I’ll be heading for CES again tomorrow, but mainly to meet people. As a device showcase, CES has demonstrated an uncanny ability to highlight trends that will never be. Perhaps the most legendary example was the year 2006, one year before the iPhone arrived. The highlights of CES 2006 pretty much represented every trend that was going to fizzle out far before anyone expected.
The Palm Treo 700 W was a perfect representative of the smartphone category that was about to be wiped out by the iPhone earthquake. Back in 2006, the usability and feature selection of the Treo 700 seemed positively awesome. EVDO, 1.3 megapixel camera, a broad spectrum of audio and video file support, a large color display. This seemed precisely what a smartphone was supposed to be. Except that the iPhone’s touch screen UI and app ecosystem would soon kill not only Treo series, but Palm itself.
Garmin Nuvi made a massive splash with a detailed map of the entire United States packed into a lightweight device that also worked as an MP3 player, photo viewer and a translator! And for just under $1000. It seemed inevitable that Garmin would emerge as a major consumer electronics powerhouse in the new “smart devices” segment.
The Sony Ebook also seemed like a device that was about to launch an industry. 80 books in an onboard memory and hundreds in this cool Sony memory stick format! Surely ebooks would blossom into a major product category that would thrive for decades… or five years, as it turned out.
Slingbox was going to be the future of streaming video. Until it got buried by Netflix.
The same pattern repeats at CES year after year — products that seem to define the future of consumer electronics when you views them in the CES trance turn out to be mirages.
This is because the real meaning of CES is the boring business of connecting industry people to each other. The media-friendly facade of product roll-outs has always been comically out of step with what is actually hot in consumer electronics. CES has always belonged to the Garmins and Sanyos of the world, while real trend-makers at the height of their powers have always spurned the event as a tacky industry snore fest.
Personally, I will always have a soft spot for the scrappy second-stringers that dominate CES. And once in a while, something clicks. Among all the fool’s gold that was CES 2006, a funny little device called Scooba actually did give us a glimpse of the future. It was the ancestor of the vacuuming robot Roomba which now is an integral part of American life. Sort of.
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