Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Consumer Electronics Show, My No-Go, and Big Bird in the Mobile Nest

In previous years at precisely this time I would be shuffling through a casino in Las Vegas on my way to catch a bus to the CES.  My route had been dictated by the architects who designed this place of lost weekends, as both reward and punishment.  Nothing wakes you up faster than watching overnight gamblers downing neat whiskey while digging deeper into pockets and purses for the last coin that will change their lives forever.  Welcome to the Show.

Despite the casino perp walk, the hour-long taxi lines and the highly textured food at the electronics show, it has something of a funhouse quality that is hard to replicate.  Why go to the beach when you can visit 3,000 booths, most displaying products that will never get to market; listen to the endless pitches, and finally place a bet on the Panasonic Viera TV that can read your face and summon to screen your favorite features and apps?  If only that screen could read my mind.

Mat Horan in the current issue of Wired writes that “CES is the world’s greatest hardware show stuck in a software era.”  He has a point; after all, these days the world turns on apps, experiences and integration.  Horan reminds us that in 2012 the Nokia Lumia was the talk of the show and widely touted as a breakthrough product but was obsolete five months later after a Windows upgrade.  He also mentioned the BlackBerry tablet, the PlayBook, which had received similar rave reviews and made one of the show’s “best” lists.  I recall how difficult it was to get close to the BlackBerry booth because buzz was in the air and there is nothing like huge, ravenous crowds at trade shows to signal a successful product.  This tablet was a market failure.

All this is my lazy way of saying that, once the acres of CES have been walked, measured, and digitally charted for future generations, year-after-year, I can watch most keynotes on the computer and get first-hand reports from family, friends, and spies in attendance.  And I won’t need to purchase a promising new product displayed at the show.  Trakdot has a SIM card that could track my lost fantasy luggage.  Whether I leave home or not, I am keen on another offering, Flower Power by Parrot.  It monitors and tests a plant’s soil and ambient conditions against an ideal environment and updates the user through an iPhone app.  Keeping green things alive in the hot-house theater called CES is a real challenge.

All hyperbole aside, there is clearly a sea-change happening at CES, at least when it comes to the pre-show keynote speaker whose task is to prefigure the show and especially to imagine the future.  For the first time, a Microsoft executive didn’t fill this role.  Rather, the baton was handed to Dr. Paul Jacobs, Qualcomm CEO, who reminded his audience that 2013 was the first time a mobile company opened CES.  It won’t be the last (Jacobs’ one-hour keynote is available at Qualcomm.com).

I’m a fan of Qualcomm and have consulted for their QMT division, but after hearing Jacob’s remarks it is hard not to see how the emerging mobile eco-system is maturing in ways advantageous to the company and those in the competitive set.  There are 6.4 billion mobile connections, just short of the number of warm bodies on the planet.  A central theme of Jacobs’ address is that we are now born mobile, with perhaps Qualcomm being the first citizen of mobile, having shipped 11 billion chipsets since the company’s founding 27 years ago.

While I loved the visuals, including a flight line of fire breathing dragons, a show-and-tell by Big Bird and an cameo by an actress from upcoming Star Trek movie, all were in service, more or less, to Jacobs’ iterative themes.  We are born mobile and mobile is fast-becoming our sixth sense, an extension of our personas and realities.  He mentioned the Vuforia platform that enables augmented reality (AR) app experiences and gives mobile apps the power to see.  Big Bird uses this application for text recognition so he can differentiate between the words for cereal and milk.  The Context Aware offering (Gimbal) includes a full library: geofencing, interest sensing, and image recognition.  For all Star Trek fans this will be used in the run-up promotion to the new film Into Darkness and allow interested players to interact through their smartphones with billboards and the like in order to gain points and other goodies, but most importantly, to add notches to their hero belts and move higher on the vanity charts.  Participants can perform such heady feats without removing their smartphones from their pockets or their bags.  The blurring between physical and the digital continues.

Matt Buchanan at Buzzfeed suggests two reasons for the decreasing importance of CES: “Software and services have become the soul of consumer technology.”  And the “social web has replaced the trade show as a platform for showcasing and distributing products.”  He’s absolutely right.  The old days are not likely to return.

One of my favorite venues at CES is the health and fitness tracks, which seem to be growing in importance every year as the health/tech connection becomes clearer.  Jacobs spoke in passing about the company’s commitment to e-health and in this context Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressed the prospects for mobile health in Africa and around the developing world.  Mobile health is less sexy than Big Bird or the next Star Trek, but is hugely important to the company through its Qualcomm Life business that invests in early stage high-tech health companies with an eye to accelerating wireless health services.

Arianna Huffington, who is moderating a panel at CES titled “The Digital Health Revolution: Body, Mind and Soul,” writes in The Huffington Post about “the new wave of technology that connects us to ourselves.  For example, a robust market of wearable devices—like the Nike+ Fuelband, Jawbone UP, FitBit and Lark—has emerged, monitoring everything from activity and food intake to weight and sleep.”  She is right and these developments will only quicken as more venture capital flows into mobile health.  Qualcomm Life, through its 2net Platform, which is technology and device agnostic, cloud-based, data encrypted, and linked to multiple carriers, offers a scalable, protected way to move medical data from device to server to doctor.  

We now have throwaway bandages and other sticky devices that monitor our vital signs.  But mobile health will truly become the soul of the new machine when there is an integrated, scalable platform with carrier participation.

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