The ABC's of CES

CES is filled with companies looking to cash in on the global public's desperate need for fun

The "C" in CES doesn't stand for "consumer" any more. It stands for casual, cozy, chilled out. Electronics has become less about keeping up with the Jonses than about having a good time. The "E" stands for "entertainment." Whatever you're selling, it has to entertain, no matter how obscure the connection to lifestyle integration may be. "S" can still stand for "show." I'll allow that.

You can see summaries of hot CES products for yourself. I go to CES to see what I want to see, to find out what vendors and manufacturers think people will buy next year. Resellers are depressed. Consumers are afraid to spend money, and they want what little they do spend to help them have a good time, to forget the Dow Jones numbers for a while.

[ View demos of these and other new technologies and products from CES 2009: Futuristic touch-driven displays, portable emergency power, cell phone signal boosters, everyday bar codes, thin and light document reader, solid state drives, dual-display laptop, and more. ]

I tend to see what I look for at CES. The floor was filled with Asian companies scouting for design wins for components related to wireless and video. These components are signposts for future technology and long-term investments, like video over IP, that are still in limited deployment awaiting cheap, simple end-to-end solutions. Multimode wireless, combining Wi-Fi, CDMA, GSM, and WiMax, is out as components. Software companies are licensing video codecs, mostly in software. Navigation systems of all shapes, sizes, and prices are up for grabs and ready for rebranding.

And then there are games. Whatever purpose vendors had in mind before they came to CES, many of them wound up showing how their technology could make a reach into entertainment. Monitors, furniture, headphones, mobile devices, wireless routers, CPUs, you name it -- they were all pitched straight to resellers as feeding into the gaming market.

And there is a gaming market. When the Conference Board declared 2008 to be the Christmas that wasn't, even for the typically recession-resilient consumer electronics sector, it added an asterisk: Video game consoles, systems, and software snagged the dollars that were denied others. Highly profitable equipment (consoles and handheld units) generated high-margin-guaranteed recurring revenue. On the PC side, AMD made a play for gamers and enthusiasts with its Dragon platform. Gaming consoles are doing just fine overall, but I don't think that anything illustrates changing consumer norms as effectively as the Nintendo Wii.

Wii has nothing to recommend it. It has no hard drive, weak graphics, no digital video or audio output, and an extremely limited selection of titles (such a small catalog makes the lame ones really stand out). Analysts point to the unique motion-sensitive controllers as the cause for Wii's success, but I think it's simpler than that. People want to have fun. They need to have fun, and they don't want to work for it. More than anything else, enjoyment should be plug and play, five minutes from the box to a big grin. Fun needs to be handy whenever you reach for it or integrated into other things that are readily at hand.

What I saw at CES was an industry that's reaching out to make fun simple, reducing the gadgetry and arcane knowledge required to play, watch, or listen, or to get to an obscure little after-hours place without driving in circles looking for the turn.

I saw another trend that I consider welcome: deconvergence. Convergence created a tidal wave of devices that consistently do one thing exceedingly poorly -- namely, photography and video. Thank heaven that actual cameras and camcorders have not disappeared. They've gotten smaller, less expensive, and considerably richer in features. It's amazing what you can do with things that a pinhole cell phone camera lacks, like a lens.

Yes, it is somewhat inconvenient to carry a second piece of equipment on the off chance that you might want to take a picture or shoot some video. But I appeal, with honesty, respect, and urgency, to bloggers to stop using cell phone cameras.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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