A New Approach for CES

Another Consumer Electronics Show has come and gone, and 150,000+ attendees have returned from Las Vegas with visions of preordered Oculus Rifts dancing in their heads. As usual, this year’s show was greeted with equal amounts of fanfare and backlash. With a long history of introducing new tech that transforms daily life, there is always anticipation for the latest and greatest. The landscape has changed though, and the complexity of today’s technology drives a different mindset around the offerings and themes of the show, a mindset that will take some getting used to.

Most people view CES as a gadget event. From the VCR to the CD player to HDTV, the list of technology that has made its debut at CES is long and impressive. The show’s first 30 years cemented this reputation, as advances in technology production led to gadgets that made huge leaps in terms of specs and affordability. This year, the concept that carried this tradition forward was VR. The Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Samsung Gear VR were the leading contenders in a new wave of immersive multimedia providing innovative experiences.

However, today’s technology experience is significantly different than what it was during those first 30 years. For one, specs matter less. At some point, technology becomes good enough for the general public, and more pixels or higher RAM or smaller footprints only provide improvement at the margins. More importantly, today’s technology relies on a factor that was not prominent for much of CES’s history: connectivity. Standalone devices became a thing of the past as soon as Internet capability changed expectations.

The nature of connectivity has changed in recent years, leading to another major show theme: the Internet of Things. Especially at CES, where there is a built-in gadget bias, the tendency with IoT is to focus on the “Things,” but the real key is the evolution of the “Internet.” In the 1990s and 2000s, the Internet could be thought of as a series of pipes, with only a limited number of devices able to connect to the plumbing. Standards and protocols could be applied consistently across this limited arrangement, ensuring function and simplifying security. Today’s Internet is more pervasive and complex. Thanks to Wi-Fi and robust cellular networks, the Internet is now more of a mesh with multiple layers of function, and it is now much simpler to build devices that can connect at different layers. Think of today’s smart watches, which typically connect to smartphones to operate. This relatively simple setup is still considerably more complex than a desktop plugged into an Ethernet port.

In this environment, it’s difficult and impractical to separate the device from the connected ecosystem. One final theme from this year’s show serves as an example of the marriage between devices and connectivity, and at the same time demonstrates how a new approach is needed when thinking about modern technology. Self-driving cars had a huge presence; traditional car companies like Ford showed how they are pushing the envelope with their products, and less obvious entrants like Nvidia showed how they hope to contribute to this solution. Many are wondering if or when tech giants like Google and Apple will reveal their offerings in this space, but it may be unrealistic to expect the entire package to come from one vendor.

When cars become more autonomous and connected, traditional criteria can’t be used to evaluate their usefulness. Rather than asking how the new car improves the driving experience, the question instead becomes how can the new car enable new patterns of behavior? The car has become a platform, where connectivity allows access to a driver’s digital profile and autonomy allows the driver to use that profile on the go. In this space and others like it, partnerships will be the norm, and a company like Microsoft may only provide the piece of the puzzle that plays to their strengths. Consumers have to assess each piece individually along with the overall combination.

All of these moving parts spell out a major opportunity for technology professionals and solution providers. It’s certainly a new opportunity—sales and support for discrete products or components are a lower priority, replaced by demand for integration and total solution delivery. Function, and especially security, are now more difficult tasks than in pre-Internet or early Internet days. The average user has gained a great deal of knowledge around endpoints and applications, but abstraction keeps many of the underlying details hidden. The role of the technical specialist is to know what is happening under the covers to fix deep problems and create interconnected solutions.

Consumerization hints at technology that everyone can easily use, but in reality it creates situations where everyday usage relies on a complex infrastructure. In a way, CES disappoints as it struggles against expectations that follow Moore’s Law. For the most part though, the show still gives us a glimpse into the future—a future where technology runs through the entire fabric of life rather than shining in isolated spots. 

Seth Robinson is CompTIA’s senior director of technology analysis.

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