Learning by Sharing: Snark-free CES observations
Wheels up, returning from CES. Seems like a good time to reflect and share some of my observations.
Sharing raw data is an important part of building a strong cohesive team. Raw data allows everyone on a team to see the inputs and thus map from there to the conclusions, whether those are new plans or course corrections to existing plans.
This post shares some observations about CES but first provides some context and practices for the ins and outs of trip reports in the context of product development.
Why do trip reports?
From the earliest days of business travel, my managers have required a trip report in exchange for the privilege of taking a trip at company expense. Whether you are a manager or not, sharing your observations and learnings from a trip (site visit, customer roundtable, trade show, conference) is a way of contributing to the shared understanding of products and technologies.
A report is just that—a collection of words and artifacts—and by itself it does not represent the follow up actions as those need to come from a process of taking the data from multiple perspectives and spending time thinking through implications. In fact, a point of failure in product development is over-reacting to the immediacy of a single trip report or point of view (no matter who on the team wrote the report). Those are anecdotes and need more work to turn them into actions like changing plans or features.
There’s no right way to create a report. More often than not the format, structure, and detail of a report should follow from the type of event. Do you organize by type of technology or by vendor, by customer or customer theme, by conference session or by technical subsystem, and so on?
Reports also don’t need to be short, especially if the trip was filled with information. If you want to offer a distillation at the bullet point level then there are a couple of options. For a public event you can often cite a blog or article (or two) that seems to match your perspectives. For a confidential event you should still do a detailed report and distribute as appropriate, but consider an oral version for members of the team. Bullet points can be good on their own to make key points and also may serve as an outline for the body of the report. The downside of providing only bullet points is that it might not share enough of the raw data and folks might think of what you shared more as conclusions. Keep in mind that the time spent writing the report is also time spent thinking more deeply about what you experienced.
I personally value the use of pictures quite a bit. For site visits showing the artifacts (example app screens, paper based systems, use of devices in context, photos of the physical environment) can be super helpful to highlight what you saw. For conferences, if there is a great slide or graphic from a session, showing that can help a great deal. And for tradeshows, showing off products is super fun. Video of course can be cool but introduces complexity in sharing in some formats.
There’s often a discussion on how much hyperlinking to do in a report (links to presentation PPTs, videos, or product information for example). It really depends on the need the readers/target will have to seek even more information. Obviously you should always be prepared to provide more information, but I don’t think it is a best practice for your report to be filled with blue underlines or missing data because everything is a click away. If you’re tracking hardware, for example, and some spec (wt, mHz, watt) is important then just include that in the report.
There are two aspects to confidentiality / intellectual property to respect when writing a report. First, always be careful to report on things you are permitted to write down and report on. You should ask permission for any photos (at customer sites or conferences, and even some tradeshow booths). Second, when you distribute your report make sure you are working within company policy on the way information is shared.
Whether you use email, attachments, a file share, OneNote on SkyDrive (to share with a small group), or a blog (internally hosted) really depends on your org’s culture. The blog format is great because then you have one place with all your reports so you can always know where they are no matter what type of report. The key is to just make sure, without spamming people, that the data is available for folks on the team – or your audience.
As a manager or leader on the team, it is always a good practice to remind folks that a trip report (unless specifically noted otherwise) is just anecdotal information and not a change in plans, a call to action, or anything beyond sharing. With the data from you and other sources, the right folks who are accountable should act. If you do have feedback then separate it from the report as a good practice.
Leading up to this year’s CES show, one might have thought the CE industry was in a lull and devoid of activity, let alone innovation, by reading a few of the pre-show reports. Nothing could be further from the truth. CES 2013 was another year of amazing things to see. More importantly, CES highlights the optimism that drives our industry. The pursuit of new products, new businesses, and most importantly combining those to come up with ways to simplify and improve life for people through electronics, hardware, and software.
It seemed to me that a good number of the early reports were a bit on the snarky side and reflected a view that there would not be any major disruptive or cool announcements. Folks were talking about a lull in innovation. I even read one blog post saying the industry was boring (I’ve met product people in most every industry and can honestly say they never think their own industry is boring).
Measuring innovation by what is new, shown, and/or announced for the first time at one of the world’s most massive tradeshows is not the right measure. Companies do not usually time their product development to coincide with tradeshows. Announcing a new product in a sea of thousands of other booths is not often the best communications strategy. In today’s world, announcements can be communicated broadly through a variety of channels and amplified socially at a time that fits the business.
Expecting a company to unveil something at the show is somewhat misplaced. On the other hand, a big part of CES, at least for me, is really being able to see any (large) company’s full product line “end to end” and to see how they are fitting pieces together to deliver on scenarios, value, or competition. Smaller companies have an opportunity to show off their products in a much more interactive fashion, often with very knowledgeable members of the team showing things off. Most importantly, CES lets you see “side by side” whole categories of products—you see the positioning, the details, and how companies present their products.
Unveiling a new product or technology that is a cross-industry effort, one involving many partners, does work particularly well at CES. Intel’s efforts around Ultrabooks, in 2012 and 2013, demonstrate this. While Intel’s booth and large scale presentations show off Windows 8 and Ultrabooks, the amplification that comes when seen on display at Sony, Samsung, LG, Toshiba, and more is where the sum of the whole is greater than the parts.
Many folks might not be aware, but along with the booths and all the semi-public displays, many companies conduct confidential briefings with press and partners at CES. These briefings might show off future products and strategies, but the reporters cannot write about what they see. In this case, CES is just convenient, especially for international press who don’t get to see US companies in person. It is an interesting approach because it can positively impact press coverage of already disclosed products when reporters know “phew, there’s more to come”. It could also frustrate, “hey I want to write about that”.
Writing a CES trip report is tricky for a non-reporter. Folks not there are following blogs and mainstream media and tens of thousands of stories are flowing out from LV. A tech blog might have 30-40 people on site and might file 300-400 stories from the floor—and that is just one outlet.
One person (me) can’t compete with that. But as a product development person, there’s a different lens—we’re looking at products and technologies as ingredients and competitors, not as things we’re looking to buy now. We are looking at trends and not necessarily the here and now. A way to think of it is that some go to CES as though it were a restaurant looking for a complete meal. Others go to CES the way that chef’s go to a market in search of ingredients for their ideal of a meal. The broad consumerization of CES sometimes leaves behind the notion that it is, in fact, an industry tradeshow.
CES 2013 was a fun show for me, spending about 15 hours on the show floor. I’ve always made sure in attending CES (or COMDEX or MWC or anything) to have time to see the show and experience the richness of the event. It is easy to lock yourself in a meeting room or go from private briefing to private briefing and convince yourself you saw CES, but CES is really on the floor. And the floor was buzzing. That’s also why this report is snark-free. There’s no such thing as an entirely objective report as every observer has a bias, but you can make a report free from snide remarks.
CES 2013 was definitely a year of refinement across many product lines. Pulling some themes across a broad set of products, there was refinement in many ways:
- Mobile. Stating the obvious, mobile is front and center for every product. Where CES used to think mobile was in the North Hall’s Auto section, now everything is mobile. Where cables, connectors, and wire used to occupy the LV Hilton (aka the Whyte House) there are now radios and antennas. Even power consumption is now focused on battery life rather than mains draw.
- Design language. The design language in use for both hardware and software is trending towards a clarity and minimalism–turning over the screen to the app and the customer. There’s a lot less glowing and translucency. Navigation is clearer. Touch gestures are assumed on any device and often are not readily apparent (that is designers are assuming you will figure out how to touch and tap to make stuff happen). And the use of the full screen for the task at hand is clearly dominant. Rather than gain “speed” or “power” via multitasking by arranging, widgets, picture in picture, and so on, the focus is on moving quickly between task-oriented screens. From program guides to elaborate settings on advanced A/V to apps for healthcare you can see this language. There is a new definition of productivity underway that’s sure to be the topic of a future post.
- Build quality. Across the board products are getting better. That’s not to say there’s a fair share of low-end and low-quality stuff, particularly tablets, one can see in the South Hall as usual. There is, however, a rising tide of quality. This is a sign of further upstream integration of components as well as maturing manufacturing and assembly. It is also a reflection of consumer demand—when the difference in quality is represented by a 10-15% price delta on a sub-400 dollar purchase, quality is generally worth it. That doesn’t change the desire for high quality and low prices, but physics still dominates.
- Service integration. It was hard to find a product that did not integrate with the web and back end service in some way. While third party services have been a theme for several years, the role of first party services is up significantly. These services are now a big part of the value of a hardware product. Telemetry is key service that is part of every product. While we might curse updates or think it encourages poor engineering, the reality is that the quality of what we experience is better than ever because of these updates.
- Social integration. The integration of products with social networks is technically an easy thing to do (these networks are motivated to have more updates flowing in) so it follows that many products now integrate with networks. You can hop on a scale and share the weight right away. You can share movies you have watched easily. You can even share how happy a meal made you.
- Broadening of Moore’s law. We all know how MIPS increased over time. We then learned how available storage increased over time. We’re now seeing this increase in bandwidth usage (UHD Netflix streaming, for example) and in the silicon based nature of visuals (screens and camera sensors, for example). Even wireless networking is seeing a significant uptick in speed. There’s a lesson in not betting against these changes—ride the wave.
- Connected life. For sure, the connection of our lives to the internet continues as a trend. It is really amazing how many analog things are being digitized—door locks, luggage tags, mouth guards, and more.
One of the neat things about going to the same show every year (I think this is easily 18 or 20 for me and CES) is to compare year on year what comes and goes. It is just an “observation” or “feeling” and not a measure of square footage or number of products. CES 2013 saw some interesting changes in products that were very present last year and less so this year.
Looking back at CES 2012 there were a few things that made an impression as a trend or were visible and went the other direction this year:
- 3D. 3D was really big last year and you really had to work hard to even find a booth with glasses at all. I can’t recall something that had so many real products you could buy (and could buy that previous holiday) and in one year essentially vanished. I’m still surprised by this a bit because the world is 3D—it seems that the technology approach wasn’t working so I would not write off the concept just yet.
- Storage. There was a lot less in the way of storage technologies—hard drive cages, USB drives and sticks, media storage cabinets even. The cloud world we live in along with seemingly unlimited storage in the devices we use indicate this trend will continue. Kingston’s 1TB memory stick was cool (though maybe a bit bigger than you might expect before seeing it).
- Waterproof. Last year it seemed like every booth had a fish tank holding a phone or tablet. While there were plenty of waterproof cases and a few waterproof devices, it might be that people go rafting with their tablets less than product folks thought :-)
- Media boxes. There used to be a seemingly endless array of boxes that distribute photos, videos, and music around a home network. With Pandora/Netflix/etc. built into every TV and DVD player (and apps on every device), this type of device has probably been integrated. For the enthusiast, the capability of using privately ripped media (and those codecs) around the house still requires a solution but that might be heading towards the homegrown/open source approach rather than product.
- Digital cameras and video cameras. The ubiquity of high quality cameras in our smartphones makes it tough for most of us to carry a second discrete camera. One thing to always look out for at CES is when one product category will be subsumed by another, but also be on the lookout for when people might be trying too hard on the integration/combination front. There was definitely a focus on making discrete cameras take on characteristics of phone cameras with user interface, Wi-Fi integration, and post-processing (sepia and toaster from your camera).
- Gesture based TV. The excitement of gesture based control of TV was all but gone. Last year every TV had 10’ of space in front of it so the demo folks could control it by gesture. The demos didn’t work very well and so this year TVs were being controlled by apps on tablets and phones. This might be subsumed by voice or might return with a much better implementation.
Impressionable products and technologies
While some products and technologies seemed to trend downward, there were quite a few exhibited that appear to be trending upward or remain at a very high level of interest and development. The areas for me that are worth looking into more as products are developed include some of the following (in no particular order).
UHD/4K. What’s not to like about 4K! The biggest crowds are always around the biggest screens and this year was no exception. Seeing the 100” and greater 4K screens is breathtaking. It is incredible to think that it was just two years ago we were ogling at a 60” LED 1080P screens. Moore’s law applies to screens. Every major TV/screen company was showing 4K screens and these will be products soon enough for sure, and then the prices will come down. Folks were debating the value of 4K on different screen sizes or in different room sizes. Even though the physics can prove your eye can’t resolve the different, the physics of manufacturing screens will make it cost effective to use high density pixels counts almost everywhere. Obviously as we have seen with devices, there’s work for software (content) to just work at 4K—each company was showing native 4K and upscaled HD content to show off their technology for future and present content. Can has?
Display technology. The technology behind UHD displays is also on the move. This year saw a significant amount of credible innovation in the area of screen technology. Flexible displays seem more realistic than past years because they were in more than one booth. OLED made a strong reappearance with an amazing 4K OLED screen. Curved screens that match what we see in movie theaters showed up. I loved the wide aspect ratio screen from LG. Touch is being integrated into large panels for use for broadcast, meeting rooms and signage. Even the distribution of HDMI signals for digital signage saw innovation with single CAT5 systems at commodity prices. Samsung had a very cool transparent display that allows a physical product to be “enclosed” in the screen.
Multi-screen. There’s an incredible desire for the ability to get what I am seeing on a phone or tablet on to a bigger screen (the flipside of getting what streams over cable/sat onto my phone/tablet is a different problem). To really solve this well (respecting digital rights, getting everything on the screen) should be a low level connection like “wireless HDMI” but the power, bit rate, and complexity of that has not lent itself to a solution (below is a photo of HDMI test equipment if you ever wanted an idea of the complexity of the signal, or just cut an HDMI cable and look inside). Software solutions turn out to have equal complexity when you consider the decoding required in a TV (where component pricing is critical). DLNA holds out hope but is suited to photos/videos. AirPlay has the presence of iOS devices but needs Apple TV connected over wires. Sony, LG, Samsung, and others are starting to show solutions based on Miracast. This has some real potential if screens and projectors start building this in (and today you can get the aux box via third parties such as netgear). The other part of multi-screen is the aux screen scenario–the tablet screen show auxiliary content or is a remote control. There was somewhat less of this in 2013 compared to last year. This seems to be struggling with scenarios and responsiveness right now but seems like it will be figured out—after all, how many of us watch a movie and look things up on IMDB on our phones or watch sports tracking another game or stats on our tablet? The scenarios last year were focused on Facebook/twitter on your TV or news/weather while you watch and that is what seems to have been reduced in excitement (those always seemed a bit awkward to me for a family room).
Cameras. The first consumer digital cameras were shown at CES back in the early 90’s. It was so interesting because prior to that cameras had their own show. Fast forward 20+ years and cameras are 100% electronics. While discrete consumer cameras are struggling a bit to find a place in a world of phones, digital SLRs are seeing a rebirth at a level of flexibility and sophistication that is mind blowing. The role of DSLR for video has spawned a whole industry of accessories to morph a still camera into a motion camera in terms of form factor (the sensor and lens are the real value). Image stabilization, critically important on tiny form factors, is becoming incredibly good. Tablet sized devices are becoming reasonable for cameras (last year I thought it looked really goofy and this year it seems to make sense). One has to think though that there is a digitalization of “lenses” yet to happen. The physics of optics is due for a rebirth – the improvement curve on lenses and the SLR model seems to have reached the limits of physics. The new Canon 200-400 f4 with integrated 1.4x converter lens is super cool, but so heavy and costly. The next generation of cameras that go beyond using silicon to duplicate the resolution of film will break through at a future CES. Often you see products go through the “use electronics imitate the analog world” for a while before they find their digitally authentic expression.
The following is a 10 second video showing image stabilization from Sony. The image is a live image from two cameras mounted on a shaking platform, above the large screens.
Phablet. The made up word that was used more than it seems like it should was Phablet—a device that is bigger than a phone and smaller than a tablet. Given the size of phones this might mean 5-6.9” or so. It seems that there are two views. There’s the view that a phone is a phone and should be “less than” some size, and a tablet is a tablet which is 7-8” unless it is a big tablet (9.7”) or a PC/tablet. The other view is that consumers will be selecting from a wide variety of sizes and the industry will meet many needs. I like this second view. While I might choose a more routine phone size, too many people like larger sizes. Whether a larger screen is the one device someone uses or no is a tricky question. More than size, the pixel density is something to consider because apps won’t scale arbitrarily and how to scale at certain combinations of diagonal size and ppi have real impact on the quality of interaction with apps. I would not discount the consumer demand for a sustainable market of a variety of sizes of portable devices.
DISH/Directv/Comcast. The companies that distribute “real TV” to consumers (especially live events and original programming) seemed especially innovative this year. DISH is particularly innovative in bringing together a very nice and high quality multi-room and multi-device scenario. One thing that really struck me was the new ability to flag a program for transcoding to your mobile device and easily download it. To date this has been mostly impossible to do. Unless you want to wait for DVD or streaming this is the only way to time and location shift first-run programming. Programming guides are getting much better and faster to interact with and the integration of fun data (related programs, background info) is great to see. Getting to place where you have one tuner box and then much smaller, fanless, storageless, settop boxes in other rooms is really close.
Health. CES hosted a separate exhibit area for health related products/services (this is where they are encouraged for being part of the themed area). These products are truly modern products—empowering consumers with technology to literally improve their lives, and connect them to the internet and other resources. There are all sorts of sensors for well-known human telemetry: weight, blood pressure, pulse oximetry, glucose level, air quality, distance traveled, and more. There are also sensors for fuzzier (computed not measured) areas such as concentration, sleep quality, mood, and so on. The common element for all of these is measurement with a device that connects to the internet (or directly your mobile device via bluetooth) and then on your device you can view trends, track, and analyze the data. For many people this is literally life and death (tracking bp, glucose). For many it is a way to maintain fitness levels or achieve a better level of fitness. Two things really struck me. First, there is a real responsibility these companies will need to shoulder to separate medically actionable data from telemetry that will simply drive you crazy and drive up medical costs for society (tracking pulseox for a normal healthy person is dubious). Second, these are really a unique set of products/services/businesses that are essentially mobile-only, profiting by either the device sale or a device + service subscription. Some are not even bothering with web-browser based viewing.
New PCs. While Dell, HP, and Microsoft were not showing their own booths, there were plenty of new PCs. This was newsworthy and clearly showed a focus on “designed for Windows 8” which is exciting. Intel pulled together many of these PCs under the Ultrabook moniker and announced specs for the next generation of Ultrabook logo PCs (including touch). Samsung, LG, Toshiba, Sony, Panasonic, Lenovo all had very nice PCs with hiqh-quality touch, nice trackpads, great screens, thin, light, and in a variety of screen sizes 11-15. The All-In-One PCs with touch were quite nice as well, especially Sony and Samsung’s models. The Vizio lineup continues to evolve and show unique designs and good value. Razer was showing a Core i7 based tablet designed from gaming with some awesome gaming attachments. Panasonic shows a 20” 4K tablet that blew me away—seeing the quality of AutoCAD drawings showed a real value to the full “stack” of hardware and software. There were a number of hybrid PCs (tablet with removeable/hideable/flippable keyboards) that are becoming clearer and more refined—I especially liked the Samsung and Lenovo entries. These PCs are really great for developers and designers—they let you work directly with the code and a client/designer at the same time in both coding and tablet usage styles. As with “phablet”, it seems that the variety of tablets enabled by Windows will be something that continues to bring innovative ideas to consumers.
Green. There continues to be a push to make sure devices are green—while that lacks a concrete definition most devices are touted as low(er) power than they used to be. With the focus on mobile most devices are already much lower power than a tower PC of 2 or 3 years ago and even the 27” all-in-ones are running low-power chipsets and using aggressive OS power profiles. There are numerous power strips that reduce draw and drive “standby” behavior through certain outlets. There were a number of power strips that said they were greener because there was one integrated DC converter for charging USB devices. I loved the case/bag companies using recycled materials to make bags (though it still isn’t clear if this is carbon neutral or not, but for sure the developing world figured this form of reuse long ago making carry bags out of rice and grain bags). The most interesting challenge is that to really reduce power consumption (and extend battery life) requires hardware and software working together. Hardware companies announce the power draw of the hardware independent of the software platform; devices advertise battery life independent of radio signal strength or app load; manufacturers can create a software profile (drivers and more) that is not optimal for the advertised hardware number. There’s a lot to get this right.
Wireless communications. Obviously wireless mobile communications are everywhere, literally. One product due for a revolution in this regard is LifeAlert (“help I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”). Lifecomm is a Verizon product that houses a full 4G “phone” in a bracelet or dongle. Push a button and your location and information generates an assistance call right to you and a dialog can also take place—no matter where you are in Verizon’s service area. Super cool. Greatcall has a similar product that is a keychain form factor. There were related products for pets and luggage as well, but the one for humans seems to be particularly valuable.
Neat new companies
Everyone who goes to CES always tells you that the smaller companies have the coolest innovations. It takes a lot of energy and some luck to really find one of these. Even if you’re the press and get all the requests to meet you still have to pick from a thousand choices. I happened to stumble across a couple I thought I’d mention.
Qubeey. This is a startup from the Los Angeles area. That already makes them different as they are not a “tech” company, but a company that uses tech. They think a lot about how to connect entertainment to the audience that cares about them. If you’re a self-expressed fan/follower/friend of a talent then Qubeey provides a way for that person/band/brand to “push” highly interactive content to you that overlay the context of what you’re doing on your mobile device/win/mac. They have cool overlay video technology and even interactive SMS games. It is a unique approach to what amounts to advertising but doesn’t seem like that because you signed up to interact with something you care about.
“Secret”. I had a chance to see a briefing for a top secret gesture based technology that is very nice. This is a technology out of university labs about to be a product for TV/device makers. It uses a single off the shelf camera (like in an iPhone) and then uses CPU/GPU to compute the tracking of your hands for gesture based UI. This is cheaper, smaller, and less complex than other solutions out there. I saw it in action and it works remarkably well—there’s almost no latency between hand movements and tracking. It works at the driver level so it can use gesture to emulate touch with existing games and software. It can be easily trained to track an object as well (like a wand, sword or saber) for games.
Tablet cases. There were a lot of cases for tablets. Seriously there were a lot of cases for tablets from companies big and small, new and old! It is clear that tablets have a need for more protection, keyboards, and stands. I tried to capture photos of some of the variety of cases/add-ons that add style, keyboards, and protection, but also add significant size and weight to what are otherwise sleek and light tablets. Many seem to hinder the ergonomics of the device, unfortunately. I really don’t understand why someone hasn’t built a tablet yet that has a really strong case, built in stand, and a cover that also allows typing. I said free of snark, not free of sarcasm :-)
Here is a great example of the work Panasonic consistently does for universal access. Their voice control TV won an innovation award for universal design.
IEEE was running a poll to determine views on what gadgets are no longer in use (“Gadget Graveyard”). I love the irony–a gadget graveyard from the engineers that brought you the gadgets.
Phew. Another CES. Every year the new products energize me and show just how much creativity is going on in our industry.
PS: Please see the Disclosure page that has been added. The link is on the right rail.