CES: Ingredients Not Just Products
CES is an incredibly exciting and energizing show to attend. Sometimes, if you track some of the real-time coverage you might get a sense of disappointment at the lack of breakthrough products or the seemingly endless repetition from many companies making the same thing. There’s a good reason for all this repetition and it is how CES represents our healthy industry working well.
CES is best viewed not as a display of new products to run out and buy but as a display of ingredients for future products. It is great to go to CES and see the latest TVs, displays, or in-car systems. By and large there is little news in these in-market products and categories. It is also great to see the forward-looking vision presentations from the big companies. Similarly, these are good directionally but often don’t represent what you can act on reliably.
Taking an ingredients view, one (along with 140,000 others) can look across the over 2 million feet of 3,600 exhibitors for where things are heading (CES is one of the top trade shows globally, with CeBIT, Photokina, and Computex all vying for top ranking depending on how you count).
If you take a product view, CES can get repetitive or boring rather quickly. I probably saw a dozen selfie-sticks. After a while, every curved 4K TV looks the same. And certainly, there’s a limit to how many IP cameras the market can support. After a few decades you learn to quickly spot the me-too and not dwell on the repetition.
It is worth a brief description of why CES is filled with so many me-too (and often poorly executed) products.
Consider the trio of partners it takes to bring a product to market:
- Component suppliers. These are the companies that make a specific sensor, memory, screen, chipset, CCD, radio, etc.
- Manufacturers. These are the companies that pull together all the components and packaging needed to make a product. These are OEMs or ODMs in the consumer electronics industry.
- Brands and Channels. These are the consumer-visible manifestation of products and can be the chain of retailers or a retail brand.
At any one time, a new component, an innovation or invention, is close to ready to be in the market. An example might be a new heart rate sensor. In order to get the cost of the component low enough for consumer products, the component supplier searches out for a manufacturer to make a device.
While every supplier dreams of landing a major company making millions of units as a first customer that never happens. Instead, there’s a whole industry of companies that will take a component and build what you might think of as a product with a 1:1 mapping of that new component. So a low-cost CCD gets turned into a webcam with simple Wi-Fi integration (and often some commodity level software). The companies that make these are constantly looking to make new products and will gladly make a limited production run and sell at a relatively low margin for a short time. These initial orders help the component makers scale up manufacturing and improve the component through iteration.
At the same time there are retailers and brand names that are always looking to leverage their brand with additional products. These brand names often take the complete product from the manufacturer with some limited amount of branding and customization. This is why you can often see almost identical products with different names. Many know that a few vendors make most LED displays, yet the number of TV brands is quite high. There’s a small amount of customization that takes place in this step. These companies also work off relatively low margins and expect to invest in a limited way. For new categories, while the component companies get to scale out parts, the brands and channels get a sense of the next big thing with limited investments.
So while CES might have a ton of non-differentiated “products”, what you are really seeing is the supply chain at work. In fact it is working extremely well as this whole process is getting more and more optimized. The component manufacturers are now making proof of concepts that almost encroach onto the manufacturers and some brands are going straight to component makers. For the tech enthusiast these might be undifferentiated or even poor products, but for many they serve the purpose at least in the short-term.
Today, some things we take for granted that at one time seemed to swarm the CES show floor with dozens of low quality builds and me-too products include: cameras, flash memory, media playback devices, webcams, Wi-Fi routers, hard drive cages, even tablets and PCs. I recall one CES where I literally thought the entire industry had shifted to making USB memory sticks as there must have been 100 booths showing the latest in 128MB sticks. Walking away, the only thing I could conclude was just how cheap and available these were going to be soon. Without the massive wave of consumer me-too digital cameras that once ruled the show floor, we would not have today’s GoPro and Dropcam.
An astute observer can pick out the me-too products and get a sense for what ingredients will be available and where they are on the price / maturity curve. One can also gauge the suppliers who are doing the most innovative integrations and manufacturing.
Sometimes the whole industry gets it wrong. The most recent example of this would be 3D TV, which just doesn’t seem to be catching on.
Other times the whole industry gets excited about something but others take that direction and pivot it to much more interesting and innovative products. An example of this would be the run of “media boxes” to attach to your TV which went from playing content stored on your home network and local hard drives to stateless, streaming players like Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire and Apple TV. Without those first media boxes, it isn’t clear we would have seen the next generation which took that technology and re-thought it in the context of the internet and cloud.
Finally, the reality is that most of the manufacturers tend to take a new component and build out a purpose-built device to surround that component. So they might take a camera sensor and add a camera body and just make a point-and-shoot. They might take new flash storage and turn it into portable storage. They might take a new display and just make complete monitor. Rarely will the first generation of devices attempt to do multiple things or take a multi-year approach to integrated product development—not on those margins and timelines.
Some technologies this year that reflect first generation products and are likely to be brought to scale or further integrated with other components include: curved displays, high resolution/high DPI displays, human and environmental sensors, and HDR imaging. Sensors will be the most interesting as they will clearly be drawn into the SoC and/or integrated with each other. Obviously, everyone can expect Wi-Fi and broadband connectivity to continue to get smaller and easier and of course CPUs will continue to shrink, draw less power, and get faster.
So when you read the stories about CES saying there are too many junky products or so many of the exact same thing, don’t think of that as a negative. Instead, think about how that might be the next low-price, high-scale ingredient that will be integrated into your product or another product.