Alongside the dozens of razor-thin TV sets and ultra-fast smartphones populating Samsung’s booth at the world’s largest technology trade show are a couple of washers and dryers. The company hopes you’ll buy them in part because they come with a nifty perk: You can control them from your Samsung phone.
“I don’t think consumers ask for these things,” says Paul Brannen, Samsung’s vice-president of business solutions and mobile communications. “But when you put them out there, they start to see the benefits.”
Even with some 20,000 new products due to be unveiled at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, this year's instalment of the tech industry's biggest trade show isn't about selling you a single device – it's about selling you an entire ecosystem.
Take Sony's sprawling, football field-sized booth at the CES convention space in Las Vegas. Despite row upon row of new tablets, TVs and smartphones, the pitch here is about what Peter Farmer, the company's head of North American marketing, calls a “four screens” strategy. Sony is pushing its massive store of audio and video content through pay-per-month streaming services that let you play that content on just about any device. Pay for the service and you can easily consume it on your smartphone, tablet, laptop or TV – as long as all those devices are also purchased from Sony. In effect, it's a massive all-in bet, and many of CES's biggest exhibitors are making similar wagers.
This year, the stakes are highest for Microsoft, which is looking to set the stage for the launch of Windows 8. Still dominant in the waning personal-computer market, Microsoft has been criticized for showing up late to the smartphone and tablet party. Windows 8, the newest version of the ubiquitous operating system, is the company’s attempt to catch up to the likes of Apple and Google. Like those players, Microsoft hopes its operating system will function as a sort of central nervous system for customers’ communication and entertainment, residing on everything from the smartphone to the PC to the gaming system.
Microsoft’s gambit will determine more than just its own future. Nokia, one of the largest mobile companies in the world, has bet the farm on the success of Windows-powered phones.
But given the wave of “connectedness” products that seek to provide a seamless experience across multiple devices, the biggest winner at CES may well be a company that doesn’t even show up to the event.
Myriad big-name players, ranging from Sony to Samsung, are using Google’s Android operating system to power everything from laptops to phones to TVs. Indeed, so-called “smart” TVs, which give users access to a variety of Web-based services, can be seen all over the showroom floor, and residing inside many of them is Google’s software. And perhaps for the first time at CES, companies are showing off Android-powered tablets that don’t pale in comparison to Apple’s iPad.
“I don't expect to see any barn-burners, but there's reason to be optimistic,” says Sarah Rotman Epps, a senior analyst with Forrester. She points out that the percentage of U.S. tablet shoppers who say they prefer Android as the operating system on a tablet has doubled from 9 to 18 per cent between January and September, 2011, giving the once-dormant operating system a chance in a category currently dominated by the iPad.
But for all the talk of product launches and unveilings, there are very few blockbuster announcements at this year’s CES – if the next iPad is on display here somewhere, it has been lost in the noise of some 3,000 competing exhibitors.
Indeed, the future of the tech industry’s biggest show is itself the subject of uncertainty. This is the last year that Microsoft’s CEO will present the opening keynote. Major players such as Google, Apple and Facebook largely avoid the conference entirely.
Microsoft, like many other major firms, has a hard time tailoring product-release schedules to the CES early January date – many companies would like to release their biggest products closer to a major shopping season.
“In an always-on, Internet-driven tech news cycle, the big Las Vegas reveal no longer holds as much sway as it once did,” says Carmi Levy, an independent tech analyst. “Microsoft's departure won't kill CES, but it will force the show to more rapidly evolve if it hopes to remain as relevant next year and beyond.”
TRENDING AT CES
This somewhat amorphous category covers everything from wristband exercise monitors to super-powered wristwatches. Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps points out that three of the finalists at the annual CES “Last Gadget Standing” competition fell into this category: an Android-powered watch, a wristband health monitor and an ear-mounted camcorder.
Very thin, very light laptops such as the MacBook Air are the subject of much hype at this year’s show. The devices, which hover around $1,000, are popular because of their portability and stylishness, but are still a little too expensive for many buyers, who instead opt for cheaper, albeit chunkier, laptops. Research firm Forrester expects to see about 50 different ultrabook models on display at CES this year.
Many of the biggest exhibitors at CES are related to the car industry. QNX, the operating-system company owned by Research In Motion, does a lot of its business with car companies, building their dashboard and entertainment systems. As technology analyst Carmi Levy points out, this year a number of car companies are abandoning their own proprietary in-car software for third-party platforms that can accommodate popular devices such as Apple’s iPod and iPhone. “Why design something yourself when you can simply use whatever's out there? Sure, there's the risk of commoditization, but as systems become ever more complex, automotive vendors may have no choice.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Number of new products expected to be launched by the time the show closes on Friday
Number of people expected to visit the show
Estimated number of exhibitors
Square feet the conference covers, which is equivalent to 31 football fields.
As the price of traditional TVs plummets, and with it, profits for TV manufactuers, everyone from Lenovo to LG, Sony to Samsung, is hopping on the Web-ready TV bandwagon. These TVs, which range from $1,000 to $8,000, give users access to nearly unlimited content from the Internet. But more importantly for the manufacturers, the always-connected sets allow them to bundle content-streaming services, such as Sony’s “Video Unlimited,” which gives customers access to thousands of movies.
Companies are also pushing voice-recognition technology as a means of controlling the TV set, something popularized in the past year by the introduction of Microsoft's Kinect, which allowed users to give voice command. Tech firms have tried pushing smart TVs before, but consumers have been weary of paying thousands of dollars for a new TV, especially since many of them just bought their first high-definition sets a few years ago.