The Most Interesting Things I Saw at CES 2012

CES is certainly the technology lovers candy store. It is nearly impossible for any one person to see everything of interest at CES. So my approach is to look for the hidden gems or something that exposes me to a concept or an idea that could have lasting industry impact.

So in this, my Friday column, I figured I would highlight a few of the most interesting things I saw at this years CES.

Recon Instruments GPS Goggles
The first was a fascinating product made by a company called Recon Instruments and in partnership with a number of Ski/Snowboard goggle companies. What makes this unique and interesting is that the pair of goggles has Recon Instruments modular technology that feature a built-in LCD screen into goggles.

The Recon Instruments module is packed with features useful while on the slopes. Things like speed, location of friends, temperature, altitude, current GPS location, vertical stats on jumps and much more.

Think of this as your heads up display while skiing or snowboarding. The module can also connect wirelessly to your Android phone allowing you to see caller ID and audio / music controls.

Go Pro Hero 2 + WiFi Backpack
In the same sort of extreme sports technology category, I was interested in the newest Go Pro the Hero2 and Wi-fi backpack accessory. I wrote about the Go Pro HD back in December and mentioned it as one of my favorite pieces of technology at the moment. The Hero2 and wi-fi backpack makes it possible to use the Go Pro in conduction with a smart phone and companion app to see what you are recording or have recorded using your smart phone display. This is useful in so many ways but what makes it interesting is I believe it represents a trend where hardware companies develop companion software or apps that create a compelling extension of the hardware experience. I am excited to see more companies take this approach and use software and apps to extend the hardware they create.

In this case the companion app acts as an accessory to the Go Pro Hero2 hardware and provides a useful and compelling experience. Another compelling feature is that you can use your smart phone and the live link to the Go Pro Hero2 to stream live video of what you are recording to the web in real-time. This would make it possible for friends, family, and loved ones to see memories being created in real-time.

Dell XPS 13 UltraBook
Dell came out strong in the UltraBook category and created possibly the best notebook they have created in some time. The XPS 13 UltraBook’s coolest features are the near edge to edge Gorilla Glass display, which needs to be seen to be appreciated, and the unique carbon fiber bottom which keeps the underside cool.

The 13.3 inch display looks amazing with the Gorilla Glass and packed into an ultra slim bezel like that of an 11-inch display. It surprises me to say that if I was to use a notebook other than my Air, this would be the one.

Samsung 55-inch OLED TV
A sight to behold was the Samsung 55-inch OLED TV. I had a similar experience when I saw this TV as I did when I first saw a HDTV running HD content. The vivid picture quality and rich deep color are hard to put into words. Samsung is leading the charge in developing as near to edge-to-edge glass on TVs and this one is even closer. The bezel and edge virtually disappear into the background leaving just the amazing picture to enjoy.

We have been waiting for OLED displays to make it to market, for the sheer reality that in five years they may be affordable. OLED represents one of the most exciting display technologies in a while and it is important the industry embrace this technology so we can get OLED on all devices with a display as fast as possible.

Samsung didn’t mention any pricing yet but said it would be available toward the end of the year. It will most likely cost an arm and a leg.

Intel’s X86 Smart Phone Reference Design
Intel made a huge leap forward this CES by finally showing the world their latest 32nm “Medfield” SOC running on a smart phone reference design. I spent a few minutes with the design, which was running Android version 2.3, and I was impressed with how snappy it was including web page pinch and view, as well as graphics capabilities.

Battery life is still a concern of mine but Intel’s expertise in hyper-threading and core management could help this. The most amazing thing about the smart phone reference design is that it didn’t’ need a fan.

Motorola announced that they would bring Intel based smart phones to market in 2012. This is one of the things I am very excited about as It could mark a new era for Intel and the level of competition we will see in the upcoming ARM vx X86 is going to fun to watch and great for the industry and consumers.

Motorola Droid Razr Maxx
Last but not least the Motorola Razr Maxx has my vote for most interesting smart phone. It was a toss-up between the Razr Maxx and the Nokia Lumia 900. I simply choose the Razr Maxx due to the feature that I think made it most interesting. Which was the 3300 mAh (12.54 Whr) battery that Moto packed into the form factor of the Razr – it’s just slightly thicker than the Droid Razr. Motorola is claiming that the Razr Maxx can get up to 21 hours of talk time. I talked to several Motorola executives who had been using the phone while at the show and they remarked how with normal usage during the show they were able to go several days without charging. To contrast, every day while at CES my iPhone was dead by 3pm.

Image Credit - AnandTech

Making our mobile batteries last is of the utmost importance going forward. I applaud Motorola for their engineering work and creating a product that is sleek, powerful, and has superior battery life.

Do Nokia and Windows Phone Have Any Hope for 2012?

There were a number of priorities for me at this years CES.  One of my top priorities was to better understand Nokia’s strategy for Windows Phone and the US Market.  Secondarily to Nokia’s US strategy was Microsoft in general and whether Windows Phone can grow in market share in the US in 2012.   

As I have written before, Nokia has again entered the conversation at large, but more importantly, they have become relevant in the US smart phone market.  I have expressed my belief that they contain some fundamental strengths, like brand, quality design, and marketing smarts, to at least compete in the US.

For Nokia, this years CES bore two important and timely US events.  The first was that their US presence was solidified when the US sales of their Lumia 710 officially became available at T-Mobile this week.  The second was the announcement at this years CES of the Lumia 900 which will come to market on AT&T.   

Both products are well designed and the Windows Phone experience is impressive.  That being said, Nokia’s and Microsoft’s challenge is primarily convincing consumers that Windows Phone is an OS worth investing in.

I use that terminology because that is exactly what an OS platform is asking consumers to do.  Not only invest but allow this most personal device to become a part of their life.

Currently, only a small fraction of consumers are convinced that they should buy into Windows Phone 7 and it will take quite a bit more convincing for most.  Nokia and Windows Phone face stiff competition with the army of Android devices and the industry leader in Apple. If anything, Nokia and Windows Phone have a small window of opportunity to rise above what is the Android sea of sameness – but it is only a small window. This is because many more of Android’s core and loyal (on the surface) partners will continue to invest resources in Windows Phone over the next few years. If Microsoft and Nokia are successful the result should be that the market will contain not only a sea of Android devices but of Windows Phone devices as well.

This is why the battle will again turn to differentiation across the board on both the Android and Windows Phone platform. I have previously dared the industry to differentiate and this will need to be the focus going forward.

As I look at where we are right now, it appears that Nokia is faced with an unfortunate dilemma.  Nokia now bears the difficult task of not only spending money to develop their brand in the US but to also help Microsoft convince consumers Windows Phone is the right platform for them.

Microsoft is unfortunately not building or investing in the Windows Phone consumer marketing as aggressively as they should on their own.  So rather then be able to simply focus on their brand, Nokia must also invest in marketing Windows Phone. This will inevitably help Nokia but also their competitors in the long term.

All of this, however, presents Microsoft with what is the chance of a lifetime and it all relates to Windows 8.  The importance of Windows 8 to Microsoft seems to be wildly shrugged off by many.  But I believe that if Microsoft does not succeed in creating consumer demand with Windows 8, they will begin to loose OS market share even faster than they are right now.  

Windows Phone’s success in 2012 can pave the way for Windows 8.  If Microsoft can, at the very least, create some level of interest and ultimately generate demand for Windows Phone, it will almost certainly do the same for Windows 8.  This is because once you have gotten used to the user experience of Windows Phone, it creates a seamless transition to the Windows 8 experience.   

If Microsoft can generate some level of success for Windows Phone in 2012, it will build a needed level of momentum for Windows 8. Primarily because the Windows Phone and Windows 8 Metro UI are very similar.  All of these steps are necessary for Microsoft to not only create demand for their OS platforms but to also create demand for their ecosystem.  I have emphasized the importance of the ecosystem in past columns and Microsoft must leverage their assets to create loyal consumers.

So what is my conclusion for 2012?  Simply put, and to use a sports analogy, it is a rebuilding year for Microsoft and Nokia.  Both companies need to view 2012 as a “laying-a-foundation-for-the-future” year.  I do expect Windows Phone and Nokia to grow in market share in the US but I am not sure if we can count on double digit growth. If both companies play their cards right in 2012, then 2013 will present them with the growth opportunities they both desire.

Past Columns Mentioned:
Why Nokia is Interesting
Dear Industry – Dare to Differentiate
Why It’s All About the Ecosystem

Catching up with Apple – This Years CES Theme

CES hasn’t even started, but after sitting through various pre-show press conferences and meetings, one thing is clear: Apple is casting a very long shadow on this show. And many of the products I have seen have been various implementations of something Apple has already brought to market.

This is especially true in two categories.

First is the iPad. Pretty much every tablet vendor here hopes they can develop a tablet that is at least competitive with Apple. Some are going for cheap and basic as differentiators, while others are trying to bring out models with a unique design, tied to Android, and still be cheaper than Apple.

The recent success of Amazon’s Kindle Fire has given them another target to go after, but even this is colored by Apple’s iPad and its strong success in the market. And when talking to all of these “clone” vendors, they don’t even pretend they are doing something new or unique. Rather, many point out that they hope to tag along on Apple’s success and tap into new users Apple may not get because of their higher prices. But make no mistake; all of these are iPad wannabees.

The second product they are all chasing is Apple’s MacBook Air. If you look at Intel’s Ultrabook program, you can see that this is a blatant attempt by the Windows crowd to ride Apple’s successful coattails in design and give their audience something that Apple has had on the market for their customers for five years. Now that is not necessarily a bad thing…it just amazes me that it has taken the WinTel world that long to even catch up with Apple.

But when talking to these vendors who are hopefully bullish about any of their offerings in either of these categories, I sense something else. While they know what Apple already has, the fact that they don’t know what Apple will have in the future really weighs heavily on them. Or in other words, they keep waiting for another shoe to drop.

While they rush to market versions 1 or 2 of their tablets, they know that Apple has the iPad 3 and iPad 4 just around the corner. And while they feel Apple’s prices for the iPads are too costly for most people today, they all fear that Apple could drop prices and seriously impact their chances for success. In fact, to many it is a foregone conclusion that Apple could drop as much as $100 out of their base entry model as soon as this year. And given Apple’s history of maximizing their supply chain as well as pre-purchasing components in huge quantities so as to get the best prices on parts, that is a real possibility.

The other thing I picked up is that many of the Ultrabook vendors are working on what are called hybrids. These are laptops where the screen pops off and turns into a tablet. The first generation of these “hybrids” sported Windows on the laptop and Android on the tablet and the two did not mix well. But the Windows world is counting on Microsoft’s Windows 8 to be the magic bullet that lets Windows 8 with its Metro UI work on the laptop and the tablet and provide a unified experience. And some of the models I have seen are quite innovative.

But, this depends on Windows 8, which means that none of these can get to market until at least mid Oct. And some of the vendors have a sinking feeling that Apple is working on a hybrid as well and that they could beat them to market. And what’s worse for them is that if Apple does theirs as elegant and innovatively as they normally do, some vendors I spoke with feel that they would be immediately behind even though on paper they seem to be way ahead of Apple with their hybrids.

You can even see copied elements of Apple TV in the new Google TV being shown. In fact, all of the smart TV vendors know full well that Jobs told his biographer that he “nailed” smart TV, so these vendors also know that no matter what they offer now, once Apple finally releases a TV solution, they will have to go back to their labs and make big changes just to stay competitive.

One of Apple’s core strategies is to keep ahead of the competition by at least two years. And their competitors have finally realized this truth.

That is why no matter how happy they are about their new offerings at CES this year, they are looking over their shoulders because they know with 100% certainty that Apple could do something significant at any time and send them all back to the drawing board to play catch up.