CES 2017 proves that smart mobile technology is taking over the world
If there’s a world capital of weirdness, Las Vegas is probably it. After a while, you become inured to its oddities. A hotel that’s shaped like a pyramid? Sure, why not. A bar that features a giant beheaded statue of Lenin outside? Of course. People desperately playing slot machines at 8am, their eyes glazed over as they feed money in in search of the $10 million dollar prize? Yeah. Naturally.
This weirdness means it’s the natural home for CES, the world’s biggest and most important technology show. CES fits Las Vegas like a glove because it, too, is an oddity: a show that seems to get bigger and bigger every year, at a time when trade shows seem to be losing their relevance. Perhaps this is because CES has never stood still and has, over 50 years, reinvented itself many times.
CES 2017 feels like one of those periods of reinvention. Where a few years ago what we conventionally think of as “computer” technology dominated, now CES reflects the fact that technology is everywhere and in everything. CES, now, covers pretty much every kind of human technical endeavour, from cars to tiny sensors capable of making anything “smart”.
Everything is smart
And that’s the first major trend that’s obvious from CES: if it’s a human-made object, someone, somewhere, is making a “smart” version. Smart beds capable of sensing when you’re snoring and gently raising you to help stop your partner murdering you; smart fridge cameras that let you know what you have in your fridge, and suggest recipes based on the contents; smart cat feeders that not only feed at the right time of day, but can sense which cat is eating if you have more than one; even smart walking sticks that sensor how much exercise a person with limited mobility is getting and can alert you if they have a fall. Even a smart hair brush.
Mobile is the centre of the world, in several ways
All of this is driven by the second major theme of CES: mobile technology is behind every kind of innovation. All smart devices use processors, sensors and location technology that has been developed for smartphones. In fact, if you want to think about what makes a product “smart”, just ask if it uses mobile technology.
Why is this? The answer is mostly about economies of scale. According to the latest research by the CTA (the organisers of CES), 47% of global technology spend goes on one device: the smartphone. Bear in mind that this includes pretty much every kind of consumer technology, and you can see how this is driving incredible economies of scale at the level of processors, memory, location and other sensors.
This drives innovation by making the cost of producing products even in small numbers much lower. You can make 10,000 of your smart device, sell them online, and make a decent profit. And you may not even have to stump up much in the way of capital in the first place.
Kickstarter has changed product development
That’s because most smart products I’ve seen have started their life as a crowdfunded project, usually on Kickstarter. This ability to raise even significant amounts of capital on the basis of an idea alone, without having to persuade a bank or VC to give you money, combined with the low cost of making a “smart” product thanks to the economies of scale of smartphone tech, means even tiny things can be built and turned into profitable products. If you have a good idea, there’s less and less reason for it not to actually turn into something you can sell.
The big companies are still around… but are they the home of innovation?
Of course, the big boys of tech are still around. HP, Dell, Asus, Acer, Lenovo, LG, Sony, and a slew of others are all making announcements at CES and in some cases (like HP and Dell) virtually revamping their entire product lines.
But with some exceptions – HP’s interesting Sprout Pro, for example – they’re not really driving innovation in the way they once did. A lot of this is down to the pace of development of the underlying technology. Intel’s processors, which drove a huge chunk of the innovation in our industry between the 1980s and 2010, is no longer the driving force it once was. That’s not to denigrate what Intel is doing – it continues to be a great company making excellent products – but the pace at which it can improve its processors in particular is slowing down.
Which brings us back to smart
Instead, mobile technology is now the driving force. So how long will it be before the pace of development of mobile technology means that ARM pushes into the areas which are currently dominated by Intel – in particular, laptops?
Some will argue that ARM remains too low in performance to compete even at the low end. At present, only Apple, with its A-series ARM chips, seems to be focused on pushing performance into the space where it can replace Intel processors. To a degree, it’s already succeeded – my iPad Pro never chokes on anything, which can’t be said for my MacBook – but Apple sells its processors to no-one else, so it’s a little bit of a tributary away from the main flow of the tech world.
But as smart devices get smarter and the mobile phone becomes even more of the centre of the technology world, this will change. The more complex smart devices become and the more we ask them to do, the more processing power they’ll require.
I doubt that ARM processors will ever overtake Intel at the high-end. But I’m convinced that within a couple of years, the insides of most laptops will be more like smartphones than most of the current generation of computers. Everything that I’ve seen at CES convinces me that it’s smart, mobile-based technology that will take over the world, and it’s happening faster than I would ever have imagined.