CES 2008

The End of Tech for Tech's Sake

CES Show Delivers No Killer App as Marketers Focus on What Consumers Want

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LAS VEGAS (AdAge.com) -- If you expected to find the next big thing at last week's Consumer Electronics Show, you're probably still looking.
This year's CES was proof that high-def screens are getting bigger and more ubiquitous.
This year's CES was proof that high-def screens are getting bigger and more ubiquitous. Credit: CES

Record numbers of marketers and agency types have been joining the legions of nerds that descend on Sin City every year to ogle new gadgets, but the one thing they're not discovering is that one new technology that changes everything about how to reach consumers. CES darlings have been a mixed bag when it comes to long-term success -- everything from the Sony MiniDisc to the DVD has been rolled out there -- and this year has only extended that spotty record.

In fact, the tech product that got the most attention last week wasn't even unveiled at the show. The new Mac Pro was announced by Apple, which forgoes CES for its Macworld Expo. Michael Gartenberg, analyst at Jupiter Research, was representative of the show's cranky reception in the blogosphere: "The fact that Apple can take headlines with new Mac Pros [which aren't servers] is more a testament to how little there is at CES this year in terms of the new and innovative than Apple being mean. Apple didn't need to take thunder from CES; there was nothing to take."

Pragmatic tech
There's a whole range of people for whom a ho-hum CES isn't good -- bloggers and analysts looking for fodder, the organizers, tech retailers, geeks looking to soothe a gadget jones -- but it shouldn't include marketers. Here's why: Most consumers aren't looking to drop large chunks of their paychecks on new technology just for the sake of it, something marketers from Hewlett-Packard to Philips seem to have locked in on. They're focusing on things such as design and user experience, neither of which entails creating a killer app.

"There's no silver bullet this year," said Lori Schwartz, senior VP-director of the Emerging Media Lab at Interpublic Group of Cos. "But we did see more grounding to solutions we saw last year. Things that aren't working are fading away."

In its press conference on day one, Dutch electronics giant Philips announced that it had created a consumer-lifestyle group, run by former Chief Marketing Officer Andrea Ragnetti. "There's been too much focus on electronics and not enough focus on consumers," Mr. Ragnetti said. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, he said, women will make or influence more than half of purchases in the $200 billion consumer-electronics business. Philips is nodding to that with a new "design collection" undergirded with a highfalutin philosophy of marrying the masculine and the feminine, including co-branded products with Swarovski, such as crystal-studded earbuds.

For the people
So are marketers getting away from tech for tech's sake? Yes, said Interpublic's Ms. Schwartz. "As everyone's learned from Apple, if you create a device that engages users and that works, people will get involved with it," she said.

For those concerned with tracking the post-couch-potato consumer, the show highlighted no new technology-driven behavior but instead a few trends that have been kicking around for a while and are already driving change in marketing organizations and media plans. High-def screens are getting bigger and more ubiquitous. Devices are slimming down, with fewer wires and more networking. As a result, content is getting even more portable, and consumers will have even more choice in how they consume, create and distribute media.

But you already knew all that, didn't you?
One example is the Motorola Rokr, not yet in stores, whose keypad changes depending on what mode it's in. Listening to music? The numbers disappear, and new symbols appear, eliminating the cumbersome menu navigation of many devices. When a call comes in, it changes back to phone mode.
One-upping the Wii, a few companies introduced technology that works with hands or gestures rather than a remote. The most prominent was Panasonic's "Life Wall," which uses face recognition to serve up personalized content. But it could be five years before this hits the market.
One Samsung model allowed users to get RSS feeds in little overlays that pop up over content. Sony introduced the Bravia Internet Video Link with partners AOL and Yahoo, which brings broadband content to the big screen without having to hook up the TV to a PC.
Sony and Samsung showed off new OLED screens the thickness of three credit cards, and virtually every manufacturer touted LCD and plasma TVs no more than an inch thick. Other design-forward touches included hidden speakers and rounded edges.
These were actually introduced last year, but they proliferated at this show. Makers including Intel and Microsoft say they provide a better internet experience than a cellphone. But as laptops get lighter and smaller and phones get better for the internet, hybrids seem bound for obsolescence.
-- Abbey Klaassen
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