CES 2017 – More Highlights than Lowlights

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  January 11, 2017

I’ve been attending the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the annual showcase in Las Vegas for Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) members for nearly a decade—long enough to see the event get bogged down by and then shrug off one of the most severe global financial crises of the century (resulting in a 20%+ attendance drop in 2009). That resilience may not seem critical to some but it is key to remembering the event’s economic context which is as important as the innovative products vendors share.

Why so? Because CES focuses on the technologies and products that vendors hope will ensure their financial well-being in the coming 12-18 months. That’s one reason the CEA is so regularly dinged for its overly optimistic promotion of often still-emerging technologies and eventually go nowhere. That said, the conference has also served to introduce scores of products that had a lasting impact on markets and consumers.

The lesson here is that while it’s certainly wise to approach CES (or any other trade show) with a healthy dose of skepticism, it’s a mistake to allow massive crowds (reportedly over 177,000 this year), Vegas-style glitz and near-endless hype to bring out your inner cynic. If so, you’ll miss or overlook the good stuff.

So what stood out at CES 2017?

  • Silicon supreme—It may seem redundant to mention but the clear focus on hardware at CES can seem somewhat counterintuitive for some industry watchers, especially those who chart the ways that software is “eating” the rest of the IT industry. That isn’t to say that software doesn’t play an important role in electronics products but it’s position at CES remains understated where the spotlight shines particularly brightly on component vendors and their OEM customers. This year was especially good for PC vendors, including Dell, Lenovo, HP and Samsung which launched premium laptops, tablets, desktops, workstations, gaming systems and new PC form factors based on Intel’s new 7th generation “Kaby Lake” Core CPUs and its latest Thunderbolt 3 interconnect technologies. The high-end isn’t the be all/end all for 7th gen Core. Intel introduced some 40 new Kaby Lake processor SKUs so the company’s latest offerings will be making news throughout 2017. Other silicon vendors were also active at CES 2017, including NVIDIA which spotlighted the new GeForce NOW cloud service based on its Pascal GPU technologies and AMD which revealed new details about its high-end Ryzen CPUs and Vega graphics architecture.
  • VR/AR finally gets real—Virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) technologies have been a cause celebré at CES since the 2015 show, a few months after Facebook’s $2B purchase of Oculus Rift. That deal, along with VR products in general have failed to fire-up the market, mainly because most require pricey, high-end systems that are out of the reach of rank and file consumers. However, events at CES 2017 suggest that situation could change over the coming 12-24 months. At Intel CEO Brian Krzanich’s CES keynote, VR held center stage with many in the audience enjoying fascinating and entertaining demos via Oculus headsets provided by Intel. In fact, the continuing price/performance evolution of PC components being driven by Intel and others should eventually result in mainstream-priced VR/AR-ready systems. Other approaches are being reportedly being pursued by some vendors, including mobile VR featuring content streamed via smart phones. If the new and rumored products spotlighted at CES gain substance, 2017 could be a breakout year for VR/AR.
  • IoT and consumers—Intelligent, Internet-connected devices are often referred to collectively as the Internet of Things (IoT). But while many IoT solutions and applications serve industry, they can also include standalone or hybrid consumer devices, such as wearables, healthcare devices, infant and child monitors, home appliances and home security solutions. Many of these populate the so-called “smart home” market, and literally hundreds were on display at CES 2017. Many were compelling but the sheer volume of pitches and variety of platforms (some of them highly proprietary) make their practical value and long term impact appear questionable. This corner of the market will likely produce a few short-term winners but broader sustainability is going to require further maturation and potentially painful consolidation.
  • Life/work balance—As I wrote about the client endpoints that both Dell and Lenovo introduced at CES 2017, the companies’ products reflect a shift in attitude toward what were once called BYOD solutions. It isn’t simply that a product designed to support consumer services can also be used for workplace applications, or vice versa. It’s that new PCs, notebooks, tablets, smart phones and other endpoints are being designed to support customers’ needs whatever they happen to be. That was never clearer than at this year’s CES and the issue has become increasingly compelling via innovative endpoint vendors, including Dell, Lenovo, HP, Panasonic and Samsung, and forward thinking component manufacturers, like Intel, NVIDIA, AMD and many others.
  • AI comes home—One of CES 2017’s hotter topics was the growing popularity of digital personal assistants with artificial intelligence characteristics, including Amazon Echo/Alexa, Microsoft Cortana and Google Home, and their integration with a growing number of strategic partners’ devices, like home appliances and environmental systems. In fact, some analysts were tracking which platform’s partnership numbers “won” the show (according to Google News stats, Amazon seemed to be enjoying a solid lead). But an odd thing happened on January 6 during a TV news broadcast about a young girl using an Amazon Echo to order a dollhouse for herself. When the reporter said, “Alexa, order me a dollhouse,” Amazon Echoes in numerous viewers’ homes automatically ordered dollhouses, sparking numerous complaints. Reports about Amazon’s dominance in AI at CES dribbled off after that, and one expects that Amazon engineers are working overtime to quell Alexa’s unintended shopping sprees. However, it’s worth considering what the episode might portend for home AI since it unsettles core issues, including security and user privacy. Frankly, industrial use cases for AI via platforms, like IBM’s Watson are far more compelling than home applications. Unless Amazon and other consumer-focused vendors can develop adequate means for identifying and authorizing AI platforms’ users, the value of those products is likely to be substantially diminished.
  • Eureka Park—For the past few years, some of my favorite CES experiences have occurred at Eureka Park, a portion of the show dedicated to early and mid-stage start-ups, universities and entrepreneurs with vendor, industry and country-specific support. CES 2017 was no different, and this year’s Eureka Park served as a sort of microcosm of the larger show. Of course, it included some goofy ideas, like far-fetched “healthcare” enhancements and computerized pet accessories. But there were also some intriguing ideas. For example, the booth featuring engineering student projects at the local University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV) campus highlighted a microwave oven that can read QR code information on food packages, then automatically program the proper cooking levels and times. Will it change the world? Probably not, but it’s a clever and productive idea I haven’t seen from far larger and far better funded vendors. If nothing else, Eureka Park offers testimony that intelligence, invention, innovation and value can be found anywhere, not just in the product portfolios of commercial vendors. That’s a lesson well-worth remembering both at and away from CES.

Offsite events—I’ll finish by expressing my appreciation for the owners/organizers of press/analyst/blogger events hosted well-away from the insanity of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) and Sands complex. Digital Experience/Pepcom at the Mirage and Showstoppers at the Wynn are two of the largest showcases, and both enabled attendees to meet participating vendors and learn about their products in comfortable, relatively quiet, non-frenetic environments. That’s hugely beneficial, as will be recognized by anyone who has tried to attend a meeting at the LVCC. Some purists claim that offsite venues are less than worthwhile because the fees required from exhibiting vendors make them “pay to play” events restricted to a chosen few. I’d suggest they reconsider, since by that definition, the Consumer Electronics Show itself falls into the same category. No one exhibits for free and attendance requires industry affiliation. In any case, I met some great people and saw some interesting companies and products at both Showstoppers and Pepcom that I’ll explore in the coming weeks.

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