this quikie written for KoreanZ.com
This year’s CES saw largely incremental improvements of existing technologies, with only a handful of breakthroughs and genuinely new categories of products. In fact, most products at CES seemed to be targeted at a handful of very specific categories.
One such category is the “set top box.” There is a concept of a singular box that sits atop your television that is your gateway to information and entertainment. This box can connect to the Internet and let you browse the web and check your email. It can play DVDs, CDs, and MP3s. It can play video games and record television shows for you. It seemed that an unnatural number of CES exhibitors were all shooting to be the singular provider of such a box.
Microsoft, via their Xbox, and Sony, with their Playstation2, are attempting to have this box be first and foremost a gaming machine but with set top-like functionality added on. Tivo, Replay, and UltimateTV (also owned by Microsoft!) take the Personal Video Recorder (PVR) approach: take the box that is already processing your television signal (to let you pause live TV, record every Simpsons episode, etc.) and has a nice user interface, and add on web browser and email capabilities, etc. Samsung and other high-end DVD manufacturers are looking to turn DVD players into set top boxes: since a DVD unit generally has a graphical interface, a remote, some amount of processing power, and audio output, adding MP3 CD player functionality is easy, and turning it into a web browsing box takes only the addition of an Ethernet port to the back. A new company called nuon has technology to enable extended functionality on DVD players; you can even get video games for nuon-enabled devices: they’re called “DVD Interactive.” Harmon/Kardon, by licensing ZapMedia’s architecture, has souped up a CD/DVD player into a PVR/DVD/MP3/Web browser set top unit. Several other quiet startups, like Rearden Steel (founded by Steve Perlman, one of the primary architects of WebTV) are also attempting to put together a box that incorporates every function you could possibly need for entertainment and/or education, make it look slick, be easy to use, and inexpensive. It’s a gargantuan task, but with so many companies throwing themselves at this problem, we’re sure to see some interesting solutions in the near future.
Another area where we saw a lot of companies clustering and trying to provide similar products is that of the residential gateway. The idea is simple: homes with multiple PCs need a way to easily share their Internet connection and need a cheap box to do it. A large percentage of PC sales these days are to homes that already have a computer, so the market for such devices is growing quickly.
While these products started out as scaled down Ethernet bridges, additional functions were quickly added, increasing security (to protect automatically against Internet hackers), DHCP (to automatically assign IP addresses to computers), and NAT (to allow multiple computers to only use one IP address). New gateways additionally enable home phoneline networking and wireless Ethernet in the home. Since this box is guaranteed to be connected to the Internet and to your home’s computers, it becomes an interesting place to put Internet services, such as web and file serving. Next-generation residential gateways will allow users to access files on their home network from abroad without the need for external servers. Also coming is integration with home automation units, allowing you, through a password protected interface, turn on the lights in your home from work, or be emailed in the case of an intrusion with a video of the perpetrator.
But even though most of the technology at CES was merely incremental and in many cases had a “me too” feel to it, there are sometimes improvements to a product line that cause a product in a crowded industry to cross a threshold from merely interesting into fantastic. A superb example of this is Samsung’s 240T 24″ TFT LCD. Many companies are making large, flat, thin displays in all sorts of form factors and resolutions. So the concept of having a nice, large, light LCD screen is not out of the ordinary. But Samsung’s monitor made me gasp. The 16:10, 1920 x 1200 screen that could handle analog TV, HDTV, digital PC, analog PC, and S-Video was just so outstandingly crisp, clear, bright, and vivid that I almost had a heart attack when I saw it. Then I learned that the unit was only $7000. (For comparison, other LCD TVs are often tens of thousands of dollars with much poorer screens.) I told the representative that if I had had a gun in my back pocket, I’d have held it to his head and walked out with the 240T under my arm. The representative agreed: he wanted one as badly as I did!
So in one sense, CES was disappointing for a paucity (though certainly not absence) of genuine innovation and for its clustering around generic visions of the future. But in another sense, the continued development and improvement of existing technologies may allow for entirely new classes of devices and consumer experiences, as shown by Samsung. Perhaps the market slowdown and disappointing Christmas sales have somewhat influenced the consumer electronics market for the worse and temporarily slowed the pace of innovation. It stands to note that there were considerably fewer attendees and exhibitors at CES 2001 than at CES 2000. But the market will recover, and new electronics will continue to be invented. There will be a CES 2002 and it will probably be fantastic. So the future is bright, even if the present is a touch dimmer than usual.