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CES 2016—Observations for Product People

CES 2016—Observations for Product People


This is not me.

CES is the best place to go to see and learn about making products. In one place you can see the technology ingredients available to product makers along with how those ingredients are being put together and how they are interacted with and connected to customers.

I love going to CES and walking the show floor north to south, convention center to Sands and seeing and touching the products, including the way random show-goers perceive and question what is out there.

As much as I love attending, I also love taking a step back and thinking (and writing) about what I learned. Doing so provides great context for me in working with startups on their products, talking with enterprise customers about their needs, and partnering with bigger companies to enhance their go to markets.

As a reminder, CES is not a big electronics store nor is it a research lab. It is somewhere in between. While there are many ready-buy products on display, most are not yet ready to use. Many of the most interesting technologies are not yet in products. Most companies are working to put forth their best vision for where things are heading. It has always worked best for me to think about the show directionally and not as a post-holiday shopping excursion. Equally important is keeping in mind that I’m not the customer for everything one can see.

This is a long post. The breadth of CES is unprecedented. The show is not “consumer electronics” or even “home entertainment” but it every industry. Where else would you see booths from car companies, delivery services, film studios, computer makers, electronics component makers, cable tv companies, mobile phone carriers, micro processor and chip makers, home improvement superstores, and so on. From startups to mega-caps, from every country, from supply chain components to complete products everything is represented. The opportunity is unique.

CES has become a software show. Even the interesting hardware is dominated by firmware, cloud services, and connectivity. It is increasingly clear that if you’re interested in software you have to be interested in pretty much every booth. I’ve heard software is eating the world and that’s on display in Las Vegas.

The major observations impacting product makers and technology decision makers on display at CES 2016 include:

  • Invisible finally making a clear showing (almost)
  • Capable infrastructure is clearly functional (almost)
  • Residential working now, but expectations high and software not there
  • Wearable computing focusing on fitness
  • Flyable is taking off
  • Drivable is the battle between incremental and leapfrog
  • Screens keep getting better
  • Image capture is ubiquitous
  • Small computers better and cheaper for everyone
  • Big computers better but not game changing

Invisible finally making a clear showing (almost)

For many years much of the show floor was dedicated to the problems of where to store bytes, how to move those bytes around a network, how to type, or even how to convert bytes from one format or device to another. What’s most amazing is just how much of all of this is now simply invisible. The whole industry has moved up the stack.

If you go through all the winners of CES “best of show” (note, wow there are a lot of winners!) most all of them have a few things in common:

  • No local storage (for customers to deal with)—everything is cached from the cloud or streamed (i.e. no media servers, no hard drives, no formats to worry about, no backups to do). Yay!
  • No wires—everything is wireless. Even better, most everything is WWAN (mobile phones) Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. This is infrastructure that is now normal—meaning not a point of differentiation or confusion—the mobile ecosystem and supply chain all but guarantee this connectivity and capability. Almost nothing has an RJ-45 network jack and anything that might require one has some sort of wire-closet hub to separate the actual device from the wired connection. Most everything easily tunnels to your Smartphone via cloud services. Yay!
  • No buttons—everything has a touch screen and there are few buttons to deal with. When a complex user experience is needed, it is almost always done with a mobile app (more on that below). What was amazing was just how rare it was to even see a keyboard and certainly gone are rows of rectangular buttons. Yay!
  • Almost, no mains–a lot of focus is going to long life batteries, solar, and certainly wireless charging. Many of the winners such a Bluetooth location devices, cameras, and home automation/security operate on batteries lasting almost a year to two years. That’s long enough to probably never change the battery and just replace with the next generation! Put devices where you want and access them from anywhere. There’s a massive amount of cool engineering and clever approaches that go into being ultra low power. Yay!

This set of attributes represents the starting point for most any product. It is also a huge opportunity for consumers because it means the ability to adjust devices over time, even for residential equipment, is much easier than the past. Imagine when you move, you can just relocate your security camera, for example.

To be fair, there are some wires, but we are down to three: Apple lightning, USB C, and HDMI. USB was ubiquitous throughout the show and devices that should use USB C (like new PCs) and didn’t look like they missed out. Given wireless video casting, even HDMI cables will fade into the background for most people. I’m beginning to think more and more that Apple Lightning is looking more like Firewire in that it was superior at the time but the industry caught up faster than expected. It might even be the case that HDMI will move to the USB C connector form factor (not protocol). Going to/from these three cables is also easy, which is great.


USB C was everywhere.

One fun note is that quite often you see a product that seems clever and/or odd and then you see it again, and again. This year, I saw the identical USB charge station a dozen times. This is the China manufacturing and distribution system at work.

USB charge station seen all over the floor.

USB charge station for when you’re really serious about charging (C version on the way!)

Capable infrastructure is clearly functional (almost)

It is interesting to see the mobile supply chain’s relentless focus on continued integration drive very capable infrastructure into nearly every single device.

Going back, there would have been a CES where “wireless music” was a thing all by itself. Or maybe you recall a CES where just being able to have a camera was a big deal. Most probably remember when GPS was a “thing”.

CES 2016 shows that all of these scenarios have come together and basically in anything you want to make one can have all of these (and more) or pick and choose easily what capabilities to expose. From a base capability perspective this includes:

  • Attaching a camera and sharing captured images/video
  • Streaming audio
  • Controlling the power state and move it around
  • Locating the device
  • Alerting those nearby with sound, vibration or those far away with mobile alerts
  • Lighting the device with tiny LEDs of any color that never burn out and consumer little power
  • Uploading sensor data from the device
  • Sensing the environment

All of these are available to product makers and likely harder and more expensive to acquire discretely than they would be by essentially taking a mobile phone BOM and making a device. If you talk to the makers at the booths, most every device has more capabilities in hardware than is being exposed in the current release of software. Cameras are capable of 4K, SIM slots go unused, sensors collect but don’t share, and so on.

The big challenge is no surprise. Software development is unable to keep up with the hardware. What is going to separate one device from another or one company from another will be the software execution, not just the choice of chipset or specs for a peripheral/sensor. It would be hard to overstate the clear opportunity to build winning products using stronger software relative to competitors. Said another way, spending too many cycles on hardware pits you against the supply chain for most products.

Some of the devices that include most of these include a rubber duck (speaker, remote control), knit cap (music player), light bulb (speaker, camera, climate), walkie-talkies (location, camera), power strip (remote control, telemetry, power usage report), flower pot (soil water level, camera). The list goes on and on!

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 11.02.24 AM
Looks like a rubber duck, but it is also a remote controlled streaming media player with kids apps!
Looks like just a knit hat, but a music hat that streams music.

Residential working now, but expectations high and software not there

The most visible example of the ecosystem of components, manufacturers, and distribution coming together is in residential—products to control, protect, and monitor the home. There were dozens of companies showing what looks to be essentially the same product:

  • Wi-Fi or WWAN base station that connects to and controls the sensors in the home while also communicating with a monitoring service
  • Door/window open/close sensors to detect entry
  • Water sensor to detect floods
  • Motion sensor to detect intruders
  • Outlets and switches to control lighting and outlets
  • Smoke/Fire/CO sensors for safety
  • Thermostat for environmental
  • And so on.

In addition, there are more specialized (and harder to make) controllers for legacy home systems like garage door remotes, water heater, sprinkler, and so on.

Plus there are cameras for security monitoring and doorbells and locks to control entry, though many systems struggle with offering and integrating those.

The reality is that all of these basically just work and provide evidence of the supply chain at work. These are offered by startups, white labeled to many local distributors who will handle installation, and all the major home improvement stores carry them. You might have even seen the pitch from Comcast or AT&T for these as well. There were at least a dozen full service companies on the floor.

They are all essentially the same offering. Well, except for for the software and that is where they are all quite different and where the “ready for prime time” evaluation needs to be done. While they all have apps, for many scenarios some of these can prove quite awkward for some basic control—to the point where it is more annoying than helpful to use. For most customers, the app becomes secondary to more traditional keyfobs/dongles and PIN codes.

Once again, this shows where there’s opportunity to focus and potentially win.

Traditionally this has been an area where the reviews clamor for integration and synergy across device. A couple of things became clear this year:

  • Since everyone can offer everything (due to the supply chain) the viability of the company becomes more important than worrying if the company will offer a particular sensor/controller.
  • Integration is happening through a very traditional “consortium” and as nice as this sounds it isn’t clear it is working particularly well. First, much of what makes these easy to use is the way each maker handles out of box setup (which is mostly outside the standard) and adding additional sensors over time. Second, the UX for managing sensors and controllers integrated by third parties is usually least-common-denominator compared to first party.

In fact, this year saw a significant change in integration. Last year most all home automation was integrated with Nest. While that is still the case, as most would not the integration provided little useful capabilities and the “native” apps proved better. This year everyone integrated with Alexa from Amazon Echo. This made for compelling demos to turn lights on/off or adjust temperature. Time will tell if Alexa will be replaced next year or if Nest will up the level of integration.

IFTTT (an a16z portfolio company) was frequently used in demonstrations for conditional and multi-step scenarios. IFTTT replaces “custom installer” macros and other tools that have often plagued “home automation”.

Two great examples of this are programmable door locks and video doorbells. Both of these are logical integrations for the rest of a security system and while basic integration over z-wave is possible, for most scenarios (answering the door, programming new combinations) the vendor specific app is required. These are difficult to make products that need to fit in legacy infrastructure, so this is to be expected.

That said, because of the rising tide of infrastructure, the locks and doorbells have come a long way in the past year. Ring doorbell even released a battery operated (rechargeable) camera to accompany the doorbell (it is basically the motion-activated doorbell camera without the bell). Vivint has done good work to integrate Kwikset locks, a first party doorbell, as well as Amazon Echo to provide a more complete solution.

But for now, the base level capabilities are there and work across many providers. It is likely that these will further coalesce into a market where it is easier and better to get all the components from one company rather than trying to stitch them together. The good news is that this category is a pretty simple DIY project. The better news is that because of the SaaS revenue for monitoring, it is not hard to find an offering that comes with free installation (such as from Comcast).

Home integration happens with this in theory, though in practice the supply chain makes it easier to avoid cross-manufacturer integration if at all possible.

Example of one of many suppliers offering the full range of sensors and controllers.
Even at the low end, all the same sensors, detectors, cameras are available. 
Most cameras now combine motion detection and some machine learning to reduce false alarms. This camera is integrated into a traditional porch/doorway light so no extra wiring is needed.
In an example of the ecosystem at work, this same switch (based on the no-battery, no wires approach of enOcean) shows up in dozens of different systems.

Wearable computing focusing on fitness

The big news last year was all about “smart watches”. This year the focus of many of the same makers turned more to fitness and less about overall lifestyle.

There were certainly many connected measurement devices (body composition, weight, sugar levels, blood pressure, etc.) and every device is able to measure sleep (on your wrist, in your pillow, or in your mattress) or steps taken.

Unlike the home security sensors, there’s still a great deal of science to be done to correctly (accurately, precisely, reliably) measure humans and much science that is needed to make this information actionable. I continue to think we’re measuring more than we can consume and act on, especially on a constant basis.

It looks like the major band makers agree and this year became much more focused on the specifics of exercise. The biggest announcement came from Fitbit with the new Blaze wrist wearable, “smart fitness watch”.

Fitbit Blaze wrist wearable for fitness

In addition, Polar, Garmin, Under Armour and more all had new/improved bands dedicated to fitness. Much of the technology is about adapting algorithms to understand what the telemetry means depending on the sport (i.e. how do you measure fitness goals from your wrist when doing weights).

My view is that these bands are doing amazing work for people that are hardcore training in sports, but that the vast majority of people won’t benefit from the charts and graphs that come from doing a lot of work to set up using these. Speaking purely from the point of view of improving the average person’s fitness, a scale and blood pressure monitor seem more important. For most people, just walking for a fixed amount of time would be an improvement and a watch focused on timing laps for multiple sports is unnecessarily complicated and potentially demotivating. The support that comes from the community aspect for basic measurements and activities is documented and well-known to be a benefit, but that wasn’t the focus of the products on the floor.

The other aspect where these bands both differentiate and are still searching for broad fit is in software. With some sports sharing times (rides, trails, etc.) is a part of the hardcore enthusiast and so the community aspect is important. Again though that isn’t necessarily a mass consumer scenario.

I’m certain that the medical physiology (what measurements mean), sensor technology (how to measure), and medical research (how to act) will continue to evolve in this space. The longer term goal of a device that tracks meaningful body telemetry that regular people can act on themselves is not far off.

Fitness monitoring is not unique to humans. There were a number of products to help to monitor your pet with a pet wearable.

Connected Pet—monitor what your pet does during the day for better fitness.

Flyable is taking off

Drones were more numerous and more capable than last year. As much as the category is maturing, it is worth noting how early this really is.

There are two large players in Parrot and DJI who commanded a significant presence on the floor. Beyond that, once again we can see the supply chain at work as there were countless companies with largely similar products.

The most common experience in the drone booths would be to watch someone come up to a company rep and ask about the range and then follow up asking about the payload. I must have seen this 20 times and each time the person walked away disappointed, as if they where hoping this was the magic booth that had the drone that really could deliver groceries or fly cross-country. The other question was how autonomous the drone was and always the answer was disappointing.

The vast majority of what is going on is still in the realm of traditional radio controlled (RC) flight in new form factors with amazing cameras (made possible by the influence of the smartphone supply chain). Even the major vendors are still in the early stages of the basics of geofencing, route planning, and other scenarios focused on safety.

There’s clearly a product development cycle analogous to PCs v mainframes/minis happening. Drones are never going to be jets or general aviation, just as PCs were never going to be mainframes. When something sees a 10x increase in usage/adoption the new product is always much different at that scale.

On the other hand, things will not evolve so fast and loose the way PCs did because drones share the same airspace as jets (in a way that PCs never shared with mainframes). That’s why I think this evolution will see more “real” aviation get pulled into drones much sooner than we saw mainframes (i.e. servers and server hardware attributes) pulled down into PCs. Reliability, safety, and more will need to happen sooner rather than later. Piloting a drone will be a profession, not a hobby, until they can really pilot themselves (but even then…). With that there will be opportunities.

Like other categories, the difference between companies is not as much in the supply chain components or even the manufacturing/integration but in the software platforms. In the case of drones, it is more the minimal amount of software. There’s still a lot of “pro-sumer” work that needs to happen to get the full cycle of sensors, flight, data gathering all working. One example of this at work was Parrot demonstrating their work with senseFly (a Parrot company) for agriculture.

Another example was this complete “police surveillance operation” kit from Flymotion. It offered the full command center for monitoring in the case of disaster or other need.

IMG_0884Flymotion’s complete Police surveillance drone system.

One of the most crazy and unexpected drones was from EHANG, a China based company (co-founded by an ex-Microsoftie!). Their product is a single passenger drone — basically an autonomous Uber-drone. You get in it and it flies you somewhere. Totally mind blowing. Given the differences in regulatory climates, this product is making fast progress in China and is already airworthy. I don’t often post pictures of me, but here I am to give you a sense of scale of this one.

Here I am exiting after checking out the single passenger EHANG drone.
Another image of EHANG’s drone from their web site.

Next year is going to be an incredibly interesting year for drones. That is certain!

Drivable is the battle between incremental and leapfrog

Back down on earth and on the roads, the biggest battle in the global economy is over the next generation of “car” transport. Given the size of the market and the importance car companies played in the 20th century it is obvious why so much focus is on self driving cars or on alternative powered cars (or both at the same time).

All this coverage needs to be put in context of what was on display at CES. First, it is remarkable that car companies are using CES as a platform for announcing their autonomous work and general innovation in driving—while autos (and the Detroit supply chain) have been at CES for years it was always in the context of the after-market accessories or in building better premium “electronics”.

Second, while the whole North Hall of the convention center is devoted to cars, the vast majority of what is on display is traditional after-market customizations and even standard cars. FCA’s center stage was an interesting revamp of a Jeep interior, independent of autonomy or alternative power, for example.

The most interesting topic to ponder is really the nature of disruption that is taking place. Existing auto companies are seeing every aspect of their business upended. On the one hand all of their expertise in engines, interior design, drive trains is called into question by electric cars. On the other hand, autonomous driving challenges the fundamental business model of these car makers. Together these disrupt the entire process cars are built—a supply chain of parts makers, product managers, brand managers, dealer franchises, and more that has been built up over 100 years.

It is one thing for GM to show a Bolt, which by all accounts looks amazing. Or similarly for VW to show the BUDD-e van ( electric range of 373 miles, be capable of recharging to 80% capacity in about 15 minutes and would have a top speed of 93 m.p.h). But it will be quite another to deliver these at scale, sell them, and change the pricing and business models along the way. That’s just super hard for any company to do. As a reminder, FCA, Ford, GM combined sell light trucks for about 72% of their North America vehicles and those are more of their profits. Here’s a fascinating article on GM and the change underway there.

VW BUDD e electric van to be available in a couple of years.

The role software and hardware (again, the smartphone supply chain) will play and how companies execute those areas will almost certainly be determining factors. For example, it will be much more difficult to built a reliable car if the software and hardware systems are a combination of legacy and new; or if every car needs to be built to handle the “optional” autonomous or driver assist features. Will the car makers look to the existing supply chains in place or be able to make huge and difficult choices to trust new suppliers with new components?

An example of this is NVIDIA which is building out a significant and integrated suite of car electronics. Basically making a car SoC. NVIDIA is not Bosch or Delphi.

NVIDIAs car “SoC”.

While we were at CES Tesla updated their customers vehicles with the ability to summon your car. In a world where car makers still mail out DVDs or USB sticks to update maps, it is interesting to think about how things need to change inside those companies to enable that sort of customer experience.

If you think all of this is just being pro-Valley or cynical, then I would offer this counter example. Mercedes’ announcement at CES was that they intend to announce by the end of the year their strategy for electric cars. So in a year they will announce what they intend to do (of course many people are working on that now). The clear focus is on driver assist leading to autonomy (which they might be very advanced in).

For me, the most exciting transportation product was the Gogoro SmartScooter, which was also at the show last year. Think of the product as an electric Vespa with a max speed of 60mph and a range of about 60 miles at 40mph. But you don’t recharge it while parked, you pop out the battery and pop in a new one (or two) at one of many battery stations around town. You can own the scooter or potentially share them the way Divvy bikes are shared in major cities in the US. The company also has a home station to charge batteries in two hours.

This feels like a potential future of urban transport in most moderate climates.



Gogoro SmartScooter and public charge station.


Gogoro Energy Network showing charge stations in Taiwan.

Screens keep getting better

It used to be that the big (or flat and big) news at CES was about TV. Booths used to be filled with TVs. TVs are important but this year saw a greatly reduced push around smart TVs and a much bigger emphasis on overall image quality.

The reason for this is HDR and 4K. While most people gravitate to 4K (which debuted two years ago and is widely available now, including streaming content) the real news is HDR. HDR is “high dynamic range” or the ability to show more range of brightness. If you imagine scenes from Jessica Jones or Daredevil, HDR makes those scenes so much better, much more like what you would see in person. Unlike more pixels which we all know most people and most rooms can no longer discern, HDR is immediately visible to most viewers. Here’s a great thread on Stack Exchange about dynamic range.

Standard 4K image on left, HDR image on right.

All the major companies were showing off HDR displays. There’s a new industry acronym Ultra HD Premium which signifies an appropriate level of dynamic range. Netflix and other content providers will also be supporting HDR.

Take a moment to consider why this is not like the transition to HD and why it will happen much faster. HD required new content and going back to existing libraries of film and rescanning to make Bluray which you then needed to buy to play in your Bluray player. Network TV had to make the transition. Broadcast spectrum had to be allocated, and so on. Now this is all about software—recording is captured in RAW which has the information to make HDR (though more can be done in sensors for sure, which is a huge opportunity!) and re-encoding with enhanced metadata can be done as desired. Even distribution is no longer focused on just studios with new content coming from new players who have software perspective to bring.

Dolby is doing very exciting work to bring HDR to theaters and to home screens. They also showed some incredible work on sound called ATMOS which is a sound encoding that allows a single speaker bar to use a large number of drivers to deliver 7.1 sound. It was incredibly cool to sit there and hear sound coming from everywhere (Mad Max!) from one sound bar from Yamaha on the super cool LG HDR OLED display.

Still TVs continue to just get better. OLED continues to amaze and seeing a TV that is a sheet of glass is the star of the show. The Samsung SUHD 8K was the one to watch this year.

Samsung 8K HDR Quantum Dot display. Yowza!

In the magic of software and physics department, Sony was showing short throw laser projectors that were mind blowing. One was a 40″ image projected from a 4″ cube speaker essentially against the wall. The other was a 100″ image from about 12″ away. Amazing! (Super interesting how the digital sensor captured the image by the way — some insights into how the lasers work!)

Sony short throw projector. Image is about 40″ projecting from the cube speaker essentially next to the wall.
IMG_0966Sony short throw project. Image is about 100″ projecting from the floor console about 12″ from the wall.

Image capture is ubiquitous

Cameras are everywhere in products. Once again this is enabled by the supply chain create by the pull of smartphones. Incredibly high quality cameras can be integrated into very small places and draw very little power. If everything is connected, then you don’t even need to store images or have an interface to interact with them.

Cameras are gaining more resolution, working better in lower light or infrared, and offering new capabilities driven by software. In particular, motion sensing, face detection, and object recognition software capabilities are becoming key parts of cameras. Though cameras themselves as a stand-alone product are much less interesting than integrating them into environmental or people monitoring, smartphones, cars, doorbells, or industry/job specific functions (police cameras for example). As with home security, the supply chain makes it easy to have the camera, but software is what makes it useful.

A great example of this at work is the Blink camera. By using motion detection software and bluetooth LE this camera becomes completely wireless—it uses CR123A batteries that can last 6–12 months. It is like a completely wireless Dropcam (but not one you would look at all the time unless you wanted to change batteries). Netgear Arlo is a camera taking a similar approach. These cameras communicate over Bluetooth to a small powered base station that connects to a wired network

Blink camera operates completely wirelessly using batteries and Bluetooth LE.

In a dynamic similar to smart watches, the action cameras seemed to struggle this year. There was no pulling back from extreme sports or just extreme in general as the main purpose for GoPro, for example. It isn’t clear to me how much bigger this market can be. There were a vast number of GoPro-like clones out there.

There were quite a few “VR” cameras which were any number of cameras (depending on lens) designed to capture 360°. The playback would use Google Cardboard. A good example is the Nikon KeyMission 360 which captured 4K images.

Kodak’s Super 8 is a high tech Super 8 movie film camera. It is quite the hipster product. It shoots film, which comes in classic Super 8 cartridges that you ship back to Kodak where they are developed and then delivered as scanned footage. As a silver-halide-enthusiast, I find it very neat but I am a bit skeptical. What might have been more interesting it to build a camera that had the UX affordances of shooting with film but the convenience of digital (along the lines of a Nikon Df still camera).

Kodak’s Super 8 film camera and trusty Tri-X film!

One of the additions to CES this year was dedicated space for crowdsourced ideas/companies such as from Kickstarter. One project in this part of the show was the Enlaps camera. In one package the full range of the supply chain comes together — cameras, solar, mobile data, and cloud services. The product+service is incredibly cool and solves what is traditionally a very difficult problem which is capturing long term, time lapsed video from a remote location. While even phones have interval image capture, the ability to manage power, control the camera, and monitor what is going on is enormously complex (see http://ohioline.osu.edu/w-fact/pdf/0021.pdf for wildlife capture which is like time lapsed by motion triggered). I love the “set it and forget it” Enlaps product. It has two 4K cameras, solar power, and a web service that handles the complexity of time lapsed intervals so you can easily stream the results to your phone. You could use this for sunrise/sunset, changing seasons, tidal pools, wildlife migration, construction projects, crowd flow, events, and more.

Enlaps.io is a fully self-contained interval camera. It shoots 4K images at intervals and sends them back to your mobile device. The camera operates off solar power and can be placed remotely for as long as you need.

Once again our pets get some love from cameras too. In this case your pet can “Facetime” with you by pushing a very Pavlovian button. Of course it isn’t enough to just see your pet. With PetChatz you can release pet pleasing smells and treats using your mobile device.

PetChatz is video conferencing and treat dispensing for your pet. No, really it is.

Small computers better and cheaper for everyone

There is not a lot of news at CES for small computers as most companies save that news for GSM World. What is there shows the continued ability for the mobile supply chain to deliver all the components for a small computer and to now package them in ever-improving quality packages at ever-decreasing prices.

All of the vendor phones displayed the floor were of course Android. It is worth noting that one almost never saw Android being shown as part of products in booths unless the product is doing something that it probably shouldn’t be doing (i.e. root kit, peripheral, access to some low-level OS thing). The common thing I heard in the booth booths with Android would be “we’d like to do this but Apple won’t let us”. Personally, this is less of a call for Apple to open things up and more of a call for developers to think up different solutions, at least that’s my view of prioritizing “consumer electronics quality” over “get stuff done”. Most of the scenarios that were Android-only seemed somewhat dubious to me.

That said, there were dozens of phone makers with very high quality builds of phones. This one from nuu mobile is part of a line that goes from $99-$299 direct to consumer. There are lots of these companies differentiating mostly by channel approach (country, carrier, unlocked, rate plans) and less and less by software I think.

Top of the line nuu mobile Z8 retailing for US$299.

At the extreme low end, some of the China manufacturers still show some pretty old school stuff. I just liked how this ODM model had the generic “Brand” on it waiting to be picked up by a wholesaler.

Old school phone labeled “Brand” waiting to be picked up by a wholesaler.

And in a throwback to the smaller-is-better era, here is a full voice/text phone done as an earbud. Those are actual buttons. No word on talk time. I actually saw it work!

Full ear bud phone. No really.

Big computers better but not game changing

There were quite a few new Windows 10 laptops, all-in-ones, and big tablets announced this year (most with Spring availability).

The general trend is thinner, higher resolution screens, and Intel’s new Skylake processors. The Samsung 9 and the LG Gram garnered a lot of attention. The Samsung comes very close to the Macbook in form factor in a larger screen. As a Windows PC it has more ports of course. The LG is crazy light as you can see in the photo below. They were not quoting any battery life and there is no touch screen. Both skipped using USB C for power though which is disappointing in terms of specs.

LG Gram Windows 10 PC is super light.
Samsung 9 is a little thicker and heavier but features a touch screen.

HP, Dell, and Asus also had new PCs.

The area where PCs still currently lead phones is in graphics capabilities. But you can only experience this if you use the massive discrete cards from NVIDIA (primarily) and not with the integrated graphics on every laptop. If you want these insanely powerful graphics capabilities (say for deep learning experiments, bitcoin mining, CAD/3D, or just gaming) you have been stuck with a pretty hard to deal with tower. There’s help on the way in two neat PCs.

One is the MSI 27 XT all in one which takes a classic 27″ AIO and bolts on sort of a backpack for a PCIe graphics card. It isn’t pretty but it is a much more viable way to get the power you need assuming the display is good (which I was not able to see).

 Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 11.10.16 AM
This MSI 27″ All-In-One has a discrete graphics card cage on the back for a PCIe card.

Razer which builds a great community of PCs and accessories offered up a pretty unique combination. The Razer Blade is a high end ultrabook stylized for gamers (colored LED keyboard lights). It runs high end Intel Skylake parts (Core™ i7–6500U) and has a great screen. It would be an accomplished Ultrabook on its own.

Via Thunderbolt 3 in a USB C form factor you can attach a mid-tower sized box with an external PCIe graphics card (as well as some additional ports). This turn the Ultrabook into a pretty high end workstation. I admit to taking a wait and see regarding the quality over time and security of all those kernel mode drivers via plug-and-play of thunderbolt so I’m looking forward to seeing how this evolves in real world settings.

Razer Blade ultrabook and Thunderbolt 3 connected PCIe desktop graphics Core accessory.

Finally, in the tablet form factor Samsung announced the TabS Pro for Windows 10. The most interesting thing is that it carries integrated LTE which you don’t see often. The tablet itself is a 12″ slab with a great sAMOLED display. It runs the updated Core M processor which runs everything anyone would need to run unless you’re running Visual Studio or full time CAD/CS. The specs are great. In practice the soft, z-fold cover is awkward (just watching the booth folks deal with it), doesn’t stay attached, and doesn’t support the 12″ screen while using touch.

Samsung TabPro S


It is tough to beat this story of entrepreneurial spirit. Meet 13 year-old Taylor Rosenthal. He’s an entrepreneur from Opelika, Alabama. As an avid team sports participant he has more than once run across the challenge of needing the right first aid gear for minor cuts and scrapes on the playing field. He developed a set of kits and a vending machine called RECMED. He made his way to CES to show off his company, which he told me is remaining independent even though he already received a significant buyout offer!

Way to go Taylor!

1-uh7jteCOrxrUoJaPmfktpw Taylor Rosenthal, CEO and Founder of Recmed.

Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)

Written by Steven Sinofsky

January 11, 2016 at 10:59 am

Posted in posts

Tagged with , ,

CES 2015 Recap for Makers and Product Managers

X CES2015 - 32CES 2015 was another amazing show. Walking around the show one can only look with wonder about the amazing technologies being invented and turned into products. Few things are as energizing or re-energizing as systematically walking the booths and soaking it all in. I love CES as a reminder of the amazing opportunity to work in this industry.

Taking a moment to share what I walk away with is always helpful to me—writing is thinking. Every day we have the chance to talk to new companies about products under development and ideas being considered and CES provides a great cross-industry context about what is going on. This is especially important because of the tendency to look too much to the massive companies that might dominate our collective point of view. My experience has been that spending energy on what is going on CES unlocks potential opportunities by forcing you to think about problems and solutions from different perspectives.

While this post goes through products, there are many better sources for the full breadth of the show. I try to focus on the broader themes that I walk away with after spending a couple of days letting everything sort of bake for a bit. This year I wanted to touch on these 5 major themes and also include a traditional view of some of the more “fun” observations:

  • Batteries, wires, simplicity
  • Displays popping up everywhere
  • Cameras improving with Moore’s law
  • Sensors sensing, but early (and it’s all about the data)
  • Connectivity gaining ubiquity
  • Fun Products

Ever the product manager (PM) I try to summarize each of these sections with some top-line PM Learning to put the post into action.

Click on images for larger version. All photos by me unless noted.

Batteries, wireless, simplicity

PM Learning: Of course optimize your experiences to minimize impact on battery life, but don’t assume your competitors will be doing the same. Think about the iPhone OS and built in apps navigating that fine line. In you’re making new hardware, assume standard connectors for charging betting on Type-C and HDMI.

The best place to start with CES is batteries and wires, because that’s what will follow you around the entire show—everyone walks the show floor in search of outlets or with an auxiliary battery and cable hanging off their phone. Batteries created the portable consumer electronics revolution, but we’re also tethered to them far too often. The good news is that progress is real and continues to be made.

Behind the scenes a great deal of progress is being made on power management with chipsets even wireless ones. On display at the show were Bluetooth keyboards can go a year on a single charge or wireless headphones are good for days of normal usage.

Progress is also being made on battery technology that is making it possible for smaller, lighter, and faster charging batteries. While these are not dramatic 2 or 3X improvements, they are real.

The first product I saw was an LG cordless vacuum that had 70 minutes of usage and the cleaning power passing the classic bowling ball suction test. Truly something that makes everything easier.

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Batteries are an important part of transportation and Panasonic is the leading manufacturer right now of large-scale batteries for transport. On display was the GoGoRo urban scooter. This is not just a battery-operated scooter that can go 95 km/h and is cloud connected with GPS locator maps. It can go 100km on a pair of batteries. All that would be enough. But the batteries can be swapped out in seconds and you’re on the go. The company plans to build a network of charge stations to go with a business model of subscription. I love this whole concept.

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Panasonic also makes batteries for the Tesla so here is a gratuitous picture of the gratuitous Tesla Model X on display.

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While all consumer electronics have aimed for simplicity since the first blinking 12:00 on a VCR, simplicity has been elusive due to the myriad of cables, connectors, remotes, and adapters. Normally a CES trip report would include the latest in cable management, high tech cables, or programmable remotes. Well, this year it is fair to say that these whole categories have basically been subsumed in a wave of welcome simplicity.

Cables, to the degree they are needed, have mostly been standardized on HDMI for video and USB for charging and peripherals. With the forthcoming USB Type-C even USB will be standardized. The Apple connectors are obviously all over though easily adapted to micro-USB for now (note to makers of third party batteries—margins are tight, but using a MFI logo and an Apple cable end would be welcome). When you do need cables they are getting better. It was great to see an awesome fiber-optic cable from Corning that worked for USB (also displayport). It makes the cable much thinner and more flexible along with increasing the signal travel distance since it uses active powered ends. HDMI in the works.

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While most attention went into Smart Watches with too many features, Casio’s latest iteration offered a new combination of better battery life and low power radios. The new watch uses solar charging along with a GPS receiver (and also the low power radio waves) to set the time based on location. And it is not even huge.

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Bringing this theme is no wires and improved batteries to a new extreme, the wireless earbuds from Bragi are aggressive in the feature set by incorporating not just BT for audio but a microphone for talking and sensors for heart rate (though not likely very reliable) and temperature (not sure of the use as a practical matter). But certainly worth looking at when they are available. Photo by Bragi.

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Displays popping up everywhere

PM Learning: Curved is here. Too much energy is going into this. Expect to find new scenarios (like signage) and thus new opportunities. Resolution at 4K and beyond is going to be normal very quickly and with a price premium for a very short time. Pay close attention to web page design on high resolution and high DPI (assets). Many opportunities will exist for new screens that will run one app in a fixed function manner for line of business or in consumer settings—these are replacing static signs or unmanageable PCs. We’re on the verge of broadly deployed augmented reality and totally soft control screen layouts, starting with cars.

More than anything, CES continues to be the show about TV.

Curved screens are getting a lot of attention and a lot of skepticism, some of which is warranted. Putting them in an historical context, each generation of screen innovation has been greeted in a similar manner. Whether too expensive, too big, too incremental, or just not useful the reasons a new screen technology wasn’t going to take off have been plentiful. While curved seems weird to most of us (and frankly even maker is trying too hard to justify it, as seen in the pseudo scientific Samsung depictions below) it has compelling utility in a number of scenarios. Skeptics might be underestimating the architectural enthusiasm for the new screens as well.

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The most immediate scenario is one that could be called the “Bloomberg desktop” and here you can see it on display. It is very compelling as a single user, a “mission control” station, or as a group monitoring station.

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Signage is also incredibly important and the architectural use of curved screens as seen below will become relatively commonplace because of the value in having interactive and programmable displays for advertising and information.

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Speaking of signage, for years we’ve seen the gradual migration of printed signs to signage driven by PCs to even one year where all the screens were simply JPEGs being played in those ever-present photo frames. This year saw a number of compelling new signage products that combined new multi-screen layouts with web-based or app-based cloud platforms for creating dynamic layouts, incorporating data, and managing a collection of screens. Below we can see an example of an active menu display and the tool for managing it. Following that is a complex multi-screen 4K layout (narrow bezel) and associated tool.

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For home or entertainment, there were dozens of cinematic 21:9 4K curved screens at massive sizes. Maybe this transition will be slower (as the replacement cycle for TVs is slow anyway) due to the need for new thoughts on where to put these. This year at least was showing some wall mounting options.

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Curved screens are also making their way into small devices. Last year saw the LG Flex and an update was available this year. Samsung introduced a Galaxy Note Edge with a single curved edge. They went to great lengths in the software to use this as an additional notification band. I’m a bit skeptical of this as it was difficult to use without thinking hard about where to put your hand (at last in a booth minute of use).

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I don’t want to gloss over 4K, but suffice it to say every screen was 4K or higher. I saw a lot of skeptical coverage about not being able to see the difference or “how far away are you”. Let’s all just move on. The pixels are here and pretty soon it will just be as difficult to buy an HD display as it is to buy 512MB SIMMs or 80GB HDDs. That’s just how manufacturing at scale works. These screens will soon be cheaper than the ones they are replacing. Moore’s law applies to pixels too. For the skeptics, this exhibit showed how resolution works.

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Screens are everywhere and that’s the key learning this year. There were some awesome augmented reality displays that have been talked about for a long time but are quickly becoming practical and cost-effective. Below is a Panasonic setup that can be used to cosmetics either in store or in salon. It was really amazing to see.

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Continuing with augmented or head’s up displays, this was an amazing dashboard in a concept car from Toyota that showed off a full dash of soft-controls and integrated augmented screens.

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At a practical level, Sharp and Toshiba were both showing off ready-made dashboard screens that will make it into new cars as OEM components or as aftermarket parts.

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Cameras improving with Moore’s law

PM Learning: Cameras continue to gain more resolution but this year also showed a much clearer focus (ha) on improving photos as they are captured or improving video by making it smarter. Cameras are not just for image capture but also becoming sensors in their own right and integrated into sensing applications, though this is just starting. My favorite advance continues to be the march towards more high dynamic range as a default capture mode.

Digital cameras made their debut in the early 1990’s with 1MP still images that were broadly mocked by show attendees and reviews. Few predicted how Moore’s law would rapidly improve image quality while flash memory would become cost effective for these large CCDs and then mobile phones would make these sensors ubiquitous. Just amazing to think about.

High Dynamic Range started off as a DSLR trick and then something you could turn on and is now an Auto feature on most phones. In cameras it is still a bit of a trick. There are complexities in capturing moving images with HDR that can be overcome. Some find the look of HDR images to be “artificial” but in reality they are closer to the human eye range—this feels a bit like the debate during the first music CDs v. vinyl. Since the human eye has anywhere from 2 to 5 times the range of today’s sensors it only makes sense to see this more and more integrated into the core capture scenario. Below is a Panasonic 4K professional video camera with HDR built in.

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Facility security is a key driver of camera technology because of the need for wide views, low light, and varying outdoor conditions. A company that specializes in time-lapse imaging (for example construction sites) introduced a time-lapsed HDR camera.

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Low light usually kicks in infrared cameras in security settings. For many the loss of color has always been odd. Toshiba was showing off the first 720P infrared camera that generates a color image even in 0 Lux. This is done using software to map to a colorized palette. You can see a traditional infrared and the color version side by side in a cool interactive booth.

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In thinking about cameras as ubiquitous, this very clever camera+LED bulb combination really struck me. Not only is it a standard PAR LED bulb, but it adds a Wi-Fi web camera. Lots of potential uses for this.

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DSLRs still rule for professional use and their capabilities are still incredible (and should be for what you carry around). Nikon surprised even their folks in the booth by announcing their first Phase Fresnel lens with a 300mm f4. Cannon has a 400mm lens (their “DO” designation). These lenses result in remarkable (better) image quality and immense size and weight reduction. Seen below, is the classic 300mm f4 and the new “PF” version. Add to cart :-)

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Finally, Nikon repeated their display of 360-degree stop action Matrix-like photography. It is really am amazing demo with dozens of cameras snapping a single image providing a full walk around. Just love the technology.

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Sensors sensing, but early (and it is all about data!)

PM Learning: We are just starting on sensors. While many sensors are remarkably useful today, the products are still first generation and I believe we are in for an exponential level of improvement. For these reasons, I continue to believe that the wearable sensors out there today are interesting for narrow use cases but still at the early part of the adoption curve. Innovation will continue but for the time being it is important to watch (or drive the exponential) changes. Three main factors will contribute to this:

  1. Today’s sensors are usually taking one measurement (and often that is a proxy for what you want). These are then made into a single purpose product. The future will be more direct measurements as sensors get better and better. There’s much to be invented, for example, for heart rate, blood sugar, blood pressure, and so on.
  2. Sensors are rapidly improving in silos but will just as rapidly begin to be incorporated into aggregate units to save space, battery life, and more. There are obvious physical challenges to overcome (not every sensor can be in the same place or in contact with the same part of a body or device).
  3. Data is really the most important element and key differentiator of a sensor. It is not the absolute measurement but the way the measurement is put in context. The best way to think of this is that GPS was very useful but even more useful when combined with maps and even more useful when those maps add local data such as traffic or information on a destination.

Many are still working to bring gesture recognition to different scenarios. There remains some skepticism, perhaps rooted in the gamer world, but for many cases it can work extremely well. These capabilities can be built into cameras or depending on the amount of recognition into graphics chipsets. I saw two new and neat uses of gesture recognition. First, this LG phone was using a gesture to signal the start of a self-timer for taking selfies (just hold out your hand, recognize, squeeze, then timer starts). This was no selfie-stick (which I now carry around all the time due to the a16z selfie-stick investments) but interesting.

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This next demonstration was showing gestures used in front of an automobile screen. There were a lot of potential gestures shown in this proof of concept but still there are interesting possibilities.

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The incorporation of image recognition into the camera turns a camera into a sensor to be used for a variety of uses. This was a camera that ended up looking like the TV show Person of Interest.

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There were quite a few products demonstrating eye tracking. This is not a new technology but it has become very cheap very quickly. What used to take very specialized cameras can now be done with off the shelf parts and some processing. What are missing are use cases beyond software usability labs and medical diagnostics :-)

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This take on eye tracking called the Jins Meme integrated eye tracking and other sensors into hipster glasses. Again the scenarios aren’t quite there yet but it is very interesting. They even package this up in multi-packs for schools and research.

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There were many products attempting to sense things in the home. I feel most of these will need to find better integration with other scenarios rather than being point solutions but they are all very interesting to study and will still find initial use cases. This is how innovation happens.

One of the more elaborate sensors is called Mother. It packages up a number of sensors that connect wireless to a base station. There are temperature and motion sensors among them. You just place these near where you want to know something (these little chips). Then they have a nice app that translates sensing events into notifications.

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There were even sensors for shoes and socks. If you’ve ever had foot issues you know the need to attempt to replicate your pain while being monitored by a high-speed camera or even fluoroscope/x-ray. These sensors, such as this one in a sock, have immediately interesting medical use under physician supervision. Like many of the sensors, I feel this is a best practice use case and don’t think the home-use case is quite right yet because of the lack of accessible scientific data.

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The Lillypad floats around in your pool and takes measurements of the water and wirelessly sends them to an app. It also measures UV light as a clever bonus.

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Speaking of pools, this was such a clever sensor. It is a Bluetooth radio that you pair with your phone. You get kids to wear this around a pool. When the kid is submerged it will notify you. You can get notified immediately or after a set time (I learned the national standard for under water distress is 25 seconds). The big trick—there’s no technology here; just that Bluetooth doesn’t travel under water. Awesome!

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In this previous post, the notion of ingredients versus products at CES was discussed. To emphasize what this means in practice, this montage below is from a vendor that literally packaged up every point-sensor into a “product”. This allows for a suite of products, which is great in a catalog but awfully complex for a consumer. There were a dozen manufacturers displaying a similar range of single-sensor products. I don’t know if this is sustainable.

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Connectivity gaining ubiquity

PM Learning: Duh, everything will be connected. But unlike previous years, this is now in full execution mode. The biggest challenge is what “things” get connected to what things or networks. When do you put smarts somewhere? Where does data go? What data is used?

Everything is going to be connected. This has been talked about for a long time, but is really here now. The cost of connectivity is so low and, at least in the developing world, assuming either Wi-Fi or WWAN (via add-on plans) is rational and economical. This will introduce a lot of complexity for hardware makers who traditionally have not thought about software. It will make for room for new players that can re-think scenarios and where to put the value. Some devices will improve quickly. Others will struggle to find a purpose to connect. We’ve seen the benefits of remote thermostats and monitoring cameras. On the other hand, remote controlled clothes washers (that can’t load the clothes from the basket or get the clothes into the dryer) might be still searching. I would add that this dual load washer from LG is very clever.

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Many products were demonstrating their “Works with Nest”. This is a nice API and and it is attracting a lot of attention since like any platform is saves the device makers from doing a lot of heavy lifting in terms of software. While many of the demonstrations were interesting there can still be a little bit of a gimmick aspect to it (washing machines). This alarm clock was interesting to me. While many of us just use phones now (which can control nest) this clock uses voice recognition for alarm functions. When connected to a Nest it can also be used to change the temperature or to alter the home/away settings of the thermostat.

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A company called Cannon Security relatively new security safe company (most are very old) and I loved this “connected” safe. It isn’t connected the way I thought (an app to open it or alert you of a break in). Instead it is a safe that also has a network cable and two USB ports. So one use might be to store a network connected drive in the safe and use it for backup. You could also keep something in the safe charging via USB. Pretty cool. The jack pack is in the lower right of the image.

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My favorite product of the whole show, saving the best for last, is not yet released. But talk about a magic collection of connectivity and data…wow. These founders set out to solve the problem of getting packages delivered to your house. Most communities prevent you from getting a delivery box out front and in many places you can’t have something left on your doorstep and expect it to remain. This product, called “Track PIN” solves the problem. Here’s what it does:

  1. Insert a small module inline in the tree wires that control your garage door.
  2. Add a battery operated PIN box to the front of your garage somewhere.
  3. When you receive a package tracking number email just forward it to trackpin.com (sort of like the way TripIt works).
  4. THEN, when the delivery person shows up (UPS, FedEx, USPS, and more) they will automatically know in their handheld what code to punch. Upon punching the code your garage door opens a short amount to slide the package in. No signature required. The PIN is invalidated. The driver is happy. You are happy. Amazon is happy. And the cloud did all the work.

I know it sounds somewhat mundane, but these folks really seem to have developed a cool solution. It beats bothering the neighbors.

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Fun Products

Every CES has a few fun products that you just want to call attention to without snark or anything, just because we all know product development is not a science and one has to try a lot of things to get to the right product.

Power Pole. This is my contribution to selfies. This one even has its own power source.

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Emergency jump starter/laptop charger/power source. This was a perfectly fine product. The fun part was seeing the exact same product with different logos in 5 different booths. Amazing placement by the ODM.

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USB Charger. This is the best non-commercial USB charger I’ve seen. It even includes a way out of spec “high voltage port.

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Fake TV. This is a home security system that flashes multi-colored LED lights that trick a burglar into thinking you are home watching TV. Best part about it was that when I took the picture the person staffing the booth said “Don’t worry the Wi-Fi Drone version is coming in late 2015”. Gotta love that!!

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Surface influence. And finally, I’ve been known to be a fan of Microsoft Surface but I guess I was not alone. The Typo keyboard attempts to bring a Microsoft TypeCover to the iPad and the Remix Ultra-Tablet is a rather uncanny resemblance to Surface 2 running an Android skin (developed by several former Google employees).

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Phew. That’s CES 2015 in a nutshell.

Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)

X CES2015 - 48

Written by Steven Sinofsky

January 11, 2015 at 10:00 pm

CES: Ingredients Not Just Products

Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 10.21.19 PMCES 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.

Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)

Written by Steven Sinofsky

January 10, 2015 at 10:00 pm

Posted in posts

Tagged with , ,

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