CES 2016 roundup
As has been the tradition for the last few years, Cool Toys Association kicked started the year with its annual gadget fest. Ever since the iPhone launch, the industry keeps waiting for a company riding on a unicorn coming from the heavens to surprise us with a technology that we haven’t considered before. However, the romantic notion of someone taking our breath away invariably leaves many disappointed as we get relegated to the incremental improvements of the future. However, CES remains the premier show to lay the foundations of the discussions and debates for the year. Most of the products launched and showcased at the event don’t make it past the show floor but an incredible diversity of devices, applications, services, players, and ideas is on display. Additionally, the deals that are struck away from the limelight makes it one of the most important shows in the tech space.
As usual, I kick-started my CES with the AT&T Dev Summit which provides a good barometer of the initiatives for the year in the operator ecosystem. I also had an opportunity to participate on the WSJ’s panel on innovation to talk about broad industry trends that last beyond 2016. This note provides a summary of our observations from the show.
The Numbers: CTA forecasts the US spending on gadgets to increase 1.6% to $224 Billion in 2016 with smartphones accounting for quarter of that spending. Wearables, drones, robots, and some of the non-traditional devices are starting to appear on the spreadsheet now. As we mentioned in our Connected Consumer Research last year, the spending habits of US consumers are changing. Bulk of spending is still on services like data, internet, and cable with mobile data capturing the most share of the household IT budget.
The march towards Autonomous Intelligence: Each year, we are making incremental progress towards to what seems today a utopian autonomous intelligence state where computers observe anomalies and problems and just fix and address them without human intervention. We have written about this at length in our Connected Intelligence series of papers and will continue to explore the subject in more papers this year. The inevitable emergence of trusted data brokers that help us tie disparate data sources, products, services will be a key development in the coming years.
The current incumbents have a big leg up. In my mind, Google has by far the best machine learning engine. You get a sense of the power of Google’s AI when you travel in remote parts of the world and get a highly accurate representation of human movement – in real-time. It is stunning. Google has better understanding of what’s happening on the ground than any other entity or government in the world.
Facebook has the best repository of emotion movement though the AI engine needs work. Similarly, Amazon knows more about commerce movement than any other player. A number of their products are launched because of this key insight. Apple obviously has good understanding of what their iOS base is doing and while it is smaller than any of the three players mentioned above in their respective areas, in aggregate, it has a potent repository of human behavior and movement. Some mobile operators have technology that can give them insights into some of these trends but their subscriber base is limited and unless they expand beyond their traditional base, they will always be at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the Internet giants.
Intel again gave an excellent keynote of the computing capabilities that are going to enable new interfaces, experiences, devices, and applications. When will computing sense what I am thinking?
Self-driving cars – The biggest headlines at CES this year was for self-driving cars. CES looked like an auto-show. Tesla and Google have forced auto OEMs to dust off their self-driving plans and accelerate their public unveiling because that’s what the cool kids are doing. The notion of self-driving cars has gone from a geek fantasy just a few years ago to the reality on the ground at breathtaking speed. Competition does wonders to the innovation process. The tech to safely deliver a self-driving car is already here. Social-acceptance and regulatory issues will likely to delay the full-blown introduction for sometime.
However, a more interesting development is the marrying of a self-driving fleet with the Uber service model. That’s where a lot of disruption is going to take place. GM’s monstrous $500M investment in Lyft is a defensive bet in that future. Don’t be surprised by some interesting M&A activity in the sector. As, hardware gives way to software domination, new models and players will shift the industry marketecture.
Lot of media companies are busy figuring out how to entertain the consumer with all the new time that will become available in the self-driving cars.
IoT – IoT was a big headline last year, 2016 was just the continuation of what we saw in 2015. Pretty much anything imaginable was connected. Chipset guys are going to stay employed for sometime. The challenge for many new players is still going to be the distribution. Most of the money today is flowing to the system integrators and they can play the role of the segment godfathers of IoT if they play their cards right. Platforms are yet to consolidate around a few accepted technologies and players so we will continue to see the fragmentation and jostling for advantage this year.
Robots – Softbank’s Pepper again stole the show by displaying its humane side. Robots for elderly, kids, and the lonely will become mainstream.
Drones – The drone ecosystem seems to be growing as fast as the self-driving cars (obviously massively different price points). Regulators are more active in understanding what’s going on and how to provide a shape passage to innovation in the space. There are some really interesting use cases both in the consumer and the enterprise space.
Netflix moves – You know what is better than US media domination? Global media domination. Netflix launched its services to pretty much the entire world minus China which remains a closed market for most western services.
3D printing – 3D Printing. Yup, Check!
Connected Home – Connected home has disappointed so far. The pricing is still too high for mainstream adoption and products lack imagination. However, some startups are coming up with both new products that are built from the ground up as well as service models that will get traction. 2016 will continue to be the year of experimentation in the space.
Connected Devices. Unconnected Data – Current set of connected devices are primarily focused on sucking up the data but there hasn’t been much work on connecting the data across devices. If you own an Apple Watch and an iPhone and were having a stroke, Apple watch will duly note that your vitals are deteriorating fast but it will just sit on that data and pray that someone finds you to help out. It has access to a communication tool that could be used to seek immediate help via a call or text but it doesn’t. Data stays unconnected and as such useless in real-life situations. We need more work on the intelligence layer that connects the data and makes it useful. This can be applied to connected devices at home, car, office, city, and pretty much any set of devices and sensors around us.
Smart City – Smart City initiatives are starting to take hold. From governments to industrial players to mobile operator ecosystem, everyone wants a piece of it. Probably, the biggest announcement in the space was from AT&T which is putting together a coalition of the willing to explore the scalable framework for a smart city. Atlanta, Chicago, and Dallas get the first nod. The biggest problem with Smart City is not the tech which is available for most part but the funding and execution. With a majority of the cities in the US in the bankruptcy zone, money is hard to come by. Even if did, cities are notorious for lousy execution and waste of resources. Hopefully, being led by some of the industry players will provide the necessary guidance and new business models to bring many of the big cities into the 21st century. Dubai, Helsinki, Seoul, and Oslo might provide a better inspiration of how to go about making your cities smart. Who wants to live in a dumb city anyway?
Virtual Reality – VR is going mainstream. Will it become the OS for new experiences? By when? What will be the applications and services? Vertical segments? Lot of open questions but we are slowly starting to answer them. Facebook launched its much awaited Oculus, HTC had its Vive and a score of new players emerged on the VR landscape.
IP dilemmas – The federal agents swooped into the CES show floor and took evidence from the booth of Hangzhou First International Trade (maker of the wheeled skateboard) – something that doesn’t happen that often. The pace of introduction of digital products is accelerating at such a pace that it is extremely difficult to protect your IP specially for smaller innovative players. The copycat ecosystem comes so fast that before you know it, you are history. IP tussles used to be the domain of the industry giants but smaller innovators are now getting impacted. The sheer volume of products that use your IP will overwhelm you. But, CES gives a good window into the haves and the have-nots. The federal agencies have their work cut for now.
Samsung – Samsung has studied the history of the mobile industry well. That’s why it is nervous. The fact that they are struggling to maintain their top spot is not surprising, it was expected. in fact, the entire trajectory was very easy to predict. What’s astonishing is that, even after being at the center of the digital explosion with hands into virtually every segment, it hasn’t been able to launch an integrated product strategy. It should have been a leader in IoT but is not. It should have used TV as the home hub to connect everything digital in the house but it hasn’t. it should have led the industry in standards and best practices but it seems confused of its role in the larger ecosystem. In the meantime, Google, Apple, and others are doing circles around them. With a new management team in place, a renewed focus on software, will 2016 be different?
Security & Privacy – Almost every major discussion thread had an underlying question around security and privacy and what can and is being done about it.
Auction – FCC is pretty jazzed about the upcoming spectrum auction. It will be fascinating indeed.
The foldable screen – we have waited for a computing screen that can fold like a newspaper for over 15 years. I first wrote about it in my Wireless Internet book in 2000. We might be still a few years away from full commercialization. Sometimes, these things just take time. A flexible screen could lead to breaking of the rectangular screen mold that is starting to get boring. Full marks to LG for bringing the screen to the market.
Vaporware – There was plenty of hand waving. Some managed to fool the press into feeding into the frenzy like Faraday Future (apparent competitor to Tesla), Ehang flying cars.
Uber in Vegas – Every year, CES attendees to the torture of the Vegas taxis and the highly inefficient system of transportation. For the first time, Uber and Lyft were in action and it definitely help at times. The taxi cabal hates the entry of the new brethren in the market but will learn to live with it.
Next stop, DLD Munich.
Have a great 2016.