CES 2009: A Mulligan for the Consumer-Electronics Industry

No Massive Product Intros, but Good Progress on Existing Technology

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I arrived back in NYC on a red-eye from Las Vegas on Saturday and, several hours and a disappointing Giants loss later, I'm ready to process everything I soaked up at the highly anticipated (but definitely less-attended) Consumer Electronics Show. Every year, we attend CES to see what's next. For the first time I can remember, I left CES with a better idea of what's coming in a few months, not a few years.

I think there was more pressure on electronics companies this year to show what's around the corner, rather than further down the production pipeline.

Along those lines, I learned that the biggest things in 2009 may not be totally brand new things but improvements to new-ish things, or refinements to last year's innovations. For example, improvements in LED technology that allow TVs to be light enough to hang on picture-frame hooks rather than brackets. And while OLED is still what makes everyone drool, those paper-thin screens are still one to two years away from being available/affordable.

Convergence is (still) happening, with TVs now able to display tons of content, like YouTube videos, MySpace messages and Flickr images directly on their screens. This was out in full force last year, but this year they become a reality in their ready-for-prime-time form. TVs also more readily accept USB media to directly play movies, photos, and audio. Look for these improvements in stores immediately.

Convergence is also happening with phones as well. This year, the trend was merging 5-plus megapixel cameras with phones -- and it's hard to tell which one they are first.

Palm unveiled a new smartphone, the Pre, that looks like it can hold its own against the iPhone and Blackberry. This was a complete do-over for Palm and hopefully can inject additional competition into the crowding space.

There also seemed to be a lot of buzz (and foot traffic) around the Nokia N97, Nokia's latest entry in its successful "N" series.

Netbooks also made themselves heard at this year's CES. They've been out all year, but it seems that every major manufacturer has an entry. And with them getting faster and faster, and the economy changing peoples' buying habits, it may finally be time for the sub-$500 netbook to go mainstream.

Apparently, when all else fails, we bring back 3-D. Everyone seemed to have some kind of technology showing off 3-D capabilities, but generally, these fell flat and felt a bit gimmicky.

One of the big curiosities of the show actually came from Mattel. Its Mind Flex game, which attempts to use your brain to control a little floating ball and make it go through hoops, and, well, I think you'll just have to watch this video to know what I mean:

At this year's CES I also wanted to pay close attention to how everyone communicated while at the event. While Twitter was certainly used heavily, my informal polling and personal experience led to me crowning Facebook as the communications channel of choice during CES 2009. But yes, Twitter was a close second.

So overall, yes -- CES was less attended than in recent years. But there was something a lot more real about this year's show. The innovation seemed to be here and now, rather than what we may never see actually get produced. So for those of us into instant gratification, this was the CES for you.

With the way 2008 went, a mulligan was probably just what we needed.

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Ian Schafer is CEO of Deep Focus.

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