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.
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.
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?
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.
More than Mobile
Qualcomm, one of the communications industry’s foremost technology providers, gives its forecast for the future. A future that will be about more than just faster phones, Christo van Gemert explains, thanks to the company’s lineup of powerful and multifunctional mobile chipsets, designed to fulfil its vision of an “Internet of Everything”.
Cast your mind back to the phones from a few years ago: before we had our iPhones, Androids, ’Berries and Symbians. While phones were slowly starting to gain smart features – features that took them beyond just being used for text messages and phone calls – they were still hamstrung by the older technologies. Data connectivity was the limiting factor. Without a faster connection to the Internet, the average user was not going to bother using his phone to retrieve a party invitation via email and then use online maps to get him to the destination. Once there, he would probably have shot some video of the fun, but chances were slim of it being uploaded to YouTube. Nor was he going to update his Facebook status to let people know about the good time he was having.
Jing Wang, executive VP and president of global business operations for Qualcomm agrees. He says: “The wireless experience has gone through a radical change over the past decade. If we take a quick step back, 10 years ago the mobile device was just a phone – voice was the dominant application. Data was around but still in its infancy. Today, innovations and technology advancements have enabled the wireless industry to impact almost every aspect of our lives. This evolution has also created huge demand for wireless data.” This new demand, driven by smarter consumers and innovative services, needed hardware to back up its growth. If people were going to start using Twitter and Facebook every day, from their mobile devices, they’d need faster connectivity. General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) was the first of the faster data connectivity services, but this second generation technology was quickly replaced by 3G. Now, we have 4G knocking on the door. And we’re seeing this need for ubiquitous connectivity spread – it’s no longer just our phones that we want connected to the Internet, but also bigger, smarter mobile devices with more functionality. Tablets, for example. Wang agrees. “The next big industry shift we see is integrating connectivity into all types of consumer electronic devices. Mobile devices — particularly mobile phones and tablets — are poised to become the user interface for consumers’ connected, digital worlds. Effectively, these devices will become remote controls for your life, allowing you to manipulate, control and interact with the things around you. They’ll also provide real-time access to a variety of information, from the Internet to hyper-local content.” New services are being introduced each week. Consumers want different ways of experiencing online content that suits their tastes. Whether it’s reading news, watching video or keeping in touch with others. People are not necessarily finding new ways to use their devices – their needs are driving what these machines are capable of, including being integrated with existing daily routines. “Accomplishing this will require some innovative new capabilities. Peer-to-peer communications without the need for intermediate infrastructure will enable people to connect their devices to one another on an ad hoc basis. Consumers will also need devices that support multipleradios frequencies – including various flavours of 3G and 4G, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth – and which can move seamlessly between these technologies. Qualcomm has excelled in integrating its software and hardware to provide these capabilities, so we’re in a good position for this next evolution of the wireless industry,” Wang adds.
Power for the people
Qualcomm’s solutions aren’t just those that power the wireless radios in mobile devices. At the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) the company launched its new Snapdragon chipsets – superfast processors with integrated functionality. These will enable future devices to do more than what we currently see, or expect of them. Wang points out that tablets are one of the devices that will be driving adoption of the new, faster chips. He highlights that the evolution isn’t going to see tablets replacing smartphones or computers, but rather complementing this existing ecosystem. “The tablet meets the needs of users who want more multimedia capabilities and who are demanding a device that is designed for a personal experience on the go. Over time, some users may feel that a tablet can serve as their primary device, and this may also be the case for emerging markets,” he states. Backing up this prediction is a stable of more than 10 different OEMs, with over 20 tablet designs – all based on Snapdragon chipsets. These are big companies, like Dell with its Streak and China’s Huawei and its S7 tablet. These and others boast Qualcomm’s next-generation dual-core chipsets that run at speeds between 1.2GHz and 1.4Ghz. And that’s just for 2011. Contrasted with the processors in desktop computers, which breached the 1GHz barrier in 1999 (with only a single core), these advances in mobile technology are nothing short of remarkable. They’re bringing desktop-like speeds and experiences to mobile devices. Wang hastens to add that the processor-speed wars of years gone by were fought at the expense of efficiency and battery life. “For fully mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, power efficiency is very important,” he says. “With Snapdragon, we’ve taken a different approach to the market by providing an unprecedented combination of 3G, powerful multimedia capabilities and optimised power consumption – all in a single chip – to enable a new generation of smart mobile devices.” This is in contrast to desktop and notebook computers, which both still use discreet components for each of these duties. Separate chips are required for networking, general processing and graphics. Qualcomm focuses on offering a single-chip solution, drastically reducing power consumption and design complexity. All of this means that it’ll be easier for a consumer to take more of their digital life with them, wherever they go. Games, videos, Internet access and more – with the same speed and responsiveness as they’d get on a desktop computer. The silicon onslaught doesn’t stop there, though. Wang holds out the promise of even more power, speed and battery life with an upcoming offering. “In February, we announced our new Krait family of quadcore chipsets based on a new 28-nanometer micro-architecture. The first chip products in the Krait family will deliver speeds of up to 2.5GHz per core, but it will also minimise power consumption and heat generation. The small size and power efficiency make the Krait chips ideal for new devices that are thin and lightweight.”
A view of the real world
More speed and lower consumption are all good, but Qualcomm isn’t resting on its laurels. It works closely with its customers to solve technical challenges and bring products to market even sooner. Wang says that the company’s vision of the future is for all devices to be connected, be it traditional consumer electronics, appliances, vehicles or healthcare devices. It wants to create an “Internet of Everything”, where devices all talk to one another and provide seamless access to all the content and services people use, no matter where they are. One of the technologies it’s working on to realise its future vision is augmented reality. This technology merges real world information with that in the digital world, through the cameras in mobile devices. Users can fire up their cameras and get information on their surroundings: tourist attractions, shops, restaurants and more. Instead of giving people a map of a city, a smartphone can be loaded with an interactive city tour. Travellers can use augmented reality to get a closer and more detailed look at fascinations, rather than driving past in a tour bus.Wang provides more examples, such as games that use a player’s environment, along with camera-equipped smart toys. “Media publishers can add new experiences to paper and print material such as magazines, books and newspapers. Marketers can create more interactive marketing pieces and product packaging. There are lots of possibilities – the only limit is the imagination of developers.” That last bit is quite important, as Wang points out that augmented reality in mobile applications is a relatively new market. Vision-based systems, using multi-megapixel cameras, require high processor speeds and powerful graphical capabilities. Devices with the necessary memory and processing potential have only recently come to market, many based on the Snapdragon processors. To help those developing applications and services optimised for the Qualcomm platforms, the company has released a free software development kit. Wang reasons: “By making it easy and cost effective for developers to create augmented reality applications, we’re aiming to give consumers more functionality in their smartphones and ultimately increase the benefits of having our Snapdragon chips in these devices.”
Seeing in the sun
All of these exciting technologies can still be let down by the weakest link in the chain. In the case of mobile devices, their limited use in outdoor environments is a big focus area for technology companies. We’ve seen manufacturers provide tougher devices, with dust- and water-proof seals or shockproof designs. Corning has made its name with Gorilla Glass, the scratch and shatter-resistant touch panels used in many manufacturers’ mobile handsets. Qualcomm also has something up its sleeve to help overcome one of Mother Nature’s hazards. In this case: the sun. For years it’s been nearly impossible to use full colour liquid crystal displays in sunlight. Turning up the brightness to maximum could alleviate the problem to a degree, but hampered visibility in direct sunlight is something we’ve become used to. Qualcomm’s answer is a new display technology called Mirasol. Mirasol displays use very little power and one of the inherent design advantages is a highly reflective internal structure that enables viewing even in direct sunlight. Wang says the company’s main focus for Mirasol is in the e-reader market, where it aims to offer full colour displays that are viewable in direct sunlight, with refresh rates capable of displaying video – without adversely impacting battery life. Wang is confident that no other display technology offers these four key traits. With demand growing for multimedia devices capable of displaying video content, Qualcomm has invested US$975 million in a facility to boost production of Mirasol displays. It will come online in 2012.
Connectivity: now and tomorrow
Augmented reality and more-usable displays are important advances, but both still rely on web connectivity to perform at their best. That Mirasol display is useless if it’s not letting you watch YouTube videos while you lounge next to the pool, and an augmented reality application is only as good as the information it downloads from Google or Wikipedia. Wang is enthusiastic over the changes taking place in Africa. Not only have the undersea cables given the continent immensely fast connections to the rest of the world, the wireless infrastructure has also grown. He points out that 2G to 3G migration is healthy in Africa, citing market competition and the availability of affordable handsets that drive the shift to wireless data. 3G and other wireless technologies have already overtaken fixed-line installations simply because they offer more economic efficiency. Wang quotes analysts who say that 3G connections are expected to grow by more than 25% in 2011, with a big part of the growth coming from regions that are still on 2G technology. Asked about 4G, he says: “From our perspective, we feel good about 4G, both as an extension of the 3G network as operators around the world deploy HSPA+, and as a nextgeneration solution with LTE. In terms of the chipsets, we’re sitting in a very good position because operators need to have backward compatibility to maintain the continuity of their services. They need multimode devices that support 2G, 3G and 4G in the chipset and make it seamless to the consumer. That’s what we’ve focused on.” The various generations of data connectivity aren’t interoperable, and require separate chipset features to ensure compatibility. Qualcomm has built both chips and software to make sure that people moving between regions that have new, 4G technology and older 3G technology will not have to deal with any complications. They will simply experience slower speeds on the older networks. Wang is really excited over his company’s cheaper 3G technologies, though. He says that in the past year Qualcomm has introduced new base designs for low-cost 3G handsets – something with direct benefits for Africa. He gives examples of Qualcomm working together with handset manufacturers and providers in countries like Kenya and South Africa, where solutions have been custom-designed for the market’s needs – be it for affordable 3G-enabled feature phones, or video streaming services. “Working with our partners, we’re developing technologies that will help make 3G services more accessible to everyone,” he says. Qualcomm is clearly driving progress in the right direction and securing its place in the technology history books. Dual and quad-core processors in mobile devices were unthinkable just a few years ago, but here we are on the eve of a more converged computing lifestyle than we ever imagined. Wang is almost hesitant to make a prediction for the future, given the radical changes we’ve seen in just the past five years. He also points out that there is a finite amount of wireless spectrum and a theoretical limit to wireless data speed. “We’re working hard on developing ways to use spectrum more efficiently and to support more capacity and more subscribers. As mobile data usage grows over time, improving network performance will require moving antennas closer to the end-users,” he explains. “It will be interesting to see how people use their mobile devices a quarter century from now!”