CES 2014: Desperately seeking life after the PC

As the focus of the tech industry shifts from old computing forms, vendors at CES cast a wide net for the Next Big Thing

CES 2014 is coming to a close and could well be remembered as the show full of stuff nobody will ever buy -- or as Tested's Will Smith more bluntly put it: "It's mostly bull$%*t."

Kolibree smart toothbrush
Credit: Reuters/Steve Marcus

After yet another year that saw PC shipments going down, down, and down, PC makers reeked of desperation at CES as they cast about for the Next Big Thing. Intel, which derives roughly two-thirds of its revenue from PCs, has latched onto wearables to keep its boat afloat. CEO Brian Krzanich used his CES keynote to introduce a new line of wearable computers, including a pair of smart earbuds that monitor your heart.

Krzanich barely mentioned the PC -- and small wonder: "They're pushing as hard as they can in everything that's not a PC," Stacy Rasgon, an investment analyst who follows Intel for Sanford Bernstein, told The Oregonian. Intel's efforts to diversify its business make sense, Rasgon said, but "it could be years before it becomes clear what concepts will win out, and which companies will cash in."

Meanwhile, Mensa had a field day as "smartness" abounded at CES 2014. There were smart watches galore, smart onesies that monitor babies' vital signs, and smart collars that offer insight into your dog's health.

SmartOne infant sleep monitor
Credit: Reuters/Steve Marcus

However, none of them could hold a match to the sheer number of smart glasses, as InfoWorld's Robert X. Cringely discovered:

CES 2014's "Obvious" is smart glasses; they really are here, you really will be seeing them on the sidewalk soon, and you really will be laughing when some wearers walk into light poles right in front of you. While you're snarky about them today, you'll probably succumb and buy one when the price falls below $200. And you'll be especially happy to have them when they interface with your personal health monitor to let you know which bones you broke while falling down the stairs.

At times it seemed only Lenovo among PC vendors was shunning the wearable technology trend -- only to fall for the hot trend pitfall of dual-booting operating systems, which InfoWorld's Serdar Yegulalp called "a solution to a non-problem."

If wearable technology isn't up your alley, the Internet of things bandwagon also carried a ton of passengers at CES. Cisco CEO John Chambers kicked off the proceedings by summing up the enormity of the connected business: "It will be bigger than anything that's ever been done in high tech," Chambers said in his keynote, tossing out the figure $19 trillion -- that's a quarter of the planet's GDP, by the way -- to describe the economic potential of the "Internet of everything."

Vendors in Vegas hawked IoE wares ranging from the world's first Internet-connected toothbrush to a Wi-Fi-connected Crock-Pot to fridges and televisions you can text. Never mind a Forrester Research poll cited by the Wall Street Journal that says 53 percent of Americans are not interested in controlling appliances with a smartphone.

One consequence of these IoE products: Look for the big post-CES theme to be the security and privacy issues stemming from all this connectivity; it was certainly in the forefront of U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker's mind as she toured CES.

Judging by CES, vendors are giving up on PCs to focus on your health, your home, and -- to complete the triumvirate -- your car. While the prospect of driverless cars captured headlines, the automotive arena could well be the next big battleground for technology's giants. Google, apparently devoted to bringing "Knight Rider" one step closer to reality, used CES to launch the Open Automotive Alliance alongside carmakers like Audi, GM, and Honda. Looking to expand Android beyond the smartphone market, sources told the Verge:

[Google] will take a two-pronged approach to owning the dashboard: there will be Android-powered cars, but there will also be enhancements to Android smartphones geared and making them more car-friendly ... not unlike what Apple is offering with iOS in the Car when it's fully commercialized this year.

In other words, what's happening in the dashboard in 2014 in many way mirrors the heady early days of the modern smartphone, circa 2008: Apple and Google fighting for control, hardware makers trying their hands at their own proprietary platforms, and a sky's-the-limit mentality enjoyed by everyone in the game.

Lay your bets now as to which of these smart gadgets will come to fruition and succeed in the marketplace of ideas. Or just sit back and wait until the end of the year to read the "biggest misses of CES 2014" wrap-up.

This story, "CES 2014: Desperately seeking life after the PC," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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