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Better Late Than Never -- What I saw and Heard at Last Week's International CES

Posted by edort on January 18, 2007 at 5:11 PM PST

I had hoped to write a blog immediately after I attended last week's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. I had also hoped to attend multiple days of the show. Neither happened. Because of pressing work (no, I don't mean dry cleaning) and a gross underestimate of the size of the crowds (see the bit about the Gates session below) I managed to only hear the Day 1 morning keynotes and take a brief tour through the exhibitor booths at the Sands Convention Center (only one of three mammoth exhibitor locations). It's now more than a week after my attendance at the show -- so much for immediacy. But better late than never.

Big, Bigger, Biggest

This is a huge show, one that makes the JavaOne Conference seem minuscule. In his show-opening remarks, Gary Shapiro,
President and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, said that this year's show has over 140,000 attendees, more than 2700 exhibitors, and a whopping 1.8 million square feet of exhibitor space spread over three giant convention halls. I think a good chunk of the 140,000 plus attendees waited in line on the evening before the official opening of the show to hear Bill Gates give a pre-show keynote. I hoped to be one of them. I arrived over an hour before Gates's talk, only to find that all the vouchers for admission had been given out. The line of folks waiting to get into the session (the lucky voucher holders) seemed endless. Although I didn't get into the talk, I subsequently heard that the "biggie" announcement in the talk was an agreement between Microsoft and Ford Motor Company that will give drivers voice-activated access to text messages and email as well as the ability to make phone calls by voice command.

Convergence Redux

As far as the keynotes I did get into, the first was Shapiro's. His talk was sort of a philosophical overview
of the consumer electronics industry -- where it is, and where it's heading. Shapiro said that "for years, we talked about converging products. What defines the 2007 International CES is that it's about the new convergence of content, services, and products." I got confirmation the other day of this "for years" aspect when I listened to a radio interview with the lead technology correspondent for the New York Times. He's been a regular attendee of the CES and said that convergence was the theme for the CES show in 2005, 2004, 2003, ... Note that the CES show began in 1967 -- it's
now in its 40th year. Perhaps the folks at CES were hyping convergence even back then. The technology correspondent
seemed pretty cynical about this. He mentioned that convergence-driven visions such as the wired home still seem like they're in nerdsville and not something that will be a reality for most people in the near future.

Perhaps the vision of a consumer electronics nirvana like a wired home is still hype, but the appetite for consumer
electronics sure isn't. Shapiro said that this year the industry will rack up more than $155 Billion is sales.
He also said that 90 of the Fortune 400 richest Americans can attribute their fortune to creating or selling
software, hardware, or services related to consumer electronics products.

Shapiro also emphasized that in the drive for convergence, whose objective is to give people access to the content
they want when and where they want it, it's important that industry not restrict the technologies that will make that
objective a reality. In that regard, Shapiro is involved in the Digital Freedom Campaign, a coalition designed to protect the rights of artists, consumers, and innovators to use digital technology and content.

Shapiro ended his talk by introducing Ed Zander, the Chairman of the Board and CEO of Motorola (and former President
and COO of Sun Microsystems).

Low Tech is High Tech

Zander made a decidedly low-tech entrance, riding in from backstage on a yellow retro-looking bicycle. It turned out that the bike was really an example of something new and pretty interesting. Zander mentioned that in riding the bike, he was charging his new MOTOFONE. Later in the talk he explained that in many places in the world being able to charge a cell phone can be difficult, so an alternate means of charging a phone is very attractive. Well, the bike approach is just that. In this case, Zander had a MOTOFONE attached to the handlebars and a dynamo and regulator attached to the pedals. Pedaling the bike charged the phone. This is a low tech way to power a high tech device. Imagine all those bike riders in Calcutta charging their cell phones as they pedal up the equivalent of Main Street. And there are a lot of them - over 135 million cell phone users in India, probably the great bulk of them ride bicycles as a primary means of transportation. Zander said that the number of cell phone users in India is growing by more than 6 million a month! Zander likened it to adding a Denmark's worth of subscribers
a month.

Zander also reinforced what Shapiro said earlier about the immense size of the consumer electronics industry.
Currently the world grows by an average of 4 births per second, but that's dwarfed by the average of 25 mobile
devices that are sold per second.

Demos, Demos, Demos

Highlighting Zander's session were a number of demos that showed a variety of new (or soon to be available)
devices and services. These included:

Yahoo Go! on Motorola Handsets. Zander announced that Motorola signed an agreement with Yahoo that brings Yahoo's Yahoo GO! 2.0 application to selected Motorola's handsets. Yahoo Go! is an Internet application that provides an easy-to-use, widget-driven, and personalizable interface to the Internet for mobile phone users. Zander and Yahoo Senior VP Marco Boerries demo'd the interface on a MOTORAZR device showing access to financial information, sports information, and email. He also demo'd a new search capability called One Search. Doing a search through this app on Microsoft brought up a link to Microsoft's home page as well as its current stock price and current news. It also listed a variety of other Microsoft-related items. Yahoo Go! is location aware, so you can click on a "What's Happening in My City" link or widget and get a lot of local information such as a list of local events, local weather, and local traffic information. You can currently download a Beta version of Yahoo Go 2.0.
Ultimately it will be prepackaged with a variety of handsets. In addition to preloads on Motorola handsets, the application
will be available on about 70 other devices -- Yahoo is aiming for 400 devices by the end of the year.

Leveraging Bluetooth For Music and Photos. Motorola's Senior Director of Multimedia, Chris White, demonstrated a sleek new set of headphones that use bluetooth technology. You no longer need to have headphones connected to the music player. White said that the player can be as far as thirty feet away from the headphones and still work. To this I say "Great!" I love to jog with a music player in my pocket connected to headphones. But it's really a pain when the wires connecting the two unplug (which tends to happen a lot). So I'm really attracted to a device that eliminates the wires. White also showed how this technology on a Motorola phone can be used to send a digital photo to a printer. Again, it's done remotely (up to 30 feet) -- there's no need to connect the phone to the printer. On another topic, White announced a partnership with Motorola and Warner Communication that brings a lot of content related to music, such as music videos and artist biographies, to mobile phones. He also announced a new mobile device called the MOTORIZR Z6 that adds advanced multimedia features to the basic cell phone capability. One of the neat features enables users through Windows Media Player to download and play music from over 200 online music stores. Of added interest to me is that the user interface for this feature is done in Java.

Enterprise Goes Mobile. I don't know about this one. Zander claims that what we'll see over the coming year is handheld devices replacing laptops. To demonstrate this, he brought up Danny Shader the CEO of Good Technologies (what a great name for a tech company!), which was recently acquired by Motorola. It was actually only Shader's second day in the Motorola fold. Shader said that what was formerly known as a cell phone has matured to being a "full powered multimedia computer for the enterprise." He demonstrated this by running various enterprise apps such as email, spreadsheet, and calendar on a Motorola Que device. He also demo'd an order management system. Two really nice aspects of these demos are that they don't require the user to bring up VPN to run behind a firewall and they don't require reauthentication to run multiple apps. Firewall setup and authentication are handled by the infrastructure. Also the apps take advantage of the device's phone capabilities. For instance clicking on a name in an app can automatically dial that person's phone number. Everything worked (of course), but all I kept thinking about was that teeny weeny screen on the device. I'd need to get a set of magnifying glasses to read my email, let alone to see individual cells in a spreadsheet.

Home Again. Although earlier in this blog I mentioned the cynicism surrounding pronouncements about the wired home, I have to admit that some of the things that Motorola is doing in home-based electronics seem pretty exciting -- perhaps because I spend so much of my "quality time" in front of the T.V. Dan Moloney, Motorola's President of Connected Home Solutions showed off a few of these things. One, called program restart technology, allows you to start a T.V. program from the beginning even if the program is further along in real time. (Isn't that what TIVO or a DVR does?) Another -- one that I'm really excited about -- allows you to stream a recorded video from one T.V. to another. So if you're watching an episode of Desperate Housewives that you recorded the other night and it's time to eat dinner, you can move to the kitchen and watch while you're eating. Last but not least, is a feature that allows you to remotely program your T.V. recording device from a handheld device -- in this case, Moloney did it from a Motorola Razor phone. My wife loved this feature when I told her about it.

There was a lot of stuff in this session, a lot of it pretty interesting (at least to me). I get the sense that these announcements are pretty indicative of the industry. If I had the time to sit in on sessions by other cell phone makers, T.V. manufacturers, or media content producers I bet I'd see and hear similar things. Alas, I didn't have the time.