This week has seen the annual tech lovefest take place in Las Vegas, with over 180,000 people from more than 150 countries getting together to buy and sell the latest in tech gadgetry at the Consumer Electronics Show.
First held in 1967, CES has become the place to see and be seen, although there are always a few strange holdouts. Unsurprisingly, Apple shuns the show, even though, many years (but much less so this year) their products and competitive responses to them dominate. For example, the most popular tech products of 2017 were not introduced nor shown at CES – either due to companies preferring other venues, or the release timetable not fitting in with the early January CES timing. Those included the latest iPhone, Samsung Galaxy S8 and Note 8 phones (there’s now word of a new Galaxy S9 which is expected to be announced/released on 25 February at the Mobile World Conference in Barcelona), Amazon’s Echo Dot speaker, the Apple Watch and the Nintendo Switch, which were all debuted at their own, private, company media events.
As is always the case, the show has a strange mix of products and exhibitors. There are the earnest Chinese exhibitors, often times speaking no English, clustered in regional cooperative groupings of booths, showing slightly strange products that have no US representation, and often, no likelihood of ever securing any. There are the big brand names with megabooths and a dazzling array of products, and then the smaller booths with strange items that appear one year, only to vanish again without trace sometime in the 12 months that follow.
Generally it is possible to perceive some over-arching themes at the show about the areas in consumer electronics that are seeing the most interest and activity, but that’s no guarantee of their future success or impact. Indeed the products that get the most press at CES often never make it to market, or if they do, they fail to make the mainstream. Ridiculously overpriced televisions, for example. Just about anything/everything to do with 3D. Smartwatches a couple of years ago. Everyone was talking tablets a couple of years before that.
Some might think that high-tech and innovation is a young person’s game, and more male oriented than female. For sure, the age of people present does skew to young, and the gender to male (apart from the ‘booth babes’ that adorn some booths every year), but of course not everyone matches such stereotypes. This year saw a new booth and new product being managed by an 82-year-old lady.
Almost amusingly, this year’s event was marred by a power cut on Wednesday. This made the indoor halls dark and silent (apart from sporadic battery-powered devices) and security evacuated everyone until power was restored, two hours later. Some sources suggested that the show was drawing too much electricity and overloaded its distribution service. A more probably cause however is still surprising – Vegas had a very heavy downpour on the Monday, and apparently condensation from all Monday’s rain resulted in a transformer shorting out on Wednesday. A heavy rain, in other words, was too much for the world’s leading high-tech show.
Amazon vs Google
CES saw an intensifying of the competition between Amazon’s Alexa app – installed on its Echo devices and increasingly on third-party products too, and the analogous product offered by Google, its Assistant. There is clearly now a high-stakes race between the two companies to become the dominant force in home automation and voice responsive services.
Both Amazon and Google make no secret of their ambition to become the world’s “go-to” service for literally everything, and so the intensifying struggle between them for voice interaction – something that a couple of years ago was an ill-functioning oddity, but which increasingly will become a core part of companies ‘touch’ their customers is unsurprising.
What is surprising – and sad – is that neither company has notched up the competition by selling products at more aggressive price points. To be blunt, all the voice responsive devices currently for sale are egregiously overpriced, and could drop in price by 50%, maybe more, particularly on the higher priced items, and still be profitable to Google or Amazon. With the strategic value and future revenue streams such devices promise to their suppliers, it is surprising that neither has started to discount their devices aggressively.
The other surprise in this competition is who is absent. Although both Apple (Siri) and Microsoft (Cortana) have potentially similar apps, neither have been widely taken up by broader at-home voice type services. This may be a mistake, particularly on Apple’s part, because the Google Assistant can be present both on our phones and on other devices at home, and if we get comfortable with the command phrases and functions of the Google Assistant, that may encourage us towards making our next phone an Android phone instead of an Apple phone.
So, what about Apple? The relative silence of Apple again highlights Apple’s inability – unwillingness – to create win-win partnerships with other companies, and this is a battle being fought not only directly between Amazon and Google, but also by proxy through as many third-party adopters as each can get supporting their product.
While it is hard to speak ill of a company with such a huge market capitalization and profit, the fact remains that at present Apple has no market dominating products. Its iPod line is now largely defunct; its iPhone, while still a major player, has an ever smaller market share, and now that the market as a whole has stopped growing so rapidly, Apple’s loss of market share can no longer be disguised by a growing overall market size, and it is starting to see lower sales volumes of its phones. The iPad, which blazed into sudden glory in 2010 has now diminished in relevance (and, of course, market share). The Watch fizzled pretty much from day one. Its Mac line of computers, while still having plenty of devotees, and after enjoying several years of improving market share, basking in the glow of its iOS devices, now finds itself at five-year market share lows (about 7% worldwide).
And, Microsoft – are they asleep at the switch again? The company was slow to respond to the internet, and has failed at least as often as it has succeeded with its various attempts to get into consumer electronics (does anyone remember the Kin series of phones, the Zune music play, or more recently, the latest stunning failure with phones, even after buying market leader Nokia and then writing off $7.6 billion and laying off 7,800 employees).
However, although Apple and Microsoft are both missing in action, there’s potentially a new entrant into this field. Facebook. Amusingly, and probably appropriately, as this article points out, it is thought Facebook would have a difficult time against Amazon and Google, due to it being viewed as much less trustworthy.
Back to the Amazon vs Google battle. Currently it seems the Amazon Alexa service is integrated into 4,000 different products, compared to Google’s Assistant, supported by 1,500 products. A clear win for Amazon? Not necessarily. Perhaps this is a battle that will end in a draw for them, and a win for us.
Some third-party manufacturers are including both services in their devices. To cite just a very few examples, Klipsch in their speakers, Sony with their televisions, Tivo with their DVRs, even Whirlpool with their washing machines and other home appliances. This should be of concern to both Amazon and Google – you can’t co-dominate the market. We wonder how they will respond to what seems to be a growing trend to give equal billing to both services.
Smart Devices, AI, and Robotics
Talking about smart home appliances, everything is becoming identified as a ‘smart device’ these days, even though the degree of smartness varies from ‘almost none at all’ to ‘not very much’. For example, how about a ‘smart’ filter for your furnace – 3M are introducing a ‘smart’ air filter that will nag you about when to replace it.
This is a double win for 3M – studies suggest people don’t replace their filters as often as they ‘should’ (ie as often as the manufacturers wish), so not only does it get to sell a more expensive premium product in the first place, it then gets to hopefully increase the rate at which you replace your filters.
Fridges in particular are growing enormous screen panels on their front, (growing all the way to monster 29″ screens) with fanciful features such as allowing you to see into the fridge via an internal camera. I have to say that the inside of my fridge is never as uncluttered and half empty as the ones on the demonstrator fridges, and suspect I’d never be able to see everything that was in it. I also don’t understand how one of their central themes – being able to see how much milk you have remaining and when it expires – would work with a cardboard carton of milk, and an expiry date that isn’t visible and may not be correct (expiry dates are usually the earlier of either the stamped date or seven days after you open the carton). How will you know how many eggs remain in your egg container? Will the camera be able to see the tiny bit of cheese at the back of the shelf and ascertain if it has gone moldy or dried out yet? And so on.
My sense is that to make a smart fridge work, you’re going to have to scan everything in and out, and it will quickly end up being more trouble than it is worth. Is this another technological solution desperately trying to create a problem? Perhaps indicating the desperate drive to justify all this extra ‘stuff’ on a regular fridge door, you can even tie the fridge door on some models into a video camera at the front door so you can see, on the fridge screen, who is at the front door. If that’s a feature you’d pay an extra thousand dollars or more for, then there may be a fridge offering that ‘convenience’ coming to a store near you, real soon now.
But, of course, to make it work, you’re also going to need to learn how to program your fridge door panel. Am I the only one who doesn’t occasionally feel nostalgic for the days when fridge doors did nothing other than open and close, and a shopping list was a piece of paper held to the fridge door, alongside family pictures and our children’s drawings, by souvenir magnets?
Not only was CES full of semi-smart devices, but also of not-very-intelligent AI, too, and truly-creepy robotics.
Humanoid type robotics, being driven by a convergence of both AI and robotics, make many people feel awkward, particularly the so-called ‘sex dolls’ that are springing up like mushrooms after the rain. Like many other high-tech fields that were actually developed by the sex industry, it seems that the robotics field is being also driven by these issues and applications, and while at one level, some people might find them to be better than an inflatable rubber thing, the creepy-factor overwhelmed me and I found I had to look away. Here’s a video where I’m afraid I find the robotic head, the interview, and the interviewee all equally creepy!
Rather than being attracted by the, ahem, enhanced pleasure potential of such devices, the strange disconnect of a human looking and increasingly human-acting ‘thing’ reduced their appeal way down to less than zero. But it seems quite likely I’m in the minority on that point.
Other robots are deliberately designed not to look like people, and instead to look like cute ‘things’. Today, they are cute novelty items. But tomorrow, they’ll be job-destroying monsters, displacing many of us from our jobs.
And in a category that sort of straddles the sex robot and the cute thing category, there is a robot pillow that ‘breathes’. The idea is you cuddle it and pretend it is a real person in bed with you. Words fail me (but hopefully not my breath).
Televisions and Monitors
The absurd nonsense over 3D television continues to diminish, thank goodness. Meanwhile manufacturers are responding to the awkward truth that most people can’t see any picture quality improvement of a 4K screen over a regular HD tv screen by addressing the real issue associated with picture quality these days – not the resolution, but the color quality. Two new features are being more prominently trumpeted as essential and as a reason to accelerate the upgrade of your current tv for a new one – high dynamic range and wide color gamut.
The former feature, alas, suffers from two different formats – Dolby Vision and HDR10+. There remains no clear winner, and some screens support both encoding formats. High dynamic range really does make a clear difference and improvement in picture quality, and if you’re upgrading your tv, it is essential you get a new screen that has either or both formats supported.
The other feature – wide color gamut – means the screen will show more of the total range of colors our eyes can distinguish. Traditional televisions have displayed a greatly diminished subset of colors. That’s also nice, but not quite as essential a feature as high dynamic range.
The other big problem with 4K screens is that there remains almost no content available to show on them. We do now have 4K capable Blu-ray players, and a very small number of 4K Blu-ray discs, and both Amazon and Netflix stream a few shows in 4K, but the purveyors of content have been very slow to embrace the new format. On the other hand, I can’t say I’m keen to replace the movies that I’ve already variously owned on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD and regular Blu-ray, and in various variations of ‘special edition’ forms, with yet another new format, a 4k Blu-ray.
However, while 4K is struggling to get much industry adoption, screen manufacturers are racing ahead to the next new thing, 8K. This would increase screen resolution by another four-fold jump. The first iteration of truly high quality video screens was the 1080(x1920) resolution (about ten times better than standard resolution television), then a four-fold increase to 4K, and now potentially another four-fold increase to 8K.
It is a struggle to see any better resolution on 4K compared to a 1080 pixel screen unless you sit unusually close to it, and so to see any improvement on an 8K screen compared to a 4K screen, you’d just about need your nose touching it.
Oh – and if there’s a severe lack of content coded for 4K playback, there is almost utterly totally nothing at all available for 8K. Noting also the increasing use of internet streaming as a source of video entertainment, one wonders how many people have enough speed to support 8K streaming. Regular 4K can consume 15 Mb/sec of bandwidth, so presumably 8K is going to run 50 Mb/sec. If there are two of you in your household, and both want to watch different programs simultaneously, that would mean 100 Mb/sec of bandwidth, plus some spare for occasional bursts of email, a bit of internet browsing, and other things.
Do you have a 100 Mb/sec data line into your home?
A couple of years ago, curved screens were all the rage, and of course, the closer you have to sit to the screen, the more sense there is in a curved screen. But this year, screen curvature took a new form – a screen that can be rolled up and stored out of the way when not in use. This would be great if, like in my house, your screen is in front of picture windows facing out. So instead of blocking your view all day long, you could have the screen rolled up when not in use and extended only when you want to watch something.
As always, there were the prominently showcased really-big (and invariably really-expensive) screens on display, with a Samsung 146″ unit probably taking pride of place this year. Cost? As yet, unrevealed. If you have to ask, though; you probably can’t afford it.
A much more moderately priced approach to such enormous displays is of course to use a projector, and a Hisense unit, capable of credibly showing up to a 150″ sized image, seemed to be the pick of the crop for 2018. Cost also not yet known, but probably between $12,000 and $20,000.
More modestly, TCL (the company that makes budget priced Alcatel cell phones and also expensive Blackberry cell phones) is continuing its range of Roku branded big screen televisions. The earlier product range were good value good performers, we expect the latest models will be the same.
Laptops have been a very unloved category of electronic product over the last few years. Their demise has been regularly predicted, and while it is true they no longer sell in the quantities they once did, that isn’t because no-one wants or needs them any more. It is because, like me, we are all holding on to our laptops for much longer. In my case, I used to replace laptops every two years or possibly more frequently, but my current Dell is still going strong, and I think it is four years old now.
It is definitely true that modern laptops are very much thinner and lighter, and have less bezel around their screens. My daughter’s 18 month old laptop is less than half the weight of mine. They also may have much longer battery life. But what they generally are not is any faster – I made sure to get a top of the line unit four years ago, with a high-end Intel Core 7 processor, and a solid state 1TB hard drive, so by the most critical measure – speed and performance – my laptop remains almost as good as anything out there.
And it is a huge, terrifying but. The two new vulnerabilities that have been reported on in just the last week are part of the CPU chips, and while stories are evolving, it seems that fixes to these vulnerabilities will involve appreciably slowing down the CPUs. This makes it a remarkably positive vulnerability for manufacturers of all computer devices (the problem involves just about any type of modern computing device, whether it be Apple, PC, Unix, or anything else), because it encourages us to accelerate our upgrade plans. If our choices are to either accept a 20% or greater slowdown in our computer’s speed, or to upgrade to a newer computer, that’s not an easy decision to make.
So there was slightly more interest in laptops this year, with retailers perhaps sensing some ‘blood in the water’ and the possibility of an appreciable wave of hardware upgrades coming in the months ahead.
Dell in particular had a lovely new model in its lightweight XPS series (with a ‘mag-lev’ keyboard, no less), and the extra power of the latest chips were showcased in a range of gaming focused laptops. Dell also has an interesting program that allows your phone to virtually appear on your laptop.
I don’t want to have to spend what would inevitably end up the wrong side of $2000, and probably take a week or so of agony to re-install and reconfigure everything; on the other hand, if I get a device that might possibly have 10+ hours of battery life, with a charger that doesn’t immediately trip the circuitbreaker on the invariably inadequate airline at-seat power supplies, and weighing three or four pounds less than my current laptop, that would not be altogether a bad thing.
The market for drones is maturing, and there’s no longer quite so much emphasis on tiny units that do nothing except fly around a room, not powerful enough to be trusted outdoors at all.
A fascinating miniature drone is this one, which, incredibly, fits within a phone case. No longer are your selfies limited to the length of your arm, or the extra length of a selfie-stick; this new device is being described as allowing you to fly the drone away from you to take selfies from new perspectives.
How amazing – how sad – that the primary function being promoted for this drone is to take pictures of oneself, not of other people, places, or things. Our obsession with ourselves continues to scale new heights.
Oh, if you’re flying a drone in New Jersey, be careful. A proposal there would make flying a drone, while you are drunk, an imprisonable offense. Really? No wonder the US leads the world in terms of incarceration rates.
Surprisingly, while Boeing has little or no interest in making smaller sized airplanes, it revealed an interest in drones, displaying a cargo drone capable of lifting 500 lbs. And talking about lifting heavy things, a German company, Volocopter, has said it hopes to have air taxi drones in the sky within five years. We’ll rate that a definite maybe.
More surprising still is that one of the US leaders in drone technology, GoPro, has announced it is essentially for sale, and will exit the drone business. Here’s an interesting article that tells how the drone marketplace is owned by China – where Chinese companies and in particular, DJI, have out-designed, out-manufactured, and out-sold US competitors.
More broadly though, the same advantages (for China) and disadvantages (for the US) seem to apply to just about all types of consumer electronics these days. Most of the design and all the manufacturing is usually done in China, not the US, and even if a company were to attempt to manufacture in the US, they’d probably be importing components and subassemblies from China and simply doing the final assembly in the US.
Have we irrevocably lost our ascendancy in electronics? It might be possible to reclaim it, but it would certainly not be easy, and in the current world of internationalization, there’s very little incentive for companies – if it is easier/quicker/cheaper to do all that in China, they’ll simply do so.
It used to be that the auto electronics section of CES showcased little more than CD changers, and then, more recently, GPS units.
But these days the car itself is the technology, and CES has gone from being a ‘non-car’ show that few auto manufacturers participated in, and now is one of the major car-themed shows each year. A car is no longer a passenger compartment powered by an internal combustion engine. Instead, it is an entertainment/interactive space, probably battery-electric powered, and increasingly autonomous and able to drive itself.
Several self-driving vehicles were being demonstrated at CES and even on the streets of Las Vegas, helped by Nevada having one of the most liberal sets of laws on allowing self-driving vehicles on the roads.
But, when it came to auto technology, there was a name that was surprisingly little invoked, while other names, unknown by most, were the talk of the show. Tesla was notable mainly for its lack of anything notable (although it could be fairly said that their most recent and fanciful truck announcement, and simultaneous new sportscar announcement, was probably news enough for them for a while). Instead, the most exciting development was one offered by Byton. That’s a company you’ve almost certainly never heard of, and it is also a company that hails from China. They released a concept model of a new electric car which they say will go on sale next year at prices starting from $45,000, which they say is about half the price of a comparable Tesla.
Sure, we hear a lot about Tesla, and about the major name-brand car manufacturers and their plans for electric vehicles, but the real ‘heavy lifting’ and volume production seems to be shifting steadily towards China and to companies we’ve never heard of.
Is it possible that such companies could displace even Ford, General Motors, Toyota, and the other huge market players? Well, if Tesla managed to do that, in its own unique way, why not any other company, too? Until such time as the current market leaders throw off their ‘old fashioned’ legacy and image and show themselves to be truly positioned for futuristic cars and capabilities, being a traditional auto-manufacturer is more negative than positive.
The Chinese companies seem to be well capitalized, government supported, and with their own huge domestic market right on their doorstep. Many of the same issues that apply to drone design and manufacturing apply to new electric cars too, and the paradigm shattering nature of electric cars has created an opportunity for new companies with unknown brands to enter the market with little disadvantage.
Other Stuff – Warning, Some Very Silly Things
Almost moribund Kodak (remember them – when did you last see a roll of Kodak film, or a Kodak Instamatic camera) announced a new business pivot – it will launch its own crypto-currency, somewhat similar to Bitcoin and all the hundreds of other type blockchain based virtual currencies. This strange announcement saw its stock price quickly double – we wonder how long for.
What’s old is new again? That’s what the manufacturer of this device clearly hopes – it is a portable PDA, just like those we remember from 20 years ago. The justification for re-imagining a long dead device is due to its physical keyboard, which it is claimed, people will welcome.
And just exactly how well did the strategy of hanging on to a physical keyboard work for Blackberry, one might wonder.
You’re walking back to your car late at night in a darkened car park and all of a sudden a mugger leaps out at you, intent on inflicting bodily harm on you. But, high-tech gadget lover that you are, you’re prepared. Yes, you have a new ‘security bracelet’ that you adroitly twirl and twiddle with and, hey presto, a short while later, both you and your attacker are doused in a foul smell emanating from the bracelet. Apparently this will stop your attacker (assuming he doesn’t have a bad cold, and assuming he is alone), or so the makers of the $70 device hope.
As for me, at last I’ve found a gadget I don’t like. I’ll stick to my low-tech pistol.
Flipping now from dreadful smells to delightful ones, high-tech meets the wine industry. A new $200 gadget lets you dial in the amount of aeration you wish to add to the wine you pour through it, allowing you to fully enjoy the benefits of wine that has well breathed, but without having to wait the many hours that might be required.
And if you like your wine in moderation, there’s a gadget for that, too. A $1000 smart wine opener will open a bottle of wine without removing its cork, allow you to pour just the amount of wine you wish, and then, after removing the needle like device, the cork reseals the wine, with the now empty space in the bottle taken up with inert Argon gas rather than wine-destroying regular air. No word on how it handles screw-capped bottles.
A companion app will even suggest the ideal song to listen to while drinking the wine (true).
Note that if your preferred wine is Trader Joe’s excellent Two Buck Chuck, this would not be a good choice. The cost of the compressed gas capsules are greater than the cost of the wine in the bottle. The capsules are $9 each, and each capsule is good for three bottles of wine. But definitely a bargain for your first growth Bordeaux wines.
Other strange devices included an airbag equipped belt, designed to lessen the impact on your hips if you fall, a baby lotion dispenser that sells for $300 in France (US price not yet determined), and a device that enables you to sample what is ostensibly the smell of whatever product you’re considering buying in a store. Not sure which brand of pasta sauce is the one you want? This might allow you to smell-compare them. Just what the nation’s retailers, and shoppers, have been clamoring for, right? No word on how Amazon will adapt it to their online selling, but maybe that will come next year.
And now, as a reward for reading this far, a couple of travel gadgets. A travel bag with a motion sensitive alarm – if you turn it on with an RFID type card, then if it is bumped or moved, it will activate a loud siren to alert you of someone trying to steal it. Just be sure to remember to turn the device off before you move it yourself, please. Can you imagine the cacophony as people forget to disarm their bags, or as other people innocently bump bags that have been armed?
But, leaving the best/worst to last, the prize for worst item at CES for 2018 has to go to the auto-following suitcase, that will follow its owner (well, actually, it follows a radio device you have with you) as you go through an air terminal or wherever. It isn’t very good at avoiding other people, alas, and the designers clearly didn’t get the memo about the FAA moving to ban suitcases with built in batteries. No word on its price, or its empty weight.