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25 years thinking about tech and CES 2023
CES 2023 marks the 25th year since I first started working in agency life. Back then I was working in what was the exciting world of technology. I had nascent internet clients, networking / telecoms clients and Palm, who were leaders in the personal digital assistant market. Things were just hinting at the convergence of the technology and consumer electronics world.
Over the next 19 years, I was involved in or kept up with a succession of product appearances and launches at the GSMA’s Mobile World Congress, CeBIT, (Network &) InterOp, ITU’s World Telecom / World Digital events in Geneva, IFA and CeBIT. At a personal level, trade shows can be a hellish experience and I did my best to avoid being on the ground if possible.
Like most trade shows CES 2023 works on two levels. The bit that’s in the media that helps people like me understand manufacturer led product and service trends. Some of the trends went well, like LCD televisions and some did badly like 3D television screens. The bit that wasn’t seen was the sales meetings that fuel much of the global trade in finished electronics products. 100s of billions of dollars in sales were agreed through CES Los Vegas each year and CES 2023 was likely to be similar to other years in this respect.
China at CES 2023
China had about half the companies that attended CES pre-COVID pandemic. This was a mix of:
- Washington Entity list. Large technology players including DJI, ZTE and Huawei are barred from doing business with American partners. So turning up to CES 2023 would have a limited utility for them even if they were allowed to have a booth
- COVID-disruption. Large swathes were locked down, something that the country has only recently opened up
- Economic head winds at home
Finally, government focus on the right kind of business development with a tiered funding model
Bankers and experts said that the CSRC was trying to funnel money towards sectors it deemed strategically important as the country pushed for technological self-reliance and economic growth. The regulator’s move to refresh the listings guidance underscores Beijing’s efforts to make the country’s equity exchanges serve its national agenda, said analysts. “The Chinese government doesn’t want a market-based stock market,” said Larry Hu, an economist at Macquarie Group in Hong Kong. “It wants one that helps the authority carry out industry policy.”Yu, S. Leng, C. (January 9, 2023) Beijing blocks listings of ‘red light’ companies to steer funding to strategic sectors. United Kingdom: Financial Times.
A plethora of projector companies made a pitch to replace the TV set with 8K resolution projectors.
The physical nature of TV sets is considered to be a ‘problem’ that manufacturers are trying to solve. A second way to do this was through wireless technology. LG separated its TV set from its HDMI and other connectors, instead having the cables to go into a hub that then wirelessly connected to the TV.
If I was to make a guess as to why this was happening, I would partly credit the pandemic and the way some consumers looked to change their living space during that time. Another TV which seemed to capture lots of TV news overage of the show was the Displace wireless TV set. It completely dispensed with a power cable due to being powered by TV sized lithium batteries and was held up with a suction cup.
Descriptors used included comparisons to it being a ‘giant iPad’ which wasn’t really true as its not really a tablet computer. This probably says more about the iPad being co-opted as a media consumption device. Secondly, just because it grabs attention doesn’t mean that it has a consumer use case.
IoT (internet of things)
IoT is often called smart home or home automation. Like most technology ideas it actually goes back several decades. In the case of home automation, the pre-internet communications protocol was X10, invented by a Scottish technology start-up in the 1970s. My 1978, X10 enabled products were on sale in the Sears department store (then the US’ largest retailer) and Radio Shack (for UK people of a certain age: Tandy).
Use of IP protocol has allowed for much more functionality and use cases. It is even parodied with the Internet of Shit.
According to veteran analyst Tim Bajarin, a decade ago IoT the way we now think of it didn’t have its own section at CES, five years ago it suddenly did. CES 2023 didn’t necessarily present solutions to IoTs myriad of problems, such as cybersecurity and personal security.
It’s still a very important trend, despite the decline in Chinese vendors turning up with weird new products this year.
The underlying of technology has inspired new applications in
- Health technology
- Food technology
- Sports technology
All of which now have their sections at CES 2023.
Healthcare monitoring has been a big area of growth. The reasons for this are many-fold:
- Consumers increased focus on their own health, from the quantified self to the rise of smart watches like the Apple Watch
- Organisations like US healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente who have pioneered a focus on preventative health and maintenance rather than waiting for people to get sick
- People are increasingly living with co-morbidities such as diabetes
You now have traditional big pharmacy companies like Abbott appearing at CES 2023 with their health monitoring solutions
This surge in healthcare technology has been enabled by smart sensors and machine learning powering hardware and software solutions enable it. Some technologies like accelerometers have moved along in leaps and bounds alongside other silicon MEMS chips. However as we have seen with high profile cases such as Theranos, there often isn’t the miraculous leaps forward in technology that we might expect in other areas due to the likes of Moore’s Law.
Some analysts have speculated that pet health and activity tracking will be the next growth areas after their humans have digitised their own health regimes.
Adaptive technology that could be considered to fit within the health technology space can reduce the cost of care in a similar way to self monitoring, or can be an exercise in ‘brand purpose’ like L’Oreal’s robotic lipstick applicator. In L’Oreal’s case, brand purpose and cynical PR stunt seem to be interchangeable.
For someone who grew up with personal stereos and iPods, I can understand how there would be a demand for a set of headphones that sit somewhere between the Apple AirPod and a hearing aid. Sennheiser have introduced the Conversation Clear Plus and Jabra have a similar offering.
A good deal of hardware technology is supplied to the consumer on razor thin margins and innovation allows greater data collection. This has meant that ad technology was an area of discussion at CES 2023. Experian were there to sell products that allow advertisers to deal with ‘pesky’ issues like consumer privacy, regulatory requirements and data deprecation. Your internet connected TV and streaming hardware are target advertising platforms and are snitching on your viewing habits.
As someone who works in the advertising industry, I can understand the rationale; as a consumer I detest the invasion of my privacy.
The metaverse had its own sections and both hardware and software companies were noted as having some innovative products.
I think that there is a wider question over the health of the metaverse and related technologies such as Web 3.0 and VR. As CES was on, Microsoft got ready to shut down its virtual reality optimised social network Altspace which had a small but vibrant community on there.
We’re at least a decade away from the open VR web-like metaverse imagined by technologists and the financial downturn isn’t helping with this.
Some of the technology on show was also related to other trends such as the head-up displays rolling out on connected cars.
At the start of my career, car stereo head-units and DVD players may have got a look in at CES. For CES 2023, with the move towards electric vehicles, digital cockpits and a desire for more autonomous driving the car looks more like a computer system on four wheels.
Gains in autonomous vehicles have been modest and this was apparent in the mature GPS based tilling programming for John Deere tractors and the simple shuttle service between halls provided by Tesla.
The big thing this year was an upgradeable module to power the digital dashboard and in-car entertainment. This doesn’t sound much of an exciting product, until you realise that cars take longer to develop than gadgets and new cars can be relying on technology that is 10+ years old.
If nothing else upgradeability would solve issues with trying to source obsolete micro-processors for car manufacturers. The automotive sector is sufficiently important to CES that agricultural equipment and ride on lawn mower maker John Deere gave a keynote at the show.
CES 2023 Gadget Gap
The Wall Street Journal walk around highlighted a number of issues at CES 2023. It noted that new product companies in the hardware space were finding a lack of funding, COVID-related development, manufacturing and logistics issues; together with consumer demand challenges would be here for the long haul. They quote a 50 precent drop in venture capital funding.
This has implications for future years of the CES show. They even gave it a name the ‘Gadget Gap’.
A lack of focus
Reading this post on CES 2023, will make you aware of the lack of focus in the event. A good deal of CES is no longer products aimed a consumer end audience, the participation of Experian, John Deere and Caterpillar were a case in point. Yes, CES is still the world’s largest technology trade show, but what does it mean? It feels too broad to have a meaningful purpose. It feels to me like some dystopian digital skid stain across all aspects of modern life. This at odds with the excitement I felt over game changing technologies in previous years. Others like analyst and author Jonathan Goldberg noticed the lack of focus too.
Combine the lack of focus with the broken globalisation model due to the US – China war means that CES needs to move on from CES 2023, or it will go the way of similar trade shows like CeBIT – nothing but a memory full of old news releases on technology company websites.
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