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#codecon and reflecting on generational changes

RecodeAttending the <code/conference> (#codecon) this past week turned out to be a remarkable experience, even more remarkable than I expected. The generational shift in our computing experience from desktop to mobile, from software to services, and from hundreds of millions to trillions was on display through the interviews with a dozen industry CEOs.

This post will explore this generational change through the speakers at the conference. Before diving into the details of each session, we will explore this change and the implicit context.

Generational Change

Reflecting on the interviews and demonstrations as well as the “lobby chatter” is a key part of learning by attending. I’ve always viewed this conference and predecessor D Conference as the most relevant conferences for learning about the strategic drivers of our industry. You can read my report from last year here. Writing these reports is part of the learning for me and reading the old reports lets me checkpoint on my own learning and journey.

If you move beyond the insights from any single speaker or the announcements at the event (all were widely reported by re/code and others and new this year by re/code partner CNBC), one theme just keeps coming back to me—the vast difference in tone and content between the incumbents and the challengers, between legacy and disruptors, between the old guard and the new, or whatever labels you want to use. We talk all the time about the transition of our industry from one era to another (and don’t forget the term “post-PC” was first used in this very forum) and the conference provides a microcosm expressed through leaders of these transitions taking place.

There is a vast difference in tone and content between the incumbents and the challengers, between legacy and disruptors, between the old guard and the new.

The transition is in full force. This does not mean by definition that all existing companies will lose and only new companies will win. Quite the contrary, the fact that these changes are now visible to all makes the creation, purchase, and use of new products and technologies evidence of the transition, as well as opportunity to create new plans and adjust. The mobile internet is causing the transition but also making the communication of that very transition much more transparent, which is unlike the progressive unveiling that characterized the mainframe to mini to PC transition.

Are the new companies doing enough to transition customers as well as their own business to new paradigms? How much should new companies bridge from existing solutions or should they expect a wholesale change from customers? Is there an understanding of the existing complexities of the real world?

Are the incumbents changing enough to build new products and business that reflect the new generation? Are they trying too much to “thread the needle” and incrementally step to a new context by maintaining status quo or “repotting the plants”? Is there an understanding of the complexities of existing solutions?

The puts this "generational" change out there for us to experience through the always challenging, yet always consistently even-handed questioning (interrogation) from Walt and Kara (and a great addition this year were interviews featuring seasoned members of the re/code team).

Context (is everything in business)

The attendees (in the audience) are people who have worked in the industry often times since the earliest days. The interviewers are professionals who cover deeply the industry and the subjects. It is hard to imagine creating a more informed or tougher environment. That’s the challenge.

Yet, industry leaders both line up and are obliged to appear (for the most part). Because the environment is so challenging and widely covered, leaders gain a great deal of credibility by standing up to the challenge.

Leaders gain a great deal of credibility by standing up to the challenge of appearing.

The conference takes place the same time every year, whether a company has something to announce or not. For example, last year attendees were frustrated because Apple’s Tim Cook did not announce anything. This is an unfair way to look at the “performance” of a participant. This conference has an amazing audience, but it is also an “uncontrolled” environment so announcing a new product is not without risk and not without huge upside (Disclaimer: I’ve been part of several product announcements/interviews at this forum). Apple, along with many companies, has a tried and true approach to announcing new things as we will see next week.

What is most interesting about the forum, however, is that the format and depth of the dialog allows for a strong “how did we get here” or “how are you wrestling with challenges” discussion. This is not a one-way speech or a forum where talking points go unchallenged. That is in a sense what separates the men from the boys so to speak.

When speakers prepare for the interview, especially at larger companies, folks in communications prepare talking points, responses to tough questions, anecdotes, and even jokes. This is a forum where this can take on “Presidential debate” levels of preparation. The challenge is that everyone in the audience and certainly the interviewers are all well-versed in these techniques. For the presenters, all of that over-preparation cycles through your mind during the tough questions and unpredictable questions from the audience. This is a tough environment.

When speakers choose not to say anything of depth or the answer is clearly a prepared message, you can almost feel the energy in the room drain. There is a collective sense of a missed opportunity to learn more among attendees.

When speakers choose not to say anything of depth or the answer is clearly a prepared message, you can almost feel the energy in the room drain.

Too many people focus on CEOs evading questions about the next big deal or the features/availability of the next product. I don’t think that is a way to evaluate speakers and in almost all cases the interviewers ask a question like this one time often make a joke and move on.

Reporters have an obligation to ask or they look like they are not doing their job. Speakers have an obligation to acknowledge such a forward-looking, material statement and move on. There’s a big caveat to this and where I wanted to share my own learning, my own journey. I believe when it comes to challenges and strategy, CEOs specifically and companies in general can and should do more to inform the dialog. The way I would say this is that if there is something out there that everyone knows to be a fact and the speaker knows to be a fact and everyone knows everyone knows, then talk about it. By not talking about it, the conventional wisdom becomes the reality and the conventional wisdom is often wrong and always incomplete.

I have personally experienced this in the transition from Windows Vista to Windows 7. “Everyone” knew something was up with Vista and certainly Microsoft knew, but no one was saying anything. The result was a strong desire to know the next features of Windows, which was the only thing that folks knew to ask. It served no one to talk about the features of the next product but it also served no one to pretend everything was going well. I missed a big opportunity and looked foolish in a very early interview I did with a (now) re/code reporter. I followed the tried and true approach of the incumbent which is to say nothing, redirect, and so on. See several thousand words without saying anything appear here, from 6 years ago this week.

It turns out that in a world of global instant communication, transparency, open source, platform shifts, and so on that the story about the products, the strategy, and more can come to define efforts more than folks think. This isn’t always the case because business is a social science, but by and large what distinguishes the way the PC era evolved from the way the mobile era is evolving is a vast difference in the flow of information and pace of change. Corporate communications and the leadership approach need to adapt to this era. Recognizing this one thing we did on the above transition in Windows was start blogging about the “why” of the product long before the release, which to this day was a unique level of transparency (and also a huge challenge).

The generational change taking place now is challenging large companies more than ever before. Technology companies are seeing their investments and assets have faster lifecycles and shorter lifespans. They should address head on the challenges of these timescales and commitments. Business approaches are also being challenged and everyone knows this on all sides, but not talking about the challenges means everyone just assumes how things will evolve, and collectively everyone can’t be right.

These changes are also pushing and pulling customers more than ever before. As individual consumers we invest a little bit in a new phone or tablet and maybe a gadget and services here and there. Some of these pan out and some don’t. But large companies looking to define themselves in a new era of mobility, bring your own devices, cross-organizational boundaries, and cloud need much more information and a clearer understanding of what and why things have transpired like they have. Discussing the rationale behind choices provides much more context for customers making bets and allows a much more open dialog to compare and contrast choices. This goes way beyond features and gets to the strategy, learning from the past, direction for the future–it is a fine line.

It is too easy to fall back to wanting to know the next products and features. Companies still have secrets. That’s what defines a company relative to competition. As Jeff Bezos commented recently, “sure, I’d like to know Apple’s product roadmap”. To interpret the need for openness as a public roadmap or feature list misses the point—what was missing from the incumbent perspective was a view of what has transpired over the past 5 years and with that understanding a view of what could provide more understanding of how investments are moving forward.

The real question is if incumbents are going to change enough, fast enough, and in a sense disrupt themselves and do so with a clear understanding of what has transpired in the past few years. Or will they take on all the characteristics of “Innovator’s Dilemma” and operate hoping incremental change dampens any effect of big transitions will allow them to weather the storm and return to normal.

To see how significant this transition is, I think it is best to start with Mary Meeker’s always informative “Internet Trends 2014″. The complete report is available and so is the video. There were many interesting data points—the rise of China, the conversion of smartphones from feature phones, the move of OS platforms to Silicon Valley companies, messaging, and more. One slide that sums up the transition along with the challenge showed the growth of tablets relative to PCs with the title “Tablet Units = Growing Faster Than PCs Ever Did…+52%, 2013”.

 

Tablet growth relative to PCs

Because business is a social science and because there are many ways to look at data, no doubt some will challenge this data or conclusions. In fact, IDC just revised their tablet numbers down. Some feel that Tablets are reverting to their role as “media consumption” or lightweight computing devices. That I’m writing this on a tablet (yes one with a keyboard, but one with LTE, 10 hour battery life, weighs nothing, B5 size, etc.) provides my own anecdote about where things are heading.

This growth will change. It might sputter and then increase. There’s no doubt tablets are overtaking notebooks in terms of unit volumes. They are definitely not taking over all notebook workloads. But that would be like saying the growth of email was irrelevant to word-processing because it ignores the growth of the pie and shift in total volume to the new technology. As Steve Jobs said on stage at this conference, the software will catch up. This is happening. Despite what people might think, large numbers of attendees had their tablets at the conference and they were being “productive”.

Just as mainframe companies attempted to point out the shortcomings of PCs as servers, pointing out the shortcomings of tablets is not helpful, especially as tablets continue to gain more and more features of laptops while maintaining their unique characteristics (lightweight, fanless, quality over time, connectivity, reliability, security, apps, etc.)

One more slide from Mary sets the context that dominated the divergence of incumbents and disruptors and that was the view of the market size of each generation of computing, “Each New Computing Cycle = >10x > Installed Base Than Previous Cycle.”

Each New Computing Cycle = >10x > Installed Base Than Previous Cycle

“More than just phones” might lump too many devices into the last data point for some wishing to make the point that things are not changing so much. Let’s be clear—many mainframes still run the most critical systems of the world (I was in a briefing with an insurance company last week that wanted to hire me because I happened to know PL/1!). Today’s laptops have massive utility that isn’t being replaced overnight and probably won’t ever be “replaced”. That’s the Innovator’s Dilemma argument that does not equip either product developers or customers to innovate and prosper during these cycle changes.

Once you get beyond the specifics of what is coming next, which no one should be obliged to answer at #codecon, the dialog that gets to the heart of what is going on is worth having. What was missed? What was learned? What was tried? What did you think of what was tried? What is being done differently? How are big technology changes being thought of in isolation? Relative to existing investments? What point of view does a company have? What led the new company to be formed? What is different about investments being made? How do customers cope with change?

These questions and how they were answered made for quite a contrast between incumbents and disruptors. If you’re interested in per-speaker reports or the full interviews for any of them, please see the re/code site. My intent is not to summarize the sessions but to reflect on the sessions through this lens of forward leaning versus backward looking.

Incumbents

The incumbents of Microsoft, Intel, Comcast and Wal-Mart had a common theme which is that they each face significant challenges in the technology platforms and business models that brought them wildly successful. At the same time, each in my view missed an opportunity to say how they intend to change. In a sense, each asked us to leap to a future with them in leadership but without the detail to support that assertion.

It is key to understand that it is incredibly important for an industry to have large and healthy players operating at scale. In many ways, the startups we love serve as disruptive R&D for larger players and a healthy M&A pipeline is critical for all as evidenced by some of the recent mega-deals and dozens of smaller ones all aimed at the long term evolution of core products.

It is incredibly important for an industry to have large and healthy players operating at scale

Yet, many investments, particularly in hardware and manufacturing, require billions of dollars that can only be made by large companies. Incremental improvements we come to take for granted such as doubling of capacity, improved batteries, thinner devices, more pixels, massive data centers, and so on can only come from huge scale and well-functioning large companies.

At the same time, one look at Meeker’s slide above and one can’t help but notice that these large companies come to define the cycles she represents. Is that a convenient way we recall changes or were strategic changes part of a causal relationship? Don’t be so quick to judge. There’s a significant amount of subtlety and nuance.

Let’s look at some of the specific speakers.

Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and Intel’s Brian Krzanich both sit in the hot seat (the red chairs that define the #codecon set) with the same question so it is worth considering them together—what happened with respect to mobile and tablets. Satya talked about wishing to have taken the bet to build hardware all the way, sooner. Intel talked about the challenges in manufacturing at 14nm, not having the right product relative to power and the need to do better at 10nm. Mossberg kicked off Brian’s interview with the observation that he’s using a laptop half as frequently and using ARM based products a great deal. In a moment of candor, Brian talked about how many at Intel wished that the march towards mobility would have stopped at Ultrabooks and that Intel lacked the right parts to do tablets, which many at Intel did not think tablets would break out beyond consumption. I felt Brian’s comments showed a good acknowledgement about why things didn’t happen. At the same time, collectively the view of a strategy in the near to medium term didn’t come through. In eerily similar approaches, both Intel and Microsoft looked to a future beyond phones and tablets to an internet of things or more personal computing as where they will see greater success. I left both of these sessions feeling there was more to be told about where things are right now and what will happen over the next year or two (again not the features but the strategy—Microsoft and tablets small and large, Intel and mobile or even Chrome and Android). It isn’t that nothing was said, it was that everyone knows where things are today and the speakers know everyone knows, and the upside to keeping things close to the vest seems minimal and equates to “go with the disruptors” at some level.

One must admit that the challenge faced by Wal-Mart’s Doug McMillon is even greater in this audience which has few Walmart regulars (note, I shop at Walmart). In particular, many in this crowd are on the leading edge of home delivery and uber-for-everything and so visiting stores is already a thing of the past. That said, so much of what was said about online commerce felt too much like an expected incumbent response. For example, the idea that the lines are blurring between ecommerce and retail or that it is really hard to measure ecommerce if a person looked up an item on their mobile device before coming to the store (I wondered if there really was a metric that tried to give credit internally to the ecommerce division if someone did that). Ultimately, Doug said “physical still matters and digital makes it more valuable”. Maybe, except the last morning of the show I ordered a wall mount for the Sonos speaker we received at the show (yes elite gifts are part of the elite show) and it beat me home. Yes that is a luxury good and more, but to put forward the notion that ecommerce is still an add-on to physical stores seemed tricky for me.

Comcast’s Brian Roberts not only faces the challenge of cord cutters represented in the audience or the prospects of dealing with questions on net neutrality, but also just the fact that a lot of people have a lot of less than positive feelings about the products and services Comcast offers. When you look at Comcast as an incumbent and consider things like Netflix, Hulu, cord cutting, and more as the disruptive force it is very tough to see the dialog Brian led as satisfying. My feeling was that there is a strong response to keep everything as it is, while putting forward a notion that things are improving.  There was a long demonstration of the X1 cable box. Yet in the same session when questioned about net neutrality, Brian said that it is too bad that Netflix should pay a cost of doing business as he has to pay for cableboxes. I think that they love the cablebox (evidence, it seems to be an incredible headache to get cablecards and very costly to switch to TiVo and the rent for cable boxes is pretty high). The fact that they spent 10 minutes doing a demo on the new platform seemed to indicate that—yet the platform has none of the elements of a modern platform relative to apps or openness as was asked by an attendee. The responses to questions about net neutrality seemed to show a strong desire to avoid change while at the same time not acknowledging a changing world and changing needs of what is going on relative to connectivity. The overall dialog around Netflix seemed harsh to me and it failed to consider just how much more pleasant (and modern) Netflix is as a consumer than the X1 experience shown. Disclaimer: I have had really significant problems with Comcast in our new place and having never used them before; this is my first time as a customer. As I have no choice for video or broadband, one could say it is challenging for me to be totally objective.

Each also stuck to revealing little, defending the status quo, and offering a view of the future that is the same but better.

Each of these CEOs and companies have enormously challenging jobs and situations. Having shareholders demanding consistent quarter by quarter results, customers who do not really want change from these service providers but seek change elsewhere, and massive organizations to change all make for the potential of no-win interviews. Yet, each also stuck to revealing little, defending the status quo, and offering a view of the future that is the same but better. My own experience and learning would offer than when facing massive disruptive challenges, engaging in the dialog serves all parties better even though the normal school of thought for the incumbent is to double-down, stick to talking points, and only reveal challenges through the lens of opportunity.

Disruptors

Several CEOs represented the leading edge of disruption. It is super easy to be a fan of disruption and to look at all that is going well with these leaders just as it is easy to look at all the challenges the incumbents face. At the same time, these disruptions are also representative of a new level of frankness and openness about what they face or have faced.

More than the great work these leaders represent, I think it is important to look at how each is communicating and participating in a dialog. One might suggest that when these leaders are under pressure or face challenges of being disrupted they will start to take on the characteristics demonstrated above. I don’t think that is the case, simply because several of these leaders have already faced (or are facing) these challenges in their business. While clearly disruptors have less to lose, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that some of these represent large public companies (not mega cap, but large) and all represent very large customer bases from consumer to enterprise.

It was exciting to see these leaders head to the future, demonstrate a unique point of view, and engage in a two-way dialog about where things are going

For me, it was exciting to watch these interviews and how these leaders took on their own challenges. It was also exciting to see these leaders head to the future, demonstrate a unique point of view, and engage in a two-way dialog about where things are going.

Let’s look at some of these speakers.

Uber’s Travis Kalanick is arguably the most used and mission critical service for the attendees. The love for the service runs deep. Equally deep is the love for how Uber is taking on the government in the regulation of taxis and ride sharing (along with Lyft, an a16z portfolio company). At the same time, Travis faces a lot of questions about his aggressive style and reputation. He didn’t hold back, characterizing the task ahead at Uber as “a political campaign, and the candidate is Uber and the opponent is an asshole named Taxi.” OK, probably a bit colorful. What I loved was how he embraced even the disruption to his own business. After seeing a truly autonomous car from Google the night before we heard the CEO of Uber telling us that self-driving cars are the future, not drivers. Considering that Uber is a marketplace for drivers, this embrace of your own disruption is great to see.

Most people expected a characteristically polite interview by Softbank’s Masayoshi Son-san, but were treated to candor and aggressiveness, though in a very polite way. This would be consistent with the amazing success Softbank and Yahoo BB had in Japan ten plus years ago bringing amazing broadband and low prices to a market easily dominate by the goliaths like NTT (the most visible building from the Shinjuku train station is the DoCoMo tower). Son-san told the story of starting Yahoo BB and “how they had: No experience, No technology, No capital. Just anger.” This was a true disruptor story, much like Uber’s story of realigning city government only at a national scale. While it was not so challenging to be candid about WiMax, Son-san was super clear about the failed technological approach. He was clear about the intention to go after broadband in the US with the same zeal he went after it in Japan.

Salesforce and Workday (Marc Benioff / Aneel Bhusri) together offered an incredibly clear view of disruption at the enterprise software level. If there’s one interview to watch, I would suggest this one because it has so much relevance to how software is made and brought to market from two CEOs who made and brought to market software in a previous generation. These are CEOs learning from their experience who have also engaged the marketplace differently as disruptors. There were many statements that are starting to seem less and less “bold” but nevertheless remain monumentally disruptive: “in a few years no one will run business software on premises”, “I run the company from a smartphone”, “if you’re going to build a cloud app you need to start from a clean sheet of paper—there’s no way around it”, “incumbents are holding on to the past and basically trying to monetize it”, “90% of the company can do all of HR on a smartphone” and so on. There were many profound elements of the dialog that revealed the depth of the strategic and technological shift these leaders are both creating and have experienced. For example, there was a description of competing with an incumbent like SAP who would go to a customer, negotiate a $40M deal to “upgrade” and then wait two years to get the latest features or start to use a SaaS model and the new features just show up. Yes there’s a ton of complexity in there and yes it is horribly disruptive to how businesses operate, but so was the introduction of the PC, client/server (upon which that $40M upgrade was based) and more. Finally, the discussion about being in a “post-server” world resonated with me as I just don’t see it as viable for companies to be building out their own data centers and this session provided a lot of evidence as to what these vendors are doing to make that a realistic assertion. From a format perspective I love the adjacency of these two and wish a couple of the incumbents were paired together.

Dropbox’s Drew Houston brought innovation, competition, and regulatory oversight into focus with his interview. This is another service that many people in the room not only use but rely on and that brings with it a degree of comfort and also a challenge in that the audience knows a lot about the services represented. Not content to simply reiterate what was previously known and said about the company, Drew talked about the genuine frustration he represents as a cloud provider learning about the revelation that the NSA tapped into cloud based services. It would have been easy to lay low but instead made the quip that the “NSA doesn’t send a muffin basket and say welcome”.

Netflix’s Reed Hastings represents learning and the learning from disruption incredibly well and can also be chronicled in his own appearances in the hot seat. Sometimes we forget that Netflix has been a public company for 12 years, to the day of this interview! For many of us it seems like ancient history that we used to get plastic discs in the mail and then return them Monday morning. Netflix is famously known for having disrupted itself and not with grace while on a path to streaming and today’s Orange is the New Black. I found the discussion looking backwards to missed opportunities and disruption absolutely fascinating. Reed talked about how the team would discuss “managing to the point of feeling like your skin crawled” and making decisions that were unbelievably difficult. While given the success right now, perhaps it is less difficult to look backwards at the challenges faced and mistakes made. It was amazing to hear this level of candor. Reed was even candid about something he said just a short time ago about the high price of Netflix stock which he said at the time was too high and represented a euphoria. In contrast to Comcast, Reed was much clearer about the net neutrality issues are playing out—he used a great example of Comcast trying to charge at both ends (both for the consumer and the internet service) by talking about the flow of money through the system. He offered an operational view of “strong net neutrality”. Putting aside the specifics of the issue, the tone of looking forward, candor about the past, expression of a clear point of view, and a view of delivering new products and services along with the inherent risks and challenges comes across as modern and consistent with a new style of leadership.

What comes next?

It might be too easy to read this and conclude big companies are legacy and being disrupted and new companies disrupt, but that would ignore two things.

First, this is a moment in time. While some would say disruption is akin to physics and must happen, there are dominant companies that reinvent themselves. Few even recall that IBM was close to bankruptcy when it reinvented itself from one dominant company to another, albeit in a very different way. And that reinvention progressed through nearly 20 years and returned 7X the broad stock market overall during that time.

Second, companies that disrupt are themselves prone to disruption down the road. We haven’t seen this dynamic play out yet for the companies here (though Netflix might be one). There is also a great deal of learning about how to reinvent and avoid the risk of being locked into a strategy and execution. Google doing the unthinkable of shutting down services or Facebook acquiring very large scale indirect competitors or technology complements are examples of a new generation of leaders acting differently relative to the potential disruption of core businesses.

Nothing is quite inevitable in business, but the potential to fall into familiar patterns is high.

Nothing is quite inevitable in business, but the potential to fall into familiar patterns is high. This past week at #codecon demonstrated the challenges and approaches to the core risk of the technology industry. In technology, the only thing you really do is monetize the work of the past and deliver innovation to the future. How leaders approach this reality is an evolving skill and #codecon allows us all to witness this evolution firsthand.

–Steven (@stevesi)

Written by Steven Sinofsky

June 1, 2014 at 11:30 am

Posted in posts, recode

Tagged with , ,

A product management view of CES 2014

CESI love the Consumer Electronics Show. Maybe I’m numb from decades of attending it. Maybe I’m just too much of a fan of watching stuff get made. Maybe I just like long lines and the potential for airborne illness. Really what I love is the technology industry and that every year we get together and demo new products, share works in progress, and take chances on offering products people don’t yet (or ever) know they want. CES 2014 was an exceptionally unique year and one that I think will be remembered as the start of a new era, much how the 1970 show changed TV with the introduction of the VCR or the 1981 show changed music with the CD player.

CES 2014 was an exceptionally unique year and one that I think will be remembered as the start of a new era.

But wait, you ask “What product was launched at CES 2014?” The answer is “None”. Instead, this is a year in which every product is about software, and every product assumed that the computer involved would be based on modern mobile platforms, and most everything connected to a cloud service. As an industry we’re not there yet, as we will talk about below, some offerings still cling to previous models of accessing computing and we’re likely to see much changing of the guard as breakthrough products emerge.

The ubiquity of the modern mobile platform, smartphones and tablets, might seem obvious to all of us in computing proper, but it took the better part of a decade for it to go from a section of the show to a big presence to woven into the fabric of every exhibitor. Likewise, software has gone from “content” to “console games” to “pc applications that get thrown in with a device” to the raison d’être or differentiation of consumer electronics.

So put aside the lines, the endless sameness of non-differentiated products, the puzzling keynotes, or even the absence of Apple and Google, and consider the over 3200 companies of all sizes showing off products of all kinds. For me, I think back to when I was a kid and the excitement around what was next came at the yearly Auto Show or reading about the historical World’s Fair Expos. It is hard to avoid concluding that CES is our era’s expression of the future—transportation, healthcare, communication, entertainment, and more are represented by the innovation on display at CES.

It is hard to avoid concluding that CES is our era’s expression of the future—transportation, healthcare, communication, entertainment, and more are represented by the innovation on display at CES.

Me, I’m just excited to get to go to the show and systematically walk up and down every aisle exploring what is there to see. My one set of eyes and one post can’t compete with the likes of the professional tech press that push out hundreds of posts during the week or with the amazingly thorough coverage of “best of” done by many.

Instead, I offer these observations or themes from a product development perspective—what would I be looking at as a product manager or engineer. As I’ve said in this blog many times, learning comes from observing and sharing. Product plans come from many points of view and sources coming together in the context of a company. I cover a lot, but there is more. It was a great show for learning and thinking about the next phase of our industry.

This report looks at themes covering embedded smarts, healthcare devices, communication wearables, screens (4K, curved, skinny), less futzing, and overall trends up/down.

First, a bit of humility

One thing required when looking at new products and technologies is humility. Even though many would like to differ, CES is not a shopping mall where you go to find the new big thing to buy or use right away. This is counter-intuitive because a lot of the products at CES are new and for sale. But in practice, they have not been used and many times not even released to reviewers yet. So you want to step back as you read about the products and not look through the lens of “would I buy and use this today” and instead think about the context overall. As part of that I like to remind myself of a few things about what we see:

  • Companies aren’t dumb. A lot of times when a product is first seen something jumps out at you as totally wrong. Keep in mind many of the products are not about the use cases for today, but for use cases yet to be seen. The most classic example is the Walkman— a “tape recorder” that didn’t record. Or more recently, a digital camera that is bigger, heavier, costlier, and worse than a film camera. Sometimes the new use cases aren’t even obvious to the companies yet, and this is even more true today as many “hardware” companies are moving forward rapidly with hardware or the supply chain is making available new components because it can, neither really having software that can implement new use cases.
  • Limitations seen in less than one minute are known by the product people. Every product has issues, limitation, constraints. Walking up to a brand new product and thinking you’re the first person to notice such is usually a mistake. While the person at the booth might know the FAQ, it is a good idea to assume the product folks back at HQ actually know the limitations. I can’t count how many times people commented on the battery life of one of the wearables with screens—as though the people developing them would not like to have a month of battery life or were not aware of the trade-off between weight and battery life.
  • Iteration is baked into the product you are seeing. Even though the product is for sale, it might not be done yet. It will get smaller, faster, cheaper, power efficient, lighter, and more feature rich. It will do so quickly. Many of those plans are in place. Because so much of the hardware is now subject to Moore’s Law, it is already happening and you can just wait—the price of 4K displays will drop rapidly and because of 1080P volume the price is already spectacular compared to what we’ve come to expect based on previous generations. For software, we all know updates and features are part of the plan. There’s no guarantee things will go in the “right” direction for every product but iteration will happen. Because there are many players, keep in mind that iteration by one player becomes learning for another player so there is ample opportunity for changes in leadership. We all know in technology, first mover advantage is not necessarily an advantage. Multi-party, iteration is the reason.
  • Core competency matters. With so many devices doing so many things and so many products incorporating features from other products for differentiation, it is important to focus on the core competency of a product. There’s a good chance a product will try to do too much or for that matter all the products will try to differentiate themselves based on some peripheral features. Don’t lose sight that TVs should have a good picture, fitness bands should measure your fitness well, scales should be fast and easy to read, speakers should sound good and so on.
  • Everything has depth and experts. Every year I get surprised by some product that I never thought of and think how amazing that idea is, and then I see 3 more of them on the show floor. It is easy to forget that inside the CE industry there are many industries. Within those industries are people who spend their careers mastering something that, to the uninitiated, might seem narrow. I saw a modern blood sugar monitor (see below) this year that was totally unique. Then I saw two more. These experts are all feeding off many of the same inputs and so one should expect some degree of convergent innovation. Said another way, in the context of a broad show like CES, something that I think is really cool might not actually be all that innovative to those in the field with some domain knowledge.

Themes

Let’s look at some themes and within them put on our product manager hats and see how what we observed might influence our own choices in products design. I’m going to take the observations from the show floor and project forward a bit as that’s what product management needs to do with the data when there are technology bets to be made, products to design, and specs to write.

Embedded smarts

Intel kicked off the show with a keynote declaring that all devices need to be smart. Walking around the show floor showed that this advice has already been taken to heart. While smart TVs are the most obviously visible (and also a holdover from the past two or so years), we also saw smart cars, smart healthcare devices, smart fitness monitors, smart watches, smart home appliances, smart projectors, and more. Smart was everywhere. Should it be?

Smart can mean anything from a touch-based user interface replacing the existing mechanical UI to taking a formerly mechanical device and embedding an entire OS with app ecosystem into the device.

Moore’s Law is an important contributor to this trend. Previous views of smart devices would have meant connecting the hardware device to a PC, with all of the costs, size, power that this entails. Home automation that used to take a PC now just connects devices with Wi-Fi to a cloud service, for example. A home blood pressure monitor would have stored some number of readings until you connected it with a serial cable to a PC and now it just sends those over Wi-Fi to a cloud service. TVs would have been connected to a PC that presented a full PC experience through an alternate user interface that today can offer this same type of functionality through an entirely embedded solution. Now it is both feasible and economic to include an ARM-based computing platform and either a Linux or Android OS driving the “smarts”.

But is this always right? The product manager view might be that it is time to look at use cases and scenarios and step back. While the hardware side is possible, the software might not be delivering the right experience. The truth is, some devices should be dumb. And that’s ok. The internet of things does not need to recreate the challenges of the internet of PCs. A single general purpose approach used everywhere might not be the best approach compared to tailored devices working with a very rich mobile device and cloud services.

The truth is, some devices should be dumb. And that’s ok.

One reason for this is that there can only be so many app ecosystems. It simply won’t be possible for apps to be delivered reliably and in a feature complete manner across all of the various smart devices. While today it might be possible for a streaming music service to be omnipresent on every possible smart device from a watch to a car to a TV to a refrigerator to a treadmill (and a phone and a tablet), down the road the user experience for that streaming app will have become rich enough that the primary use case will drive the expected experience which won’t be duplicated across devices, whether that is because the devices vary in capabilities, screen sizes, or just human interaction or just because there are too many different platforms.

Two examples help to reinforce this product challenge.

  • Screens / TV. We all want lots of stuff on our big screens. We want streaming video, live broadcast television, music (maybe), and perhaps some web services like messaging. But these are all sophisticated experiences (finding the video, dealing with TV signals/guides/DVR, managing playlists, different apps), and so it means they likely demand (or will demand) a rich interaction model connected to services. Good news! We already have this interaction model on our modern mobile tablets and phones. Why try to duplicate this with the added complexity and variety of TVs? Rather a device like Chromecast or Apple TV shows how you can use the TV simply as a “dumb screen” which becomes far more manageable, the UI is far better, and is a much better overall experience. These solutions, where the screen is dumb and the mobile device serves as the gateway to the dumb screen seem to put the code in the right place and reduce complexity and increase simplicity for the use case. It is worth asking if this Twitter client on a TV will ever match what you can do on your mobile device in your hand while watching the show? That’s not to say there won’t be other use cases integrating apps into TV, but just showing subsets of the mobile apps side by side doesn’t seem right.

  • Autos. From Audi to Volvo we saw smarts added to cars. This was added in the form of a screen, a telemetry platform, and apps. What is different about this compared to TVs is that we don’t want cars to be dumb. We want cars to be smart about being cars (safety, maintenance, better driving and accident avoidance). Like TVs, however, it isn’t clear that we want to put the equivalent of a unique mobile platform in every car brand. Is there any chance the mapping app in a car will be on par with the mapping app in my mobile device? Wouldn’t I rather have the same ability to send my mobile screen to the car screen that I get with Chromecast or Apple TV? Perhaps having a protocol that supports touch in that scenario is very helpful too. In the meantime the smarts of the car can focus on the things the car needs to do, and perhaps even recognize the best way to have a user experience and manage those would be with an app and cloud service? Ultimately, the way cars are made means that the technology choices are out of date by the time the car makes it to market and if you own the car for 5 years then those technology choices are really dated and perhaps the overall resale value of the car declines.

Will this UX really be right today or in 8 years?

The fact that all the screens and cars are making bets on technologies that are just capable of being used helps us all—this is not the time to be cynical but the time to learn. These products are not done yet and we can’t highlight the greatness of the Lean Startup and MVP and then be critical of bringing to market products that might not quite be done—that’s where reviews, experts, and frankly store return policies can help. As a product manager you want to ask yourself about the trajectory and likelihood of success of an approach down the road when the work all comes together. These new products show exciting scenarios but maybe there are better ways to implement them.

Healthcare devices

The advances in sensors have been breathtaking thanks to technologies like MEMS and others. Combining those with the ability to embed and whole OS and connectivity to cloud services in what used to be basic diagnostic equipment is a revolution in healthcare. Here too we saw many new and breakthrough products. As a telemetry nut, obsessive compulsive, and geek these are some of the most exciting products ever. One thing that made this CES seem so new and fresh is that this feels like a renaissance in consumer electronics. Devices you buy at reasonable price points, solve specific problems like an appliance, and just work for a scenario. In most ways, these new devices are starting to deliver now.

Basic body telemetry like weight, blood pressure, composition and more can now be easily measured, tracked over time, and even shared easily with care givers or compared with a circle of friends. Stepping on a scale every morning is quietly making a bar chart, setting alerts, and trending your data. And even better, such devices are learning from past designs and becoming easier to setup and use. No longer do you need a PC, EXE, and USB cable. Instead the device is paired over Bluetooth with a dedicated app and you’re up and running with a great UI in no time. Basic scenarios like maintaining compliance with medication are made easier by smart pill boxes that alert you wirelessly on your mobile device to take medicine. Overkill? Perhaps, but compliance rates are still not where they need to be. And combine this with easy measurement of blood pressure and you can see how putting smart in the right place, cloud services and mobile apps to make things accessible can be such a huge advance.

Three healthcare products that demonstrate this include:

  • Head injury. Much has been written about the rise in head injury in sports and long term risk associated with cumulative concussion, particularly football. Reebok with the Checklight is one of many companies with a product designed to measure cumulative head impact using accelerometers. The packaging is very user friendly as you can see (and it won a best of CES award). The basics of the device are cool—a red light goes off when a certain level of cumulative concussion risk has been reached. Other variants of similar devices have different form factors (helmet integrated, mouth guard) and can even report real time to a mobile app. The telemetry, use case, and execution are all coming together at CES 2014.

  • UV exposure. The JUNE UV detection bracelet by netamo simply measures cumulative sun exposure and integrates with a mobile app, again with a simple UI on the device and a data connection to a mobile app. There’s a lot to like about this for folks who work or play outdoors and want to mitigate the risk of skin disease or damage. The app/service provides advice and a suggested “routine” for your skin based on data.
  • Blood glucose. Those that have been touched by diabetes (perhaps one of the more insidious diseases in the developing world, costing the US an estimated $245B a year in healthcare and related costs) know the complexity and challenges of testing and managing glucose levels. The YoFi Meter, http://www.yofimeter.com/, is a very smart device (see the above discussion). It combines a glucose test strip dispenser/reader, a lancet dispenser, along with a simplified tracking interface on a touch screen and an integrated 3G connection to a cloud data service. This is a device that takes compliance to a new level. At first I might have thought this device is too smart, and then after talking to the designer I learned of many use cases where a companion mobile phone isn’t available or possible (for example, students must be tested by the nurse who doesn’t have time to call up parents with real time data and a phone might not be available in school).

Each of these three devices shows how telemetry and mobile apps/cloud services can dramatically change the basics of healthcare for a scenario.

There are challenges we will all need to deal with however. These challenges are not new to those who already work with data.  Data does not always lead to actionable next steps and sometimes more data leads to more ambiguity. These three devices show how the reality is that science is not yet caught up to being able to present us with all this data.

In the case of concussion and head injury, right now the data is unclear on how much cumulative impact over what period of time is “safe”. So while it can be measured, exactly when and how to act is not clear, particularly for children. It is easy to see how the debate will quickly move to one of acceptable levels. So more studies over a longer period of time will be needed which for this type of measurement will take decades given that the measurement is just now available. Science is hard. Glucose measurement is the other end of the spectrum. For diabetics the data and management is well understood, but compliance is challenging or at least not super convenient. The advances are amazing and ready now! Sun exposure is one that becomes interesting only because the data basically says to minimize exposure as much as possible—in other words there’s not really an acceptable level of UV light (i.e. SPF 40, see http://www.aad.org/media-resources/stats-and-facts/prevention-and-care/sunscreens).

Together these show the opportunities and challenges in the healthcare telemetry space. In any product design, the ability to measure something and present the measurement to a customer is not the same as being able to provide reliable and actionable information. It is critical in the design of a product to be clear on what to do when the product tells you something, lest the dreaded “Check Engine’ syndrome.

One might even offer the world’s first connected toothbrush:

Wearable communication

While many healthcare devices are wearable, the broader category itself exploded this year as has been well documented…everywhere. When it comes to sophisticated wearable communication devices, this is a year of learning products.  Most are not ready for primetime or broad usage, though many will find niches with early adopters or enthusiasts.

This shouldn’t be news to anyone. Consider as an example post-VHS digital formats for movies forays into optical media (LaserDisc anyone), the path from first products to broadly used products is often one with many twists and turns in basic technology and scenarios. In addition that path from the first component sized DVD player to the 6″ round portable DVD player or integrated flat screen DVD player took some time. Innovation does not happen all at once, even though we often remember it as punctuated moments in time.

There’s no need to document the dozens of communication wearables on display. Most shared the same basic characteristics, with Pebble being the established player that has already earned an enthusiastic base of early adopters. These pair with a mobile device, share notifications, and permit some level of interactivity and apps/ecosystem. Some do less and trade off towards a longer battery life by doing less. Others try to subsume the mobile device entirely and act as a phone (see below).

The primary “cause” of this is that the ability to miniaturize the hardware platform and squeeze a full software platform on the device has surpassed the ability to build a software experience and use case. These devices, by and large, are currently in the “because we can” phase of innovation. That’s not bad and in fact when software meets hardware it is often a necessary ordering.

The primary challenge, at least from my perspective, is that no one has arrived at a new use case. We’re simply looking to move some use cases of the mobile device to a wrist based device. But the device on the wrist is “less of everything”. Taking a disruption point of view, this isn’t disruptive yet. As often discussed, the first PC-derived tablets were more PCs without keyboards than they were a new set of use cases (pen based drawing/notetaking notwithstanding). It wasn’t until the iPad presented a new set of mobile scenarios and capabilities and the hardware was better able to meet the scenarios that a device without a keyboard was able to define a new use case.

Absent a use case, the dialog around wearables will just bounce around the constraints of screen size and battery life. You can only do so much with a tiny screen and a wrist sized device can only operate a screen for so long. While one likes to be notified with a UX based on a glance, it turns out this is pretty much what mobile phone designers work to do all the time and with a lot more screen real estate and elaborate UX. On those platforms the debate is an endless one around how much can you do to a notification and what are the verbs that act on it. Is a new text just read, read and reply with a canned set of replies (and can/how might those be customized), or full messaging capabilities? Do those choices extend to custom messaging apps like WhatsApp or Skype? Who will write those apps? When those apps have new features do they carry over to the wrist?

Here is one example of a fitness watch that is also full smartphone on a wrist, including a pull out Bluetooth headset.

This is a complex set of questions. From a product manager perspective, they all boil down to defining use cases and scenarios for why a device should exist. Is it a companion? Is it a replacement? What does it do uniquely such that I’d be willing to forgo other functions I already have? Disruption theory says that it is totally ok for a new product to do less, so long as it is so good at something that people want more as that’s the whole point of being disruptive.

It is still early. It is too early to judge these devices as what is possible and for most of us too early to be adopting these devices.  They are the stuff of Star Trek, which by that theory of innovation only means it is a matter of time.

Screens: 4K, curved, and skinny

If you’ve seen just one article on CES then it is certain you know that new TVs on display were both 4K and curved. Cutting to the chase, if you buy a TV in 2015 odds are it will be 4K. The rapid march to 4K is more massive than anything we’ve seen in screens. Moore’s Law is our friend here and at some point the entire supply chain will just convert to the mechanics of making 4K and it becomes essentially non-economic to maintain the old processes and supply chain. We’ve seen this with memory, storage, processors, and screens. Silicon based innovation lends itself to rapid and whole movement of products. That’s good for all of us.

Cutting to the chase, if you buy a TV in 2015 odds are it will be 4K.

For screens, 4K has two unique elements:

  • Extremely rapid cost reduction. Competition is fierce and the economics of the processes will likely drive 4K screens to “acceptable” consumer prices much more quickly than the move to flat screen or 1080P. During the show Dell announced a 4K monitor for $699. My early adopter 15″ VGA LCD costs $1999 (and weighed more than the Dell will). Yay for consumers!
  • Content will appear. While we can all bemoan the hype and failure cycle of 3D at home, which included a lack of content, there were already significant content deals for 4K, notably Netflix. While you need 15MB bandwidth for 4K the content will be there. Rest assured, the rest of the content industry heard this and so I suspect we will see brilliant 4K content of some form very rapidly. Again, yay for consumers!!

If you have any doubts, once you see a 4K screen you will want one. Put aside all the arguments about physics, optics, and more, it just feels right. In practice, what you really want are high gamut and 60fps, so let’s hope these attributes and benefits become clear to consumers. Again, this shows the value of reviews, community, and expertise in the adoption of CE.

Curved screens were somewhat of a surprise to many attendees I believe. In booth after booth people had somewhat puzzled looks at them and there seemed to be a broad effort to quiz the booth staff with “so what good is it”. Most of the time we all got the general answers about immersive experience or less reflection. Each of these to some degree are true (especially reflectivity in many situations).

Curved Montage

Again, as product managers we see a hardware technology appear because it can but the use case hasn’t yet been determined. Like the first color computer screens that many argued against claiming software was inherently black and white, curved screens are about new use cases not just curving a football game. One view around CES and you can easily see scenarios such as signage that become incredibly cool. Today signs that are interactive are much cooler than static signs (or menus and more). Signs that need to be on curved surfaces are static and boring. Maybe curved displays will be a niche at home and find themselves useful only for commercial signs. I’m going to bet on the creativity of content and product people to develop new use cases and before we know it curved screens will be ubiquitous as “flat screens”.

Finally, this year saw a great many more wide-aspect ratio screens at 21:9. For the most part, the mass market of screens are made in a small set of aspect ratios depending on mass adoption. Like film was historically, there are both benefits to this along with those that want to experiment with alternate aspect ratios. The iOS tablet world is 4:3 and the Windows/Android/HD world is 16:9. The ultra-wide 21:9 seems rather appealing for a number of use cases, including side by side and multiple inputs. If you combine the ultra-wide screen, more pixels, and curved display you recreate a developer workstation or Bloomberg terminal but with a single screen which can mean less space, easier ergonomics, and perhaps less power. Again, it seems like the use cases are going to quickly follow the technical ability to make the screen.

The product manager view of screens is to consider what you app or content can do when being projected on or making content for these new capabilities. As we saw with Retina pixel density, these changes can happen quickly and getting left behind is not always a good spot to be.

Less futzing

The evolution of most CE devices is often to more features and customization, and over time this can be viewed negatively. Certainly at some point this complexity makes products unappealing for many. The industry has a great many enthusiasts who love to customize and tweak. Analogous to the auto shows, some people used to love to look under the hood and adjust the engine.

Back in the heyday of Auto Shows (they are still huge, but CES and tech have eclipsed those shows in media coverage in my biased view), the talk was about components of cars. This dialog was broad and understood. Average consumers knew about horsepower, disc brakes, electronic fuel injection. Today cars are about design, convenience, and use-centric concepts like capacity and MPG. CES, this year in particular, has transitioned to talking and showing more about use cases and less about how products are built.

In almost all devices you have to look hard to find gigahertz or megabytes. You see tasks or uses much more up front. This isn’t always the case and often the first questions are about specs. Still, I would say a lot of “progress”.

Some examples of this jumped out at me, particularly in the gaming world. The gaming world has traditionally been split between consoles representing the true CE experience and the gaming PC which defined the ultimate enthusiast experience when it came to moding your gaming PC. For gamers or those that want to just play games this is a banner time with an explosion in gaming options. Many believe the usage in phones and tablets will dominate with casual games available in app stores. The new consoles from Sony and Microsoft promise to bring gaming to new technical levels with their advanced PC componentry in a true CE package. Finally, at CES we saw the SteamOS powered devices (PCs) and an example of a more state of the art or “modern” PC.

Steam Machine. SteamOS promises to bring the simplicity of consoles with the power of PC gaming. Some critics are saying it brings neither and is in-between. But the popularity of the Steam platform is significant with millions of intensely active members. The product manager question is whether Steam disrupts PC (or console) gaming or simply extends the life of a gaming platform that while popular is being squeezed between consoles and mobile devices. Is the SteamOS powered device re-imagination of PC gaming or an appealing convergence of the PC with consoles (see http://blog.learningbyshipping.com/2014/01/07/the-four-stages-of-disruption/)?

A Steam Machine is an Intel-based device meeting a set of baseline specs, combined with the Steam Controller and SteamOS. The debate among gamers is about the specs and capabilities of the underlying hardware along with the lack of ability to mod the devices. The Steam Machines themselves represent a broad range of “sealed case” form factors, most of which existed as Windows game PCs in various forms.

Razer Project Christine. Razer introduced Christine, which is a highly stylized modular PC. While the idea behind a modular from factor has been tried several times before, the combination of hardware interop, industrial design, and openness to accessorization (my own word) are at a unique point in time. Razer has a very active customer based that thrives the combination of gaming and accessories for gaming. It might just be that this hassle-free notion of moding a gaming PC will appeal to a broad set of PC gaming customers. In many ways this is an attempt to disrupt the PC gamer, while maintaining a commitment to customization. Project Christine beat out Steam Powered for CES Best of Show in the category.

Reduced futzing is really enabled across a broad range of CE devices because of mobile apps, WiFi/Bluetooth connectivity, and cloud services.  What used to be elaborate setup and configuration is now enabled via simple apps that connect to devices over wireless protocols.  The rich UX afforded by devices replaces single line LED displays or embedded web server experiences.  The ability to save/restore data and settings in the cloud replaces sharing via dedicated (and awkward) subset experiences for social networks. From WiFi access points to scales to cameras, we will spend (and tolerate) less time futzing and more time using CE devices.

From a product manager perspective what excites me about these two innovations and the broader theme is the move “up the stack”. Our computing industry has broadly moved to modern platforms for both hardware and software and seeing gaming move in this direction is critical to the health of this style of rich interactive gaming. It is also a natural maturing of a technology area and to resist the change essentially guarantees disruption. The market for people willing to devote time to futzing is shrinking, no matter how much we (having built more PCs than I can count) enjoyed it. There are simply too many options for how to spend more time gaming and less time futzing. Just like people want to use cars to get around, not stare under the hood and fix them before going somewhere, the move up the stack is relentless for most every consumer.

Trending up and down

To wrap up a quick look at the year over year view of CES and what is on the move taking up more floor space and mind share and what is taking less beyond the items mentioned above.

Trending Up

Android. There was a lot more Android this year than last year. Android of course is particularly popular among wearables and TVs where there is no third party option to use iOS. The inexpensive Android tablets we all heard about from the holidays were on display where you could see the dozens of OEMs packaging every conceivable screen size and spec into tablets. One note is that there was a complete absence of 4:3 Android devices, which I find interesting given the competitive nature of things. What this feels like is a reaction to avoid being like Apple, when in practice it might be that for some device sizes the squarer aspect ratio might be more convenient.

Chromebooks. Building off what we might have read as momentum in the US over the holidays was a broader presence of Chromebooks. This year saw an all-in-one along with several lighter and thinner (and still inexpensive) clamshell formats.

Phablets. It was interesting to see the number of show attendees using their really big phones (or small tablets). I would do a quick badge check and noted that more often than not the phablet user was not an employee of Samsung or LG, but just a user. I think this is a trend worth watching. If you have only one device the tradeoff towards a bigger screen becomes interesting.

WWAN connectivity. Looking back personally, I was totally wrong on WWAN connectivity. I did not see a market where the carriers would make it so easy and relatively inexpensive to add another device to a data plan. From the glucose meter to auto fleet tracking to wearables, SIM cards were everywhere. This in spite of the fact that the hardware costs are real and the data plan is real. Many products, particularly those using WWAN for sending telemetry to a cloud service, will include a SIM and fixed data plan as part of the device price or part of the service plan, which is super cool.

3D Printers. The 3D printers are all remarkable. It is hard to overstate how much this will disrupt so many fields. There’s a lot of talk about a drone delivering a product, but what about just downloading it and printing it at home. The use cases for 3D printers are not at the broad consumer level but soon will be.

Touch screens. All the major screen makers also showed screens that were touch capable. The most common touch detector was an IR field. All of these were hooked up to PCs. Every screen is a touchscreen or it feels broken.  Also pictured below is Panasonic’s 4K portable running Windows.

4K TCL touch

PC Panasonic 4K

Trending Down

PCs. While Microsoft, HP, Dell, and others having stopped exhibiting on the main show floor can easily be responsible for the lack of PCs, the reality is that PCs are part of the fabric of the technology world, but not the front and center consumer electronics device. The reality of the floor is that PCs were not part of the use cases or scenarios and the modern mobile platforms have taken over. This image below sort of summed it up. Here we had RCA showing their new PCs (fairly thick and heavy laptops) in a booth with toasters and dorm refrigerators. Yet we all know, today, the products at the show were built using PCs, the businesses are run with PCs, and even the show itself would not be possible without PCs. The focus is just changing.

Discs. There are no optical discs to be found, for storage or content. Content comes from the cloud. Content is stored in the cloud. This was the last show with discs, and they were practically not there. One might say the same for spinning media and even the satellite tuners were offering solid state storage options to reduce noise, size, and thermals.

Projectors. Another reminder of Moore’s Law as applied to glass is that absence of projectors. While there are quite a few very tiny portable projectors, by and large projectors have been replaced by simpler and brighter on wall displays (soon to be curved and 4K).

Wires. There’s almost no wire at CES anymore. Even the Monster cable booth was mostly about cleaning screens and wireless headsets more than wire. As a person who has no wired communications at home, I can relate.

Home Theater. After a decade or more of “home theater”, the drive to simplicity, the role of streaming content, unified HDMI, and the preference for mobile, has all but eliminated the idea of a complex, multi-component, theater. Today’s theater experience is so much different than emulating a movie theater in a dedicated room at home using a projector and stack of 1000 watt components. People want to watch TV but also interact at the same time and that leads to a very different environment. With the ability to watch anything instantly on a tablet, a home theater has some strong competition for attention and use cases. The lack of a need for a home media library of discs or drives also alters the need for a dedicated room. Live events and film fans still will have their dedicated experiences, but the equipment is drastically simpler.

Remote controls. The world of complex infrared controls at home is being disrupted by mobile devices. Even infrared, while simple and low cost, feels like it will be disrupted by Bluetooth or even Wi-Fi.

For those in technology, CES is really the greatest show on earth. We’re all privileged to be part of the technology industry in such a pivotal time. Next year is going to be even better. I’m counting on it.

—Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)

Bonus Photos

Tiny laptop level power supply that works by the magic of physics from Finsix in Menlo Park, CA:

FinSix power

A few hundred thousand dollars worth of add-ons to convert a Canon C500 into a studio broadcast camera:

Canon broadcast camera

Sony’s full family of Xperia Android devices is also water-safe. These are all worth a second look I believe.

Mobile Sony differentiation

Example use case for 4K screens with 4 up 1080P security cameras (also on the floor, 4K recording cameras):

Case for iPhone that embeds the ability to take infrared images. Another example of “possible, but still developing the core use case”. This was developed by FLIR, an existing maker of IR cameras:

Bluetooth headphones plus earmuffs in one.

Fun Fuzzy headphones

Example use case for curved signage. Wouldn’t this be a more interesting booth with a moving sign:

Written by Steven Sinofsky

January 13, 2014 at 6:00 am

Posted in posts

Tagged with , , ,

Designing for exponential trends of 2014

GrowthRather than predict anything that will suddenly appear at the end of 2014, this post offers some trends that are likely to double by some measure this next year.

This will turn out to be an exponential year in many technologies and what seems far-fetched could very easily be trends that are doubling in relatively short periods of time. We humans generally have a tough time modeling things doubling (why so many companies and products did not figure out how to embrace Moore’s law or the rise of mobile).

To fully embrace exponential change means looking at the assumptions in product development and considering how optimizations for the near term might prove to be futile when facing significant change. Within each trend, design or product choices are offered that might be worth considering in light of the trend.

  • Low-cost/high-function devices. The seemingly endless march of the exponential Moore’s law will continue but include more than compute. Devices will put transistors to work for sensors, rich graphics, and discrete processors. These devices will continue to drop precipitously in price to what seem today like ridiculous levels such as we’ve seen at discount super stores this holiday shopping season in the US. If automobiles are any indication, we should not assume low price is equivalent to low quality for the long-term, as manufacturing becomes more capable of delivering quality at low price. The desire to aspire an even higher level of quality will remain for many and continue to support many price points and volumes. At the same time, the usage patterns across price points will vary dramatically and we will continue to see exponential growth in-depth usage as we have this holiday season with high-value devices. This makes for a fairly dramatic split and leaves a lot open to interpretation when it comes to market share in devices. Design: First, it is worth considering target customers with more granularity when looking at share, as the pure number of devices might not determine how much your service will get used, at least in the near term. Second, don’t expect differences in capability across price points to last very long as the pace of pulling capabilities from higher price points to lower will be relentless.
  • Cloud productivity. Cloud (SaaS) productivity tools will routinely see exponential growth in active users. Tools that enable continuous productivity will rapidly expand beyond tech early adopters as viral effects of collaboration kick in. Products such as Asana, Quip, Paper, Mixpanel, Lucidchart, Haikudeck or others will see viral expansion kick-in. Established tools such as Evernote, Box, Dropbox, WhatsApp, and more with high active usage will see major increases in cross-organization work as they grow to become essential tools for whole organizations. Design: Don’t assume traditional productivity tools and assume new employees, vendors, and recent grads will default to cloud-first productivity.
  • Cloud first becomes cloud-only. Enterprise software in 2013 was a dialog about on-premises or cloud. In 2014, the call for on-premises will rapidly shift to a footnote in the evolution of cloud. The capabilities of cloud-based services will have grown to such a degree, particularly in terms of collaboration and sharing, that they will dwarf anything that can be done within the confines of a single enterprise. Enterprises will look at the exponential growth in scale of multi-tenant systems and see these as assets that cannot be duplicated by even the largest enterprises. Design: Don’t distract with attempting to architect or committing to on-premises.
  • WWAN communication tools. WWAN/4G messaging will come to dominate in usage by direct or integrated tools (WhatsApp, WeChat, iMessage, and more) relative to email and SMS. Email will increasingly be viewed as “fax” and SMS will be used for “official” communications and “form letters” as person to person begins to use much richer and more expressive (fun) tools. This shift contributes to the ability to switch to data-only larger screen devices. Design: Skip email notifications, rely on SMS only when critical (security and verification), and assume heterogeneity for messaging choices. Expect to see more tools building in messaging capabilities with context scoped to the app.
  • Cross-platform challenge. This is the year that cross-platform development for the major modern platforms will become increasingly challenging and products will need to be developed with this in mind. It will become increasingly unwieldy to develop for both iOS and Android and natively integrate effectively and competitively with the platform. Visual changes and integration functionality will be such that “cross-platform layers” might appear to be a good choice today only to prove to be short-lived and obstacles to rapid and competitive development. New apps that are cross-platform “today” will see increasing gaps between releases on each platform and will see functionality not quite “right” for platforms. Ultimately, developers will need to pick their lead platforms or have substantial code bases across platforms and face the challenge of keeping functionality in sync. Design: Avoid attempting to abstract platforms as these are moving targets, and assume dual-platform is nearly 2X the work of a single platform for any amount of user experience and platform integration.
  • Small screen/big screen divergence. With increasing use of cloud productivity, more products will arrive that are designed exclusively for larger screen devices. Platform creators will increasingly face challenges of maintaining the identical user experience for “phones” and for phablets and larger. Larger screen tablets will be more able to work with keyboard accessories that will further drive a desire for apps tuned along these lines along with changes to underlying platforms to more fully leverage more screen real estate. The converse will be that scenarios around larger screen tablets will shift away from apps designed for small screen phones–thus resetting the way apps are counted and valued. Design: Productivity scenarios should be considering committing to large screen design and leave room for potential of keyboard or other input peripherals.
  • Urban living is digital living. With demographic shifts in urban living and new influx of urban residents, we will see a rapid rise in digital-only lives. Mobile platforms will be part of nearly every purchase or transaction. Anything requiring reservations, tickets, physical resources, delivery, or scheduling will only win the hearts and minds of the new urban if available via mobile. While today it seems inconvenient if one needs to resort to “analog” to use a service, 2014 is a year in which every service has a choice and those that don’t exist in a mobile world won’t be picked. Design: Consumer products and services will only exist if they can be acquired via mobile.
  • Sharing becomes normal. With the resources available for sharing exceeding those available in traditional ways, 2014 will be the year in which sharing becomes normal and preferred for assets that are infrequently used and/or expensive. Government and corporate structures will be re-evaluated relative to sharing from autos to office space and more. Budget pressures, rapid increase in software capabilities, and environmental impact all contribute to this change. Design: Can your business share resources? What are you using that could be shared? Is the asset you sell or rent something that runs the risk of aggregation and sharing by a new entry?
  • Phablets are normal. Today’s phablets seem like a tweener or oddity to some–between a large phone and a small tablet. In practice the desire to have one device serve as both your legacy phone (voice and SMS) as well as your main “goto” device for productivity and communication will become increasingly important. The reduction in the need for legacy communication will fuel the need to pivot closer to a larger screen all the time. Improvements in voice input and collaboration tools will make this scenario even more practical. In the short-term, the ability to pair a larger screen tablet with your phone-sized device for voice or SMS may arise in an effort to always use one device, and similarly smaller tablets will be able to assume phone functionality. Design: Don’t ignore the potential of this screen size combined with full connectivity as the single device, particularly in mobile first markets where this form has early traction.
  • Storage quotas go away. While for most any uses today this is true in practice, 2014 will be a year in which any individual will see alternatives for unlimited cloud storage. Email, files, photos, applications, mobile backup and more will be embedded in the price of devices or services with additional capabilities beyond gigabytes. Design: Design for disk space usage in the cloud as you do on a mobile client, which is to say worry much more about battery life and user experience than saving a megabyte.

Amara’s Law states “we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”. We will see 2014 not as one year of progress, but as the culmination of the past 15 years of development of the consumer internet as “it all comes together” with incredibly rapid adoption of products and technologies that at once become more affordable, more ubiquitous, and more necessary for our work and personal lives.

It looks like 2014 is shaping up to be the long-term of 2000 that we might have underestimated.

Stay tuned and Happy New Year!

–Steven

Written by Steven Sinofsky

December 17, 2013 at 7:00 am

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10 Observations from Tokyo’s CE scene

YodobashiI love visiting Tokyo and have been lucky enough to visit dozens of times over many years.  The consumer electronics industry has certainly had ups and downs recently, but a constant has been the leading edge consumer and business adoption of new technologies.  From PCs in the workplace to broadband at home and smartphones (a subject of many humorous team meetings back pre-bubble when I clearly didn’t get it and was content with the magic of my BB 850!) Japan has always had a leading adoption curve even when not necessarily producing the products used globally.

This visit was about visiting the University of Tokyo and meeting with some entrepreneurs.  That, however, doesn’t stop me from spending time observing what CE is being used in the workplace, on the subway, and most importantly for sale in the big stores such as Yodobashi, Bic, and Labi and of course the traditional stalls at Akihabara.  The rapid adoption, market size, and proximity to Korea and China often mean many of the products seen are not yet widely available in the US/Europe or are just making their way over.  There’s a good chance what is emphasized in the (really) big retail space is often a leading indicator for what will show up at CES in January.

If you’re not familiar with Yodobashi, here’s the flagship store in Akihabara – over 250,000 sq ft and visited by 10’s of millions of people every year.  I was once fortunate enough to visit the underground operations center, and as a kid who grew up in Orlando it sure feels a lot like the secret underground tunnels of the Magic Kingdom

With that in mind here are 10 observations (all on a single page).  This is not statistical in any way, just what caught my eye.

  • Ishikawa Oku lab.  The main focus of the trip was to visit University of Tokyo.  Included in that was a wonderful visit with Professor Ishikawa-san and his lab which conducts research on exploring parallel, high-speed, and real-time operations for sensory information processing. What is so amazing about this work is that it has been going on for 20 years starting with very small and very slow digital sensors and now with Moore’s law applied to image capture along with parallel processing amazing things are possible such as can be seen in some of these Youtube videos (with > 5 million views), see  http://www.youtube.com/ishikawalab.  More about the lab http://www.k2.t.u-tokyo.ac.jp/index-e.html.

Prof Ishikawa

  • 4K Displays.  Upon stepping off the escalator on the video floor, one is confronted with massive numbers of massive 4K displays. Every manufacturer has displays and touts 4K resolution along with their requisite tricks at upscaling.  The prices are still relatively high but the selection is much broader than readily seen in the US.  Last year 4K was new at CES and it seems reasonable to suspect that the show floor will be all 4K.  As a footnote relative to last year, 3D was downplayed significantly.  In addition, there are numerous 4K cameras on sale now, more so than the US.

4K

  • Digital still.  The Fuji X and Leica rangefinder digital cameras are getting a lot of floorspace and it was not uncommon to see tourists snapping photos (for example in Meiji Garden).  The point and shoot displays feature far fewer models with an emphasis on attributes that differentiate them from phones such as waterproof or ruggedized.  There’s an element of nostalgia, in Japan in particular, driving a renewed popularity in this form factor.
  • Nikon Df.  This is a “new” DSLR with the same sensor as the D-800/D4 that is packaged in a retro form factor.  The Nikon Df is definitely only for collectors but there was a lot of excitement for the availability on November 21.  It further emphasized the nostalgia elements of photography as the form factor has so dramatically shifted to mobile phones.
  • Apple presence in store.  The Apple presence in the main stores was almost overwhelming.  Much of the first floor and the strategic main entry of Yodobashi were occupied by the Apple store-within-a-store.  There were large crowds and as you often see with fans of products, they are shopping the very products they own and are holding in their hands.  There has always been a fairly consistent appreciation of the Apple design aesthetic and overall quality of hardware but the widespread usage did not seem to follow.  To be balanced, one would have to take note of the substantial presence of the Nexus 5 in the stores, which was substantially and well-visited.
  • PCs. The size of the PC display area, relative to mobile and iOS accessories, definitely increased over the past 7 months since I last visited. There were quite a large number of All-In-One designs (which have always been popular in Japan, yet somehow could never quite leap across the Pacific until Windows 8).  There were a lot of very new Ultrabooks running Haswell chips from all the major vendors in the US, Japan, and China.  Surface was prominently displayed.
  • iPhone popularity.  There was a ubiquity of the iPhone that is new.  Android had gained a very strong foothold over the national brands that came with the transition to nationwide LTE.  Last year there was a large Android footprint through Samsung handsets that was fairly visible on display and in use.  While the Android footprint is clearly there, the very fast rise of iPhone, particularly the easily spotted iPhone 5s was impressive.  The vast expanse of iPhone accessories for sale nearly everywhere supports the opportunity.  A driver for this is that the leading carrier (DoCoMo) is now an iPhone supplier.  Returning from town, I saw this article speaking to the rise of iOS in Japan recently, iPhone 5S/C made up 76% of new smartphone sales in Japan this October.
  • Samsung Galaxy J.  Aside from the Nexus 5, the Android phone being pushed quite a bit was the Samsung Galaxy J.  This is a model only in Asia right now.  It was quite nice.  It sports an ID more iPhone-like (squared edges), available in 5c-like colors, along with the latest QC processor, 5″ HD display, and so on.  It is still not running Kitkat of course.  For me in the store, it felt better than a Galaxy S.  Given the intricacies of the US market, I don’t know if we’ll see this one any time soon. The Galaxy Note can be seen “in the wild” quite often and there seems to be quite a lot of interest based on what devices on display people would stop and interact with.

Galaxy J

  • Tablets.  Tablets were omnipresent.  They were signage in stores, menus in restaurants, in use on the subway, and in use at every place where people were sitting down and eating/drinking/talking.  While in the US we are used to asking “where are all the Android tablets”, I saw a lot of 7″ Android tablets in use in all of those places.  One wouldn’t expect the low-priced import models to be visible but there are many Japan OEMs selling Android tablets that could be spotted.  I also saw quite a few iPad Minis in use, particularly among students on the trains.
  • Digital video.  As with compact digital cameras, there was a rather extreme reduction in the number of dedicated video recorders.  That said, GoPro cameras had a lot of retail space and accessories were well placed.  For example, there were GoPros connected to all sorts of gear/showing off all sorts of accessories at Tokyu Hand (the world’s most amazing store, imho).  Professional HD and UHD cameras are on display in stores which is cool to see, for example Red and Arri.  One of the neatest uses of video which is available stateside but I had not seen is the Sony DEV-50 binoculars/camera.  It is pricey (USD$2000) but also pretty cool if you’ve got the need for it.  They have reasonable sensors, support 3D, and more.  The only challenge is stability which make sense given the equivalent focal length, but there is image stabilization which helps quite a bit in most circumstances.

There were many other exciting and interesting products one could see in this most wired and gadget friendly city.  One always is on the lookout for that unique gift this holiday season, so I found my stocking-stuffer.  Below you can see a very effective EMF shielding baseball hat (note, only 90% effective).  As a backup stocking-stuffer, all gloves purchased in Japan appear to be designed with resistive touch screens in mind :-)

Hat (front)

Hat (back)  Gloves

–Steven Sinofsky

PS: Here’s me with some super fun students in a class on Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Tokyo.

Classroom @ University of Tokyo

Written by Steven Sinofsky

November 29, 2013 at 4:00 pm

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Coding through silos (5 tips on sharing code)

We are trying to change a culture of compartmentalized, start-from-scratch style development here. I’m curious if there are any good examples of Enterprise “Open Source” that we can learn from.

—Question from reader with a strong history in engineering management

MK6_TITAN_IIWhen starting a new product line or dealing with multiple existing products, there’s always a question about how to share code. Even the most ardent open source developers know the challenges of sharing code—it is easy to pick up a library of “done” code, not so hard to share something that you can snapshot, but remarkably difficult to share code that is also moving at a high velocity like your work.

Developers love to talk about sharing code probably much more than they love to share code in practice.  Yet, sharing code happens all the time—everyone uses an OS, web server, programming languages, and more that are all shared code.  Where it gets tricky is when the shared code is an integral part of the product you’re developing.  That’s when shared code goes from “fastest way to get moving” to “a potential (difficult) constraint” or to “likely a critical path”.  Ironically, this is usually more true inside of a single company where one team needs to “depend” on another team for shared code than it is on developers sharing code from outside the company.

Organizationally, sharing code takes on varying degrees of difficulty depending on the “org distance” between developers.  For example, two developers working for the same manager don’t even think about “sharing code” as much as they think about “working together”.  At the other end of the spectrum, developers on different products with different code bases (perhaps started at different times with early thoughts that the products were unrelated or maybe one code base was acquired) think naturally about shipping their code base and working on their product first and foremost.

This latter case is often viewed as an organizational silo—a team of engineering, testing, product, operations, design, and perhaps even separate marketing or P&L responsibility.  This might be the preferred org design (focus on business agility) or it might be because of intrinsic org structures (like geography, history, leadership approach).  The larger these types of organizations the more the “needs of the org” tend to trump the “needs of the code”.

Let’s assume everyone is well-meaning and would share code, but it just isn’t happening organically.  What are 5 things the team overall can do?

  1. Ship together. The most straight-forward attribute two teams can modify in order to effectively share code is to have a release/ship schedule that is aligned.  Sharing code is the most difficult when one team is locked down and the other team is just getting started.  Things get progressively easier the closer to aligned each team becomes.  Even on very short cycles of 30-60 days, the difference in mindset about what code can change and how can quickly grow to be a share-stopper. Even when creating a new product alongside an existing product, picking a scheduling milestone that is aligned can be remarkably helpful in encouraging sharing rather than a “new product silo” which only digs a future hole that will need to be filled.

  2. Organize together to engineer together.  If you’re looking at trying to share code across engineering organizations that have an org distance that involves general management, revenue or P&L, or different products, then there’s an opportunity to use organization approaches to share code.  When one engineering manager can look at a shared code challenge across all of his/her responsibilities there more of a chance that an engineering leader will see this as an opportunity rather than a tax/burden.  The dialog about efficacy or reality of sharing code does not span managers or importantly disciplines, and the resulting accountability rests within straight-forward engineering functions.  This approach has limits (the graph theory of org size as well as the challenges of organizing substantially different products together).

  3. Allocate resources for sharing.  A large organization that has enough resources to duplicate code turns out to be the biggest barrier to sharing code.  If there’s a desire to share code, especially if this means re-architecting something that works (to replace it with some shared code, presumably with a mutual benefit) then the larger team has a built-in mechanism to avoid the shared code tax.  As painful as it sounds, the most straight-forward approach to addressing this challenge is to allocate resources such that a team doesn’t really have the option to just duplicate code.  This approach often works best when combined with organizing together, since one engineering manager can simply load balance the projects more effectively.  But even across silos, careful attention (and transparency) to how engineering resources are spent will often make this approach attainable.

  4. Establish provider/consumer relationships.  Often shared code can look like a “shared code library” that needs to be developed.  It is quite common and can be quite effective to form a separate team, a provider, that exists entirely to provide code to other parts of the company, a consumer. The consumer team will tend to look at the provider team as an extension to their team and all can work well.  On the other hand, there are almost always multiple consumers (otherwise the code isn’t really shared) and then the challenges of which team to serve and when (and where requirements might come from) all surface.  Groups dedicated to being the producers of shared code can work, but they can quickly take on the characteristics of yet another silo in the company. Resource allocation and schedules are often quite challenging with a priori shared code groups.

  5. Avoid the technical buzz-saw. Developers given a goal to share code and a desire to avoid doing so will often resort to a drawn-out analysis phase of the code and/or team.  This will be thoughtful and high-integrity.  But one person’s approach to being thorough can also look to another as a delay or avoidance tactic.  No matter how genuine the analysis might be, the reality is that it can come across as a technical buzz-saw making all but the most idealized code sharing impossible. My own experience has been that simply avoiding this process is best—a bake-off or ongoing suitability-to-task discussion will only drive a wedge between teams. At some level sharing code is a leap of faith that a lot of folks need to take and when it works everyone is happy and if it doesn’t there’s a good chance someone is likely to say “told you so”. Most every bet one makes in engineering has skeptics.  Spending some effort to hear out the skeptics is critical.  A winners/losers process is almost always a negative for all involved.

The common thread about all of these is that they all seem impossible at first.  As with any initiative, there’s a non-zero cost to obtaining goals that require behavior change.  If sharing code is important and not happening, there’s a good chance you’re working against some of the existing constraints in the approach. Smart and empowered teams act with the best intentions to balance a seemingly endless set of inbound issues and constraints, and shared code might just be one of those things that doesn’t make the cut.

Keeping in mind that at any given time an engineering organization is probably overloaded and at capacity just getting stuff done, there’s not a lot of room to just overlay new goals.

Sharing code is like sharing any other aspect of a larger team—from best practices in tools, engineering approaches, team management—things don’t happen organically unless there’s a uniform benefit across teams.  The role of management is to put in place the right constraints that benefit the overall goals without compromising other goals.  This effort requires ongoing monitoring and feedback to make sure the right balance is achieved.

For those interested in some history, this is a Harvard Business School case on the very early Office (paid article) team and the challenges/questions around organizing around a set of related products (hint, this only seems relatively straight-forward in hindsight).

—Steven

Written by Steven Sinofsky

October 20, 2013 at 4:00 pm

Sharing some learning – a few observations from “D11”

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d11-20130528-144203-01167-MThis past week the 11th All Things D Conference, D11, was held.  It is such a great opportunity to attend and to learn from a great combination of interviews, speakers, demonstrations, questions, and attendees.  Attending this conference has been a very valuable learning experience for me over the years and I’ve always made it a point to reflect and share some observations or learnings that stuck with me.  This year is no different.

As with all events these days, so much of what happens at the event is tweeted, live blogged, re-blogged, etc.  That makes it challenging to offer more by way of learning. If you’re interested in the details of the sessions, by all means watch the videos or see the official coverage on the All Things D, D11 Conference site.  All the interviews are done by one or both of Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher.  There you’ll also find some behind the scenes “KatieCam” videos shot by WSJ writer Katherine Boehret in a more relaxed setting as speakers left the stage and other behind the scenes videos and articles by teh ATD writing team. Definitely check out the amazing photos from Asa Mathat (and team) that really capture the unique qualities of the conference.

“The Dialog”

For me what separates D from other events, if you had to pick one thing, is the dialog that takes place.  While the format is an interview, I see it as more of a dialog.  There are no slides, no setup, and after the interview the dialog continues with audience questions and then even more in the hallways during breaks (not to mention the electronic dialog).  I feel sometimes in an effort to report the event as news, the back and forth or the dialog itself can get a bit de-prioritized.

The dialog is important because the timing of the conference is the same every year.  That means not every speaker has something to announce or launch.  In fact some speakers have announcements already scheduled for the future and even with a lot of pushing they still aren’t going to preempt their organization’s efforts.  This means that speakers sign up to attend knowing there are definitely questions they will get that must go unanswered.  I think that speaks volumes to the appreciation for the dialog and participation that speakers share.

Still, that can be a tiny bit frustrating for folks reading about the accounts—you are hoping for news but don’t get any.  There is a slightly different tone “in the room” which I am hoping to convey through these notes.  The tone is very much about the nuance and subtlety of the topics being raised.  So even if there is not news, the conversation is interesting.  It is an important part of innovation and convergence of industries (the original and ongoing theme of the conference was how media, entertainment, and digital technologies are coming together).  There are gems in most every session if you watch the video—not necessarily news gems, but articulation of challenges and tradeoffs that everyone is facing as they do their work.  Making products is never a stark either/or set of choices and capturing these tradeoffs on stage, in the “hot seat” as it is called, is something I appreciate very much.

Big picture

There were 25 speakers along with demo sessions.  The breadth of topics discussed delivers on the promise of the conference.  Through the lens of product development there were a number of “themes” that surfaced for me:

  • Mobile “era” – No one doubts the era we are in as an industry and across industries.  The tech folks were “mobile first” from apps to advertising, not as a place to port to or also support.  The entertainment folks see mobile as a place to enjoy entertainment or as the screen that accompanies entertainment, not as a competitor to television.  Even attendees were mostly seen on their mobile devices most of the time.  While this might not seem newsworthy, observing the changing perspectives over the years of the conference provides a neat context for this change.
  • Disruption – Most tech conferences are about disruption in some form or another.  This conference came about during a time when disruption was really happening (and to be fair, the WSJ and ATD are/were both part of disruptive dialogs over the years—and the topic of conversation at the show).  The interviews always do a good job of confronting speakers who are viewed as participants in a potential disruption.
  • Sensors – The role of sensors as part of the baseline experience for computing is front and center.  There was a lot of discussion around form factors, wearables, and scenarios but all of this is rooted in devices that know about surroundings, which means products can be designed knowing the computers will have these capabilities.
  • Consumerization – Walt Mossberg has always taken the non-techie, consumer approach to looking at technology which, as he said during the show, was somewhat heretical when he first started his column.  These days the notion of consumers driving the experience and setting the bar does not seem so far-fetched.   You know that is the case when the CEO of Cisco says “bring your own device trumps security”.
  • Embrace of digital – In past years the “content” attendees appeared more on the defense than the offense.  While the business challenges remain in some parts of the content space, I think there is far more of a sense of embrace and partnering going on between the tech and content parties.  In general it felt to me like much more of a healthy dialog rooted in respect than in past years, which is a positive evolution.

Sessions

As mentioned, the sessions are all available on the D11 site along with live blogs done by WSJ/ATD reporters.  Check those out for sure.  I just wanted to offer some additional observations from a small set of sessions that hit close to home from a product development perspective.  Inclusion / omission or number of points below are not indications of quality or importance!

Apple / Tim Cook

  • Measuring what counts – There was a strong focus on measuring usage as a way of looking at success.  This contrasted with the recent debate about market share (units or revenue).  The depth usage of iOS devices is significantly more than competing devices.  It is super interesting to think about how to inform product development when balancing existing depth usage, new users, and growth – very interesting.
  • Relative to Android – The dialog turned to defining “winning” along the lines of usage, customer satisfaction, and even the amount of commerce done on iOS devices.
  • Magic – There was a good discussion about how working across the team needs to focus on the intersection of hardware/software/services as being where the “magic happens”.  Everyone in the product space knows that wherever seams exist there is an opportunity to innovate or for there to be challenges–seams can be found all over the place, especially as a product gets larger or an ecosystem around the product develops.
  • Tradeoffs – As an example of the nuance/subtlety that is hard to capture, Cook tried to walk through some of the tradeoffs that go into making different sized devices for different “segments” (Walt’s description).  He talked about color correctness, white balance, battery life, brightness, and more.  A favorite expression from Cook was “customers expect Apple to weigh all these factors and decide things” along with the humble notion that deciding means shipping and learning.  I personally love when the dialog turns to these types of issues at this “level” in an organization and also externally—real engineering stuff that is worth talking about in an open way.
  • Openness and control – In talking about the difference between iOS and Android (using keyboards as an example), Cook was asked about opening up more.  He talked about the challenges and tradeoffs involved in “putting the customer at risk” with some times of APIs and openness but committed to more openness at the upcoming WWDC.  Again there was a very interesting and subtle discussion about the tradeoffs involved.

Facebook / Sheryl Sandberg

  • Mobile is good for Facebook – There were a lot of numbers and support for how much engagement there is from both users and advertisers on mobile.
  • Increasing engagement – Sandberg shared some numbers that were counter-intuitive for many (as evidenced by the reaction in the section I was sitting) when she talked about the increase in engagement.  Five years ago 50% of people visited every day.  Now 58% visit every day and the number of users is much higher.
  • Priorities – I loved when she talked about how they have 5000 people to build and operate a service for a billion people.  That puts the product development challenge in perspective.
  • Mobile first – There is a strong “pivot” in the development team around mobile first.  Whereas the browser used to be the primary target and the mobile teams would be playing catch-up, now nothing gets done without it being mobile first.
  • Facebook Home – The challenges of doing an offering that is polarizing for sure.  She cited that customer reviews are either 1 star or 5 stars.  Home is a V1 and expect to deliver on the commitment to frequent changes/updates.

Disney Parks and Resorts / Tom Staggs

  • My Magic Plus – This session was about a new way to enjoy a WDW (Walt Disney World) theme park visit—essentially you wear a “magic band” around your wrist (like a Jawbone Up or Fitbit).  As someone who grew up in Orlando watching WDW go from the Magic Kingdom surrounded by orange groves to what it is today, I think the revolution that is going on with this innovation is amazing and far-reaching.
  • Features – Wearing the band provides an experience with reduced anxiety, less waiting, more fun, and far more personal.  And it is just starting.  An amazing example I loved was how you could order the food you want and when you get to the restaurant you sit down and what you ordered just shows up.  Neat.  But what is really neat is that the employees can focus on being “hosts” and not the transactional elements of ordering and getting things right.  Super cool.  It certainly makes that summer job at Disney a lot more fun!
  • Senses and sensors – Of course this is all about location aware, cloud experienced.  But the way Staggs described it was “360-5” as a 360 degree experience for all 5 senses—you’re immersed in the experience beyond the rides.  In general, this was a demonstration that unfolded super well—as I thought of questions they got answered moments later.  So much opportunity on this platform.

Twitter / Dick Costolo

  • “Social soundtrack” – Twitter was described as the second screen for television.  It is viewed as a complement to broadcast.  This was a statement that gets broadened to mean that Twitter is not itself thinking about making content or distributing it.
  • Global town square – The way they think of Twitter is to think about both planned/unplanned events and to provide an unfiltered/inside out platform for the people “the event is happening to”.  This town square is public, real-time, conversational, and distributed.  From a product point of view, the clarity of this framework is incredibly valuable.
  • Advertising – Costolo discussed how advertisers are coming to understand that being part of the conversation is important and how the idea of having a conversation as the canvas versus the ad itself as the canvas is important.
  • Design – Another subtle part of the dialog was around where the openness of the Twitter platform will be.  The idea is that Twitter does want to own the timeline experience for customers but still be open to thousands (100s of thousands) of developers with fairly lightweight rules.  Simplicity is a major focus on the design of the timeline experience.

Glow / Max Levchin

  • Demonstration – this was a demonstration of a new product that brings data and mobility to the challenges of procreation and fertility.
  • App – The app is focused on being a beautiful source of telemetry and information for both the man and woman planning together to conceive a child.
  • Data – Turns out that there is tons of data which is hard for people to get hold of and include in their planning and efforts.  Glow is a way to bring this data to the solution space for people.
  • Funding – The data shows that with the right use of data “infertility” can drop way down and thus the overall cost to the healthcare system is much lower.  To support this the way the product will work is essentially to create a pool for people who are still unable to conceive after using the tool, which is a much smaller number than would be using less data-informed tools.
  • Innovation – This is truly innovative when it comes to the problem space–hearing Levchin describe a typical way physicians handle this sounds almost like “country medicine” compared to using the data, telemetry, and an app.  Combining data, mobility, and more into this app shows how empowering all the technology can be.  We’re all able to start experience this notion of being in so much more control of our lives with these technology tools.

Box / Aaron Levie and Cisco / John Chambers

  • What fun – This was such a fun pairing as the contrast between the people and companies was so interesting.  Yet at the same time, both organizations are developing products for a new world where individuals are far more empowered.  While no one is going to go out and buy their own router, the IT pros that do want to have the capability for you to use the router when you bring in your own device.  A fun part of D in general is when you can see widely different perspectives in a dialog about a problem space each is approaching.
  • IT control – Chambers asserted that the ability for IT to “say no” really changed 4 or 5 years ago and now enterprises need to catch up to consumer technologies and support them.  Chambers even said “BYOD trumps security”.
  • Disruption – Levie offered a wonderful example of how companies are handling disruption.  He said that the three biggest Box customers are companies formed in the 1800’s.  This speaks to how much change is going on among IT pros.

Disney Media / Anne Sweeney  and Producer / I. Marlene King

  • Twitter integration – It was fascinating to hear the content developer view of creating content knowing that Twitter is part of the viewing equation.  There’s a clear perspective that Twitter is contributing to the experience and enjoyment of the show.
  • OMG moments – I loved hearing about the way they essentially create the show to support “OMG” or “jump off the couch” moments, and how that plays into Twitter.
  • Time zones – Turns out that the audience is pretty self-governing when it comes to spoilers and time zones, which was interesting to think about.

Pinterest / Ben Silbermann

  • First appearance – Ben doesn’t often appear or do presentations. It is great to see him.
  • Framing – Another great example of framing the goals of the product: Pinterest aims to help people “discover things they really love and inspire them to experience them in real life.”
  • Early users – From a product development perspective, he spoke about how early users ended up setting the tone of the product when it comes to passion.
  • Last web app? – Kara asked if Silbermann thought that Pinterest might be the “last web first app” or not.  The answer focused on starting off where people were but now today of course the goal is to be able to use the service wherever you are and of course a ton of that is mobile which overtook the PC along the lines of industry trends.

Tesla, SpaceX, Hyper Tube / Elon Musk

  • Along with everyone at D11 and online, this was an incredible treat.
  • “Mars is a fixer upper” – as far as planets go, Musk said Mars is our best bet for life on another planet since it can be fixed up relatively easily.
  • Every tech takes 3 or 4 generations to get it to mass market.  He walked through the original Tesla plan (high price/low volume, mid-price/mid volume, low price/high volume).  He framed this as competing with a hundred years and trillion dollar investment in gas combustion.  This is a great example of how disruption gets talked about in early stages – all the focus on whether electric cars can displace gas cars using the criteria gas cars developed over all this time.  From a product point of view, this perspective is super interesting.

– Steven Sinofsky

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Written by Steven Sinofsky

June 2, 2013 at 12:45 pm

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Learning by Sharing: Snark-free CES 2013 observations

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Wheels up, returning from CES. Seems like a good time to reflect and share some of my observations.

CES logo from on site signage

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.

Practices

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.

About CES

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

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.

Trends

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.

Downward trends

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?

Toshiba TV Samsung TV

Samsung UHD streaming Netflix content Sony 4K TV

Haier TV TCL TV

Toshiba LG TV

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.

Curved OLED TV Panasonic 4K OLED TV

UHD Panel with integrated multi-touch for gaming Sharp flexible OLED

Samsung OLED TV LG wide aspect ratio monitor

Multi-screen large format multi-touch image

Samsung transparent display / monitor

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).

Panasonic description of Miracast Sony showing Miracast from phone

HDMI signal test equipment

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.

Digital SLR outfitted with movie rig Canon 200-400 mm lens with integral 1.4x converter

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.

DISH network showing transcoding of recorded tv for portable device

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.

Large crowd at fitbit booth in health section Withings smart body analyzer scale

Pulse Oximeter in action Psio brain measurement device

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.

Samsung All-In-One running Windows 8 Samsung Ativ convertible

Samsung touch monitor (also used on PC) LG convertible

Razer gaming tablet Panasonic 4K tablet

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.

bluelounge recycled bags GreenSmart recycled bags

USB charging station

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.

greatcall emergency gps/alert device (photo from greatcall.com)

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 :-)

Collection of cases for tablets and phones

More observations

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.

Panasonic 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.

image

 

Phew. Another CES. Every year the new products energize me and show just how much creativity is going on in our industry.

–Steven

PS: Please see the Disclosure page that has been added. The link is on the right rail.

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Written by Steven Sinofsky

January 13, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Posted in posts

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