CES 2008 is best remembered as the year when it became fashionable for the media to question the relevance of this uber-convention, and for many to skip attendance altogether. Given the intense and in-depth media coverage of the show, attendance should no longer be considered mandatory unless you’re trying to tease out the trends and make the observations missed by the mainstream media. This is what we took away from the show and what readers will find relevant:
The layer 1 home networking problem is officially solved. There were multiple products all leveraging ZigBee (low bandwidth wireless), HPNA (Coax & Phoneline), MOCA (Coax), HomePlugAV (Powerline), ultra-wide band (high bandwidth wireless) and last but not least - the latest WiFi 802.11n. There is no shortage of ways to move bits around the home and it is clear that physical connectivity is no longer the problem when it comes to the connected home.
These technologies are making their way into everything from home networking systems (Eaton had a nice ZigBee one here) to power strips ( with Ethernet RJ-45 jacks running over the power lines). As predicted last year (see "802.11n is Not About the Speed"), 802.11n went from prototype to mainstream technology in a year.
While everyone at the show was talking HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray, the match up we found more interesting was MOCA (definition) vs. HPNA (definition). Both networking standards leverage pre-existing in-home wiring to provide a faster and more reliable alternative to 802.11 WiFi. MOCA re-uses the coax wiring that interconnects the televisions in your home while HPNA uses either the phone wiring or coax. At this point most of the carrier industry, with the exception of AT&T (T), has rallied behind MOCA.
Intellon (ITLN), the HomePlugAV market leader and Entropic (ENTR), the MOCA market leader were both at the conference. Both companies are new IPOs and carry the heavy weight of high investor expectations. Entropic’s technology is at the heart of Verizon (VZ)’s FiOS TV deployment and is the mechanism for set-top boxes to stream video, as well as the mechanism for set-top boxes to communicate with the Verizon ONT in order to transmit on-demand video titles from the network to the set-top box. MOCA (and Entropic) scored a big win with both Comcast (CMCSA) and Cisco (CSCO)(Scientific Atlanta) endorsing their technology with a next gen MOCA enabled cable box.
Entropic goes so far to position MOCA as an alternative to DOCSIS and a potential contender for next-gen cable broadband access. This is stretching the limits of believability, but does make for a good roadmap story. Entropic’s big problem will arrive once this market gets large enough to attract Broadcom (BRCM) and Marvell (MRVL) and the inevitable integration of MOCA technology in their system-on-a-chip begins.
Once someone can crack the whole-house networking software problem, all of these technologies should allow for rapid and inexpensive connectivity of every electric device in your home. There is a protocol for practically any application.
Vonage - Moving into Hardware
Vonage (VG) introduced some new products at the show that do a decent job of shoring up its branding position as well as making VoIP installation easier for your average Joe.
The V-Portal is a combined VoIP adapter and caller-ID box designed to sit in your home office or kitchen. The box displays caller ID information, provides one-touch access to voicemail, traffic, weather and most importantly - is a simple interface for debugging any issues with the VoIP line. It also puts the Vonage brand front and center. While it isn’t a technical tour-de-force it is a decent effort to take the additional features VoIP provides and make them more consumer friendly. Expect this concept to be extended.
Another Vonage product melded VoIP with in-home networking. The ‘Vonage Whole House Solution’ uses powerline networking (there is that technology again) to turn electrical outlets into phone jacks. The VoIP base interfaces with up to 4 remote jacks using existing in home power wiring.
Both products, as well as future VoIP adapters are all 1-port routers, allowing installation into homes that lack a broadband gateway. The instructions are simple - consumers plug the Vonage box into their DSL/Cable Modem, and plug whatever was connected previously into the Vonage adapter. It is a more simple approach less prone to configuration errors. It also lets the Vonage box police packets to ensure quality of service.
Vonage still has enormous problems as a business entity, but it is good to see someone at least attempting mainstream innovation in the consumer VoIP arena. Some VoIP hardware/software innovation will eventually arrive that compels consumers to migrate to VoIP not for cost reasons, but for features.
Sprint XOHM WiMax
There was a very underwhelming presence by Sprint (S)’s WiMax division considering they are launching the service this quarter. Little detail was available on pricing other than "It will be like WiFi" and "It won’t be complicated". Xohm plans to do away with contracts altogether, allowing consumers to buy WiMax modems on the open market and plug them in - just like WiFi. This is perhaps the biggest advantage XOHM has over incumbent HSDPA and EV-DO wireless data providers.
I didn’t see anything that changed my mind to believe WiMax would be a sleeper hit given the amount of money required to support a parallel infrastructure rollout in the US. It reminded me of one of the worst investments ever, Metricom.
The Nintento (OTCPK:NTDOY) Wii and the Apple (AAPL) iPhone have done yeoman’s work introducing the general population to natural interfaces. It would appear natural interfaces are rapidly penetrating every type of consumer product imaginable from voice activated car stereos (As in the Ford (F) SYNC) and GPS navigators to gesture recognition to control TV’s.
Toshiba (OTCPK:TOSBF) was exhibiting technology that allowed people to pause the TV simply by gesturing from the couch with an open palm. Microsoft (MSFT) Surface had multiple demos, and Toshiba also exhibited something similar using projection technology rather than LCD displays. Nuance (NUAN) is the company that is behind much of the voice recognition.
This technology trend was overlooked by the mainstream press, but is in the very early stages of evolution. Natural interfaces were everywhere at CES, though not in an overt way. Expect CES 2009 to feature a bevy of products that use natural interfaces to allow hardware to blend more effectively into our lives.
Thin is In
The TV guys are struggling to repeat the fanfare of the last few years when they eliminated the CRT from the western world. If LCD displays were removed from the show, CES would be 2/3 the size and a lot more meaningful.
It is safe to say that LCDs are getting cheaper, incrementally better, and much thinner. Virtually everyone was showing LCD TV’s with a wireless video connection, eliminating the need for an HDMI connection. Lost on everyone is why this is such a big deal, given you still need to plug it into an electrical socket. As consumers, help us understand why we should care. Also, LCDs are now ridiculously thin. It is an amazing technical achievement but again, once mounted on the wall does anyone care if it is one or three inches thick?
Another year, another set of media extender products promising to simplify the task of sharing your music, photos and video around the house. No one has cracked this problem yet, because it isn’t a technology problem. The barriers are media companies who all want to do one-off licensing deals and companies like Apple (AAPL), Sony (SNE) and Microsoft (MSFT) who are all shooting for market dominance. The appearance of home network-attached storage will be part of the solution. It seems as though the carriers could play a role here though none of them are making an attempt. No widget invented between now and 2009 will provide the answer.
UMPC’s - EEPC, OLPC
The coolest mainstream gadget goes to the Asus EEPC, a $299 full-fledged Internet laptop. Everyone has been trying to make a micro PC but no one has targeted the low end as successfully as Asus. The $199 OLPC was on display at the Marvell booth and illustrated what $200 can buy, though the EEPC was a better value.
Both computers are perfect for kids, particularly if the goal is teaching old-school computing as both are based on Unix and are very hackable.Get your hands on an EEPC and you’ll understand - the future of computing volume growth is in these cheap terminals.
Phones as Kitchen Sinks
CES isn’t the uber-mobile phone show but several companies exhibited new hardware. Most intriguing was Garmin (GRMN) , the GPS company and maker of standalone GPS hardware. They introduced a new SD memory card that you can insert into any mobile phone and immediately turn it into a Garmin-like device, complete with all of the voice and database features of one of their standalone units.
It doesn’t take long to realize that such a product is upgradeable on the fly and also has real-time data access. Needless to say this was a really smart move by Garmin, moving them into the software/IP domain and out of the hardware domain, something they need to do to retain such a lofty valuation.
Speaking of lofty valuations, I stumbled upon Garmin IR Manager Polly Schwerdt providing an update to at least 40 investment analysts furiously punching their Blackberries. There was literally a mass of people jockeying to listen, each trying to distill some unique kernel of wisdom while loud rap music blared from a nearby booth. It was Wall St. herd thinking captured in an image.
LG and Motorola (MOT) showed off some new high end video and camera phones that could easily displace the digital cameras of non-prosumer users (like yours truly).
- HD-DVD related companies were ghost towns. One month ago pundits claimed the Blu-Ray / HD-DVD war would last another year and that the battle was stalemated. Then, one studio shifts and suddenly the game is over. If you’re looking for a black swan in technology, this is as close as it gets. As predicted, Blu-Ray wins.
- Many of the component companies moved their booths off-site. Broadcom, Marvell had most of the action in the walled gardens.
- CES was definitely not as crowded this year. Cheap rooms were available at last minute. Cab drivers indicated that they were afraid of losing CES.