note: please leave a comment or thoughts after reading through this. Many of you are reluctant to read long posts. Of course I could break down my post into 10 smaller ones, but it's not the point :( This is just a plain report from Las Vegas.
Last week, I attended for the second time CES, The Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, reportedly the largest event of its kind in the world with over 140,000 visitors and 2,700 exhibitors.
When you first go to CES, you are bewildered by so much extravaganza: your friends had told you to bring snickers shoes and you had better listened to them. The place is huge, there are way too many exhibitors to visit, and you have little time to suck it all in.
The only way to do it probably is to follow simple rules:
- plan your visit every morning / evening so that you make the most out of each day: one pavilion per day for example. If you are staying several days (such as myself), then it's doable.
- bring comfortable shoes: you won't regret it
- bring a carry-on piece of luggage with wheels: you really don't want to carry all of your stuff, documentation around the whole day on your back (unfortunately, they gave one to press last year, but not this year as it took much room. bad!)
- sleep a lot before hand: I was half awake everyday, and indeed it helps to be fully functional when you're there
- if you're flying from Europe, leave from Paris, Amsterdam or London straight to San Francisco (avoid stop overs at Chicago, Atlanta, Cincinatti...), and then it's only a one-hour commute to LV.
- focus on speaking to people on booths, on understanding trends, upcoming products.
- I travelled with the Dalloz group: we meet at the end of each day to debrief on the show. It's a great way to do it: plan to catch up with your friends at the end of the day so that each one of you can tell the other what he saw interesting.
- forget about reporting live on your blog: it's way too time consuming, and you're not doing a better job than the professionals now there: engadget, gozmodo, whatever.tv, etc.
I've tried to summarize some of my thoughts on the event and on what I saw. It's really a difficult thing to do as I really did not see everything, and was rather superficial on the booths I saw. So here are some bullet points on the state of the industry:
- in the car area (North Hall), there was the usual extravaganza of super tuned-up cars: I wonder where they find all of that creativity to put in more than 10 screens in one single car. Last year I over heard that the car tuning market was over 1 billion dollars. This year I heard that there is an after-market among professionals: first-hand tuners create fancy cars, and then brands and equipment makers buy them to show off their gear. I don't believe this is the bulk of the market.
- The South Hall had 2 areas: the lower area focused mainly in the audio segment of the market. Cables, amps, stands, shelves. I know nothing about this market and I'm not really interested.
The upper area had the usual crowd focusing on computing. It's the area I visited last last year, and I didn't do that mistake again.
1) There is a new screen coming up around you: after the TV, your computer, your mobile phone, your PDA/Portable media player, now comes your wireless screen connected to the internet: it could be seen in many booths, particularly Kodak, Wavestorm or Parrot: connect your digital frame at home or in the office, and a server side software (or a local memory card reader) will pull off pictures and videos from the Net. Although invented by Phillips a couple of years ago, the digital frame is now offered by many suppliers and will soon be commoditized with prices coming down. There is still some intelligence to be put in there such as Wifi or longer range wireless protocols, server side apps, ergonomic UIs, but this should become a major screen in your house all over, as more and more Wireless devices popup.
2) the battle this year was about the home, and particularly the living room. After probably saturating the professional and office markets, computer manufacturers are now looking to claim this new market. The most active booth was probably HP with life-size replicas of your kitchen, your living room, your bedroom: they had demonstrators show how you were going to be using these devices in your everyday life. I doubt it. This has been a long standing dream of the industry, with for instance last year's very much publicized ViiV initiative from Intel (NOWHERE to be seen this year). Although it will eventually happen, computing in the home still requires a number of ingredients:
- broadband to the home: the US is still way behind, but they will catch up
- tools to easily manage the connectivity at home : for instance D-Link had a partner (Magic Network) showing off a solution to manage all computers with a centralized firewall approach). Well all that may still be good, I still have trouble getting wifi in my bedroom, whilst my main router lies in my office accross the living room. Expect Wifi extenders such as Apple's airport express to develop. They should really be PLUG n PLAY.
- with more and more computers in the room, it might make sense to mutualize resources and start storing all the family's multimedia library in a centralized server. Most vendors sucha s Netgear, Dlink, Belkin, HP had a solution for this. Of course you can already turn any computer into a server (use Ubuntu linux for instance), but somehow you need to package it a bit more for the masses. Unfortunately most devices look horrible, and won't last the wife acceptance test and disappear elsewhere. Nevertheless this is a trend. I myself have 3 computers I constantly work on at home (a desktop PC, a desktop Mac, a Mac laptop), and have trouble syncing everything together so that my files are all neatly in one place. And of course, backups is a big issue: Apple's upcoming Time Machine, Vista's backup feature should solve part of this problem. Some analysts said that indeed MEMORY was a main theme of the event: I don't agree: it has been a lasting problem for home computing. Online solutions such as .mac, or Streamload tackle this problem, but it won't be resolved until we get fiber broadband.
- huge fragmentation of interfaces: although many of the solutions were using Windows Vista (not yet available for the consumer market) and hence trying to standardize on this, I saw many PROPRIETARY interfaces built on top of vista, meaning that consumers will have to learn way too many interfaces. Somehow this is something I don't like. The web helped somehow to standardize UIs, with navigation being a simple way to communicate with your device. More recent Flash sites have become too creative, and many users are having trouble navigating around. The same might happen to consumers.
- Until you've seen it, you don't understand what the Nintendo Wii game console is: and indeed, although simple, its 3D handle will make tons of families and friends around the globe go crazy. No wonder is has overtaken the PS3 already.
- I didn't get to play with Vista, although there were tons of devices equipped with them in the press room. From what I read nothing new vs. Apple's OSX : the search feature copies spotlight, the UI mimicks the Aqua theme... I should probably try it at some point.
3) a new segment of consumer devices this year is the middleware hardware to connect your computer to your TV set. Of course Apple announced the Apple TV device (I already have ordered mine), but Microsoft and others announced similar deals or devices. Expect for instance the guys at DiVX to come up with a solution to show greatly encoded content onto DiVX compatible screens and players (they already have a huge franchise on DVD players...).
4) tons of portable media players, more than you'd care for: the Sony Mylo, the Microsoft Zune (have you seen it ??? It's HORRIBLE compared to the iPod, the Archos, the Creative ZEN devices...). Expect a lot of commoditization here as well : most devices probably will play WMV, some might still do MPG2, but most will go MP4. The portable media player segment will expand with specialized brands and will have eventually to merge either with the PDA segment, or with the phone segment as phone screen sizes tend to grow larger and larger. The main issue here is battery life.
This is probably why the Apple iPhone doesn't to 3G: announced with 5 hours of battery life, it's already too short for most of us. With a 3G chip, that would have been even less. You are used to only 3-4 hours on your computer, 1-2 hours of video on your iPod, but at least 24h or more on your phone...
5) let's jump over to the central hall: cameras and TV sets.
- first of all, last year was all about DLP or so it seemed to me. Not that I understand much about projection and all, but it seemed to me that it was less an issue.
- however what really was central to all booths was that we are transitioning to full 1080p HD. Side note on what does this mean: HD comes in many flavors, the more commonly known are 1920x1080 screen resolution (hence the 1080 denomination), and 1280x720 (then 720...). Cameras and screens are then either interlaced (meaning that the screen is captured and displayed only in halves with one line difference, creating a flickering effect), or progressive (the whole screen is displayed at a time). Last year was very much 1080i. This year, all screens were virtually 1080p. That's news, as the difference is visible. Cameras and DV recorders are still 1080i however.
A couple of issues on this:
- LG was promoting the LCD screens. Panasonic the Plasma screens, although many vendors had both. The problem is THAT I CAN'T SEE THE DIFFERENCE. Sure there's something with the viewing angle, and Plasma wins here.
- the Panasonic booth had a corridor explaining the technology of screens. I have to tell you that there is a HUGE MISTAKE being done by the industry here: devices have number names, and use a wealth of acronyms and jargon that even the technically savvy people don't understand anymore. HD is not HD unless you have an HDMI cable right ? Yuck ! On the Panasonic display, I couldn't really see the difference between 720p and 1080p screens, and I tried hard. I don't know the difference between LCD and plasma. So what do I buy next ? Brand ?
- I was AMAZED to see how your current content displays on HD devices: it displays very POORLY. You thought your DVD was great digital content? Well it displays really badly on a 1080p screen (I believe it does only 480p...), hence the devices needs to adjust to colors (over saturate them), to moving text (sharpening letters), smoothing the screen (a LOT OF NOISE is introduced). I had chats with folks at Marvell who manufacture chips to enhance HD display. Let It Wave folks whom I had met last year had a big booth and are targeting the same market.
Therefore my question this year is : What do you want HD for ??? You will need to CHANGE all of your video chain:
- source: Blu Ray discs or HD discs
- data player: and Indeed there was one Blu-Ray player available at Samsung, a HD DVD / Blu Ray player at LG, the PSP3 Blu Ray player at Sony; Blur Ray has only about 50 titles out... but it holds 50Gb of data vs. 4.7Gb for DVD. On another note with already 470,000 PSP3 sold in 2 months, Sony is catalyzing this market... at a low cost of ownership for consumers); if you're going to use hard disks, expect the storage industry to BOOM this year. The recently introduced DVD DL (dual layer) only hold 9 Gb !
- connectivity cables (and I hear that current HD cables do not have enough pins to support full HD HDMI, which relies on 2 extra pins for DRM protection of content...)
- screens or projectors with third-party vendor chips to enhance content
=> this is going to be a nightmare, and vendors are confusing and probably lying to consumers when they tell them that HD is "better".
- DV cameras are getting smaller by the day: Sanyo now has a nice Xacti camera range with 7.1 MP quality (it's 720p - note the "p"), but it will ongly store to chip memorys: a 4Gb will hold one hour in MP4 format. Great. Sony is coming out with a FX7 1080i (note the "i"), but one hour will take a bit over 7Gb in MP4. No standards here again... From what I saw, you do get an audio jack on these cameras so that you can hook up an external mic, or an XLR mixer for instance.
- interesting innovations on the television / internet convergence: on the AMD booth, Podshow was showing a prototype of how their interface built on Vista could mix their own UGV, with their users UGC, with shows from traditional TV ("Lost" for example): somehow creating a unique entertainment hub. Sony was also showing a prototype due this summer for the Americas, in which you attach an external box to your Bravia screen that will let you pull off video content from Yahoo!Video, AOL Video, Grouper... and access custom-made applications such as your local weather through RSS feeds.
- on the multimedia / mobile convergence front, Samsung was probably the lead innovator: they were showing off the sister technology to upcoming HSDPA: HSUPA : they were achieving download of over 3Mbps on a mobile phone, with uploads of 2Mbps. That's even more than what I have at home on my upload link...
They were also showing their first Wimax phone, and their Wimax router. Indeed more mobile broadband is always welcome, and it looks ready. We need to wait now for price plans from operators of course.
To finish off with Samsung, they were also showing a range of phones receiving direct DTT on the phones, going round all operators: here in France I would then be receiving 18 DTT channels in great quality on my phone ! In Japan I had seen phones with analog receivers, and it was only time until this was ported to digital airwaves. Very slick phones also from Samsung, but the Chocolate phone series are my favourite of the moment, even though Nokia came out with the N76, that promises to be a nice alternative.
- Interestingly, the Samsung and the LG booths were beautiful: very much in the style of a concept store, you felt like inside a luxury boutique (Gucci...), with every product displayed nicely, with explanation of the technology, nice surroundings. The decorators did a swell job: this somehow means that the Koreans are really catching up on design, after having completely cought up with technology. Expect these 2 companies to really make a difference this year. Indeed, Samsung has a concept store in Paris in the Opera area. Sharp and Panasonic from Japan were a couple of notches away indeed, although you wouldn't have wanted to miss the Panasonic Jazz Club: what a fascinating way to present stereo sound : one central flast screen with a piano, and 2 flat screens on each side playing a video of each musician of the quintett. Although not impressed with the sound quality, the 'mise en scene' was great. Way behind, you found the booth of Hyundai (ugly): I wonder whether it'll become something in the future ? I don't know the company's culture in consumer electronics. Haier (from China) has a deal with the American NBA. I expect to become a challenger to the Koreans and to have an ever more prominent booth next year.
- And of course, fun was at CES with the Blues Brothers at the LG booth, violin players at the Sanyo booth, the Honeymooners at the Creative booth, extrovert salesguys at the Slingmedia booth...
6) finally, the Sands convention center is where all the innovators where, and the young startups. Lots of Chinese stands in the back, some big names such as Slingbox, some upcomers such as Proxure, Nabaztag...
- Talking about place shifting companies: Slingmedia put on a big show, huge stand, partner pavilions. At least we know where part of their fund raiding went :) They are gearing up their product range, from the simple Slingbox to the pro version. Indeed I have trouble understanding why you would want to watch your home TV on the road: either you are at the office and you'd better work, or chilling out (and forget TV), or travelling, where you get many alternatives. Sling, Proxure, Orb play in this field. Now this gets interesting if you can indeed pull off all of your content from your home media center: pictures, TV, stored video, UGC, etc. The added value is bringing a reformatted content to a screen near you. Still...
It ties however strongly into the living room / family center concept promoted by the likes of HP and Microsoft.
- A number of nice toys and gadgets: wavestorm was showing off the Erector robot, with a wireless spy camera. Nice gadget. I liked much better the interactive Toy helicopter: it retails for $59, and their slightly larger version with a camera will come out this fall with a tag of $199. Really nice. Of course, always nice and interesting to see what Asimo is up to. Nevertheless as human as this little robot might seem, it CANNOT interact in real time with its environment: it needs to pre-calculate every single step, maneuver, run... I don't expect it to be mainstream as yet. A lot more computing power will be needed (Moore's Law will come to play here), better battery (same old problem: I heard that it needs 2 hour of charging for 1 hour of autonomy), and probably still a lot of artificial intelligence: I saw the videos on the official site, and they were just the same as the demo at CES, meaning the robot can't really do much more ?
- a couple of video codec companies were there, such as On2 and Actimagine, probably waiting to strike it big, before moving to hall 2.
7) I totally missed out on the outside tents from Microsoft, Nokia, Gibson Guitars, etc. Lots of music coming out when we left, probably stuff to be seen there.
8) I had no time to visit the "chinese" section at the Hilton, but I hear that it's a must go if you are a buyer. Cheap and reliable suppliers are to be found there. Anyone visited that part ?
9) I also missed every single keynote this year. From what I heard, there were not artists like last year, no big showtime, which is weird for A 40TH Anniversary:
- 1 software company (Microsoft) didn't talk about software for the first time, but about experience.
- 2 content companies: CBS talked about the ecosystem and the 100 new partnerships they were looking to sign this year, in addition to the 100 partnerships they signed last year. Disney blew it, and held an analyst meeting instead of a CES show I'm told
- nothing really came out of the 4 hardware companies: DELL, Cisco (it seems he talked about ecosystem also), Motorola and another one ?
10) I didn't get invited to the Showstoppers thing at Wynn's on Monday night. A number of funky startups where there, and it seems it was really well organised for the press (you had to pre-register for that). A number of companies I know were there: Boonty for example. Something to look up to next year.
11) finally, podtech was doing the right thing at the Bellagio's: they had a BLOGHAUS, with a great T1 connection, food , drinks and friends. I was on the guest list for that, but somehow - too tired - didn't manager to show up there. I hear it was the climax of CES this year :)