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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)

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Written by Steven Sinofsky

January 11, 2015 at 10:00 pm

#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.


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.


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.


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 https://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

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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!


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.


  • 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).


Written by Steven Sinofsky

October 20, 2013 at 4:00 pm

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