full platform player for mobile video. It now has a developer SDK and is touting a user base (unclear if downloads or active) in the 100m range. Its solution is proprietary, although it also offers a WebRTC extension for those that want it. Worthy of more attention, as it implicitly competes with WebRTC platform providers like Tokbox for embedded video in the consumer web space.

The other thing mostly missing was telcos - or indeed, opportunities for telcos beyond connectivity. Clearly there are some verticals like connected home and car that are getting attention from service providers (as AT&T's developer summit highlighted the day before),  but beyond that there appeared to be slim pickings. Clearly, 4K video has the potential to both increase Internet traffic and sustain certain cable/IPTV businesses with another generation of improved services, but beyond that I didn't see much which obviously allowed telcos to differentiate themselves in future. I didn't see much integration of voice/video communications, sadly, and none of the IoT exhibits I dropped by seemed to have any obvious role for QoS or similar network APIs, especially as most were connected via WiFi. 
This has some important ramifications for 5G as well - it's not clear to me that many consumer devices actually need cellular. Indeed, a lot of the coolest bits of electronics don't really need "realtime communications" at all - 3D printers just need downloads of designs, while health monitors are probably going to be synced periodically. Yes, I could invent hypothetical use-cases - especially things like vehicle-to-vehicle communications, but there's such a lot of scope for developers to work with transient Internet connections, that I suspect it will take a few years to really try to push towards always-on/realtime. You don't need 1-millisecond latency for an Internet plant pot.
One thing I do have in the back of my mind - there might be a telco angle on drones. Not for user-to-device flying radio-control, but for other purposes. That's something I need to ponder on for a while.
Overall - CES is mostly a gadget show. And for all the "connectedness", it's still very much secondary to the hardware, design and local software. 

EDIT: Another thing on my mind: lots of the IoT devices have microphones and/or cameras. It strikes me that the current furore about intercepting encrypted communications misses a trick. We only care about online privacy, because we assume offline privacy as a given. But to be honest, it doesn't really matter if the network is intercepting your messages, encrypted or otherwise, if the smart lightbulb is reading the clear-text version over your shoulder while you type it. How many possible surveillance "things" do you have around you right now? Which silicon chips have microphones integrated onto them? And in 5 years' time? How secure are they?

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