A friend of mine had a Golden Retriever, and like all Golden Retrievers, it had been carefully bred over many, many generations to do one thing above all else: retrieve. His favorite thing to retrieve was tennis balls, and he would go after them with a single-mindedness that was truly impressive. One day, my friend took his dog to a tennis court and dumped an entire shopping cart of tennis balls across the court in front of the dog. The dog physically tried to move in every direction at the same time, which resulted in a sort of full body twitch that was totally incapacitating. I get this same feeling when I walk through the doors for the first time each year at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).
The CES in Las Vegas continues to grow both in size and attendance year after year and has clearly established itself as the annual technology show for North America. COMDEX's decline and ultimate demise in 2004 added even more momentum. This year, the trend continued, with attendance of over 150,000. In addition, over 2,500 exhibitors scrunched into a mere 1.67 million square feet of exhibit space. The event can no longer be held solely in the Las Vegas Convention Center and has overflowed into the Sands Convention Center and other venues, including circus tents set up in parking lots. Vegas is a city that specializes in hosting the largest conventions in the world, yet the strain on the city's infrastructure was evident, from the three-hour waits for tables at restaurants to the number of attendees walking the mile back to their hotels because it was twice as fast as waiting for a shuttle or cab.
Everyone who goes to CES comes up with his or her own list of favorite gadgets and gizmos, so here is mine...and I'm being painfully brief. I think the best value I saw at CES was the Pentax OptioWP, which is a waterproof, 5 megapixel digital camera with a suggested retail price under $300. The worst value, but nevertheless on my wish list, would be either of the over-100-inch plasma TVs by Panasonic and Samsung. Neither would comment on price, but I would estimate it to be about the same as a Hummer H2 with all the extras. As an avid gamer (both video and board games), I couldn't resist the Philips Entertaible, which combines both through the use of a touch-screen monitor built into a tabletop that can sense the presence of game pieces sitting on top of it.
Cell phones are taking over, not just as personal communication devices for verbal conversations, email, and text messaging, but as laptop replacements. I'm not saying laptops are going away—in fact, the market will clearly continue to grow—but there's also a certain segment of the current laptop user community that will replace their laptop with a next-generation phone. I used to carry a laptop back and forth between home and work every day, but I found that I was mostly just using it as a storage device for bringing work home, so I replaced it with a thumb drive.
This leads quite nicely into a discussion on an easily overlooked trend of next-generation cell phones to use removable storage media. Most new phones coming out take some sort of removable media; my current phone actually takes miniSD cards. I put a 1GB card in it and gave away my thumb drive. Isn't convergence a wonderful thing?
Another trend is that the consumer electronics industry is starting to wake up and take notice of what a critical role software and communities play in creating compelling products. You need look no further than the key positioning by Google and Yahoo to see where our future lies. Microsoft was of course serving up the usual load of hype around Vista, and we will all need to determine to what extent we embrace their next supposed panacea, but is there really enough substance to warrant the opportunity cost of the upgrade?
The Next "Next Thing"
One thing that often strikes me as odd about CES is that although there's obviously a great focus on the generation of products that will hit the market in the next 12 to 18 months, sometimes the bigger picture is missed. Here's an example. The battleground for the next-generation high-definition content for home entertainment systems is revolving around HD DVD vs. Blu-ray. The battle is being fought over physical media and will make the VHS vs. Beta war look like a border skirmish. And the most likely casualty will be you, the consumer. As a consumer, not only will your content be trapped on a bulky disk format, but you are going to have to get either a player that plays both formats or two players—and that's just for your home entertainment system. And it gets worse. Say I purchase a copy of Cinderella for my daughter in one of the above-mentioned formats and a couple of years from now, she wants to watch it on her personal media player on a cross-country trip. Either that player is going to cost me an arm and a leg because it can play both the proposed HD physical media formats (not to mention the player itself is going to have be large enough to accommodate the disks) or I'm going to have to go out and purchase the rights again to a movie I already own. In fact, for this example, it would be the fourth time, since I already own it on VHS and DVD.
So the challenge to our businesses when adopting any next-generation technology is to look beyond just the immediate impact and assess the true long-term benefits and ramifications of our decisions.
CES 2007 will be held January 8–11, 2007, in Las Vegas. I will be the guy standing just inside the door with the glazed over look on his face trying to decide which ball to chase first.