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Thursday, 03 February 2011 00:00

Consumer Technology Rules, Ok? by Brett Haggard

If technology exhibitions were mythical cartoon characters, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held in Las Vegas every January would undoubtedly have to be Godzilla. Bigger than any other technology trade show in the world, more brutal on attendees’ feet than a marathon and more taxing on their minds than a master’s degree in advanced computational mathematics, CES has for some time now been ‘the’ place to unveil new technology. There are so many new things to see and so many different vendors to engage with, most news agencies take entire teams of journalists to the event – and begin reporting on the goings on two days before the show opens its doors to the public. However, this year’s CES wasn’t as impressive as in previous years. That’s partly because the world is still recovering from the economic meltdown and partly because the industry seems to be stuck in that uncomfortable space between new technologies becoming available and the mass adoption of those technologies. Think 3D television, tablet/slate PCs and cloud computing if you need examples. This year the show only played host to 2,500 different exhibitors and managed to command the attention of somewhere close to 120,000 attendees. But even in its small form, the sheer scale of the tradeshow means it’s the perfect event for gauging market sentiment towards specific products and technologies, and a great opportunity to identify the trends that will shape the electronics space in the years to come.

More of the same

While there were some new takes on technology, the majority of the products announced at CES could have been predicted six months ago. For example, tablet or slate PCs continued to be a big focus area and well over five of the industry’s big names made announcements in and around the tablet or slate computing space. Another slightly predictable ‘hot topic’ was the evolution of 3D and the rather shrewd realization by manufacturers that in enabling users to create their own 3D content, they can get their 3D televisions flying off the shelves. As was expected, the show was also filled with a number of new handsets that US networks are still getting away with calling 4G, when in fact they’re equipped with nothing more than HSPA+ or LTE. There were of course some exceptions. One rather unexpected move came from US network operator Cricket, which aims to provide users with an ‘all– you-can-eat’ music service along with an unlimited voice, SMS and data plan. Another – and one that has stronger relevance on African shores – was the announcement of Motorola’s Atrix handset that becomes a desktop computer, media centre or notebook computer as and when the user’s needs dictate. But enough glossing over the details … Let’s get knee-deep in what was announced.

Tablets take centre stage

When Apple announced the iPad a little more than year ago and the market finally got to experience how trouble free this new mode of computing was – browsing the social web and consuming media with ridiculous ease – it was clear that everything was about to change. And even though it’s taken the market some time to catch up, now that RIM is aiming to ring-fence its customer base and Google has released Honeycomb, the tablet version of its Android operating system, things are becoming interesting. While it’s par for the course for us to expect the vast majority of vendors to simply take the ‘me too’ approach, much like Samsung did with its release of the Galaxy Tab, there will be some bold attempts at redefining the market. And there are really only three that stand out from the array of tablet-centric announcements at CES.

Motorola Xooms into view

The first was Motorola’s announcement of its 10-inch, Honeycomb-powered Xoom tablet. As yet, we’re unsure what processor it runs (Motorola has said no more than ‘it’s a dual-core’), exactly how much memory it has on board and what it will cost. What we do know is that it’s the closest thing we’ve seen to an iPad – both in terms of the overall polish of the hardware and the fluidity of the graphical user interface – and in a field of unsuccessful imitators is a good thing. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait some time for Motorola to firm some of those details up.

A decent Windows 7 tablet

Next in line when it comes to interesting tablet announcements, ASUS – the company that pretty much invented the netbook market with the release of the Eee PC all those years ago – let fly with the only remotely compelling Windowsbased tablet we’ve seen to date. Called the Eee Slate EP121, this little puppy has a 12.1-inch capacitive touch screen, runs an Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of memory and a 64GB solid-state drive. Reality check. That’s a more powerful specification than the vast majority of notebooks out there today. When the EP121 was demonstrated on stage, the presenter retouched a 60MB image using the stylus while simultaneously playing back a 1080p video in the background. Finally there’s a tablet capable of running Windows 7 in a compelling way. Again, details that weren’t dished out readily at the event include the unit’s battery life and what the expected price point will be. Despite this, it looks promising.

Best of both worlds

Rounding up the tablet announcements, Lenovo finally showed off its U1 Hybrid: as the name suggests, a mix between a tablet or slate and a full-blown notebook that doesn’t compromise on either device’s core functionality. The idea is simple. Tablets are great for certain things, but sometimes notebooks are just far better for getting the job done. With the U1 Hybrid, users won’t have to make that tough choice. One on side , the U1 consists of a Core2Duo notebook, complete with a keyboard, trackpad, hard disk and other system essentials running Windows 7. But, instead of a normal screen, the U1 has a LePad – Lenovo’s touch screen tablet – which unclips from the notebook chassis and transforms into an Android tablet when the user wants to transform their work mode. To make the whole scenario more awesome, Lenovo has ensured that when the U1 is in ‘notebook mode’ the tablet’s internal memory is mounted like a USB flash drive in the Windows 7 file system and that whatever content was loaded into the tablet’s browser when the machine was docked is automatically synchronised to the Windows 7 browser. As would be expected, the same applies when undocking the tablet from its chassis. While Lenovo has an interesting approach for taking the Hybrid and LePad to market – selling the tablet separately and the U1 as a kit, but not the U1 chassis as an upgrade – what’s also interesting is that this product in its current form won’t make it outside of the Chinese market. That said, however, a couple of tweaks to this design could well see it released elsewhere in the world before the end of the year. Whatever happens, Lenovo has committed to making tablet or slate related announcements that are relevant to the rest of the world before the end of the year.

3D content creation

Putting tablets on a shelf for the meantime, the second major trend at CES was 3D technology and more specifically the strategy the leaders in the market will be employing to continue driving this new technology segment. As most analysts and some large consumer electronics brands will admit, 3D technology hasn’t been nearly as much of a success as the big noisemakers in the industry would have liked. While it’s still early days for 3D, like anything in the consumer electronics space there’s always time pressure to contend with. And although there is a wealth of display devices available today (and some that don’t require glasses coming during 2011) there’s not nearly enough content to create any real interest for the average person in the street. This, and the fact that we’re living at a time when social media interactions and users’ ability to create/contribute their own content to the mix is of massive importance. It follows logically then that the number of 3D-capable still and video cameras announced at this year’s CES are designed to get users excited about 3D content creation … and in doing so, sell more 3D televisions.

A horse for every course

The majority of the announcements made around 3D capable cameras came from the likes of Panasonic and Sony who together seem to have a solution for every user. Panasonic’s announcements comprised a number of new camcorders with 1MOS sensors (designed primarily for capturing 1920 x 1080 clips), a gaggle of others with a 3MOS sensor (designed for more professional 1080/60p shooting) – both ranges capable of recording 3D video with an additional lens – and a new ‘professional’ 3D camcorder with a US$21,000 recommended price tag. On the upside, it does come with a special lens, dual memory cards and more. Looking next at the company that could well have the largest vested interest in 3D, it’s not surprising that the number of camera-centric announcements from Sony dwarfed the rest of the industry. Starting with 3D video, the company announced a new Handycam that features what Sony calls ‘Double Full HD 3D’. In more simple terms, these Handycams feature an integrated dual lens system, which includes two Sony G Lenses, two ‘Exmor R’ CMOS sensors and two ‘BIONZ’ image processors. The result is the ability for 2D high definition and 3D high definition footage to be recorded seamlessly and simultaneously. Next up, jumping on the 3D stills bandwagon, Sony’s five-unit lineup of Cyber-shot cameras have 16.2 megapixel sensors and quite remarkably, are able to take 3D stills using only one lens and imager. Rounding its announcements out, Sony added a 3D unit to its popular Bloggie range of shoot and share cameras. The new 3D camera, as expected, makes use of two lenses, two image sensors and a stereo microphone to record 3D footage. Whether or not the focus on 3D cameras will save the 3D display space remains to be seen. One hopes that the current focus on user generated content on a worldwide basis will be enough to give this new market segment impetus.

Smarter phones

No technology trade show would be complete without a bunch of smartphone-centric announcements. And CES played host to a number of new handset launches. While for the most part it was more of what we’ve become accustomed to expecting, there were obviously some exceptions. Carrying on the 3D trend, LG showcased an early concept of a 4.3-inch smartphone that’s capable of playing back glasses-free 3D video (using the parallax barrier method). This is a long way off, but it was interesting to see vendors thinking in this direction. However, hot on the heels of its announcement of the Xoom, it was Motorola that again stole the show with the release of two new handsets – the Atrix and the Droid Bionic. While the Droid Bionic is nothing more than a crazy-fast LTE-equipped cellphone, the Atrix is a completely new concept that we believe will take the market by storm.

iPhone killer

Press and analysts alike have been saying for years that carrying around multiple devices with separate instances of our data on is a pretty counterintuitive exercise, not to mention one that’s heavy on the pocket and the back. What we’ve all really needed is a single device that has a large enough screen to provide access to one’s most vital information while on the road, but back at the office be attached to an external display, keyboard and mouse so that real work can commence. It would also be cool if this device was media centric so that it could double as a media hub some of the time, playing back high-definition stills and video on a large screen if needs dictate. And it seems like Motorola is the only company that listened. The Atrix does exactly what the dream outlined above calls for – and more. Not only is it a smartphone when you need it to be, a net-top when you need it to be (using a separately sold dock) and a media hub when you need it to be (using the same separately sold dock), Motorola has gone ahead and developed a notebook-chassis style dock – much the same form factor as a MacBook Air – into which the Atrix can be slotted, giving users a netbook while they’re out on the road. Again, while there’s relatively little tangible info available on the Atrix (it’s due for release in March in the US), we know that it runs Android, uses a dual-core NVidia Tegra chip and that the notebook-style dock has a six-hour battery, which simultaneously charges the smartphone’s internal battery while it’s being used. The Atrix is by a long shot the most interesting announcement to see the light of day at CES and one that could see Motorola taking the kudos for finally unseating the iPhone’s dominance in the market: not because it’s better at doing what the iPhone does so well, but rather because it solves a whole bunch of problems the iPhone doesn’t. The Atrix will undoubtedly be as significant as the release of the first tablet device, the original mainstream release of 3DTV and almost certainly, those first smartphones. And in a year’s time, who knows where this trend will drive things?

Summary

So, there you have the announcements that are likely – from a trends perspective, at least – to shape 2011’s tech landscape. While we wait with bated breath to see Apple’s response to many of the announcements made by its rivals at CES (the fruit company doesn’t unveil or exhibit at CES), it’s clear that the consumer electronics industry is alive, well and where the majority of the innovations are coming from today. Will the focus ever return to the business market? It’s unlikely. Does it matter? Not really. Most new consumer technologies make their way into the business sector sooner or later. It’s managing that transition that remains tricky and more importantly, where the business sector should be focusing its attention.

Published in February 2011
Friday, 12 August 2011 12:31

Best of CES 2011 - Las Vegas

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