Gadgets

Two pictures that illustrate 12 years of change in technology (and the increasing irrelevance of CES)

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It’s another year of skipping out on the International CES for me. While many tech scribes are in Vegas fighting huge crowds, insane traffic and ridiculous cab lines, I decided to sort through my old photos and scan them in with an Evernote ScanSnap I’m reviewing. I came across an old photo of my living room in 2002. That picture (below), alongside one I took of my living room this morning (at the top), illustrates how much technology has changed in the past 12 years.

It also illustrates how much CES has become irrelevant in that time as the old-line consumer electronics companies have been losing the race to their nimbler Silicon Valley- and Seattle-based rivals. The most notable items in my living room today — the iPad Mini, Kindle Fire HDX, Chromecast, Apple TV, and Roku — weren’t introduced at CES. The only one that has a solid CES lineage is TiVo. TiVo announced and demoed its original digital video recorder at CES — in 1999. The current version, the TiVo Roamio, came out in 2013, but not at CES. (See my review of the Roamio.) (Disclosures: I own stock in Apple and Google.)

Rocky Agrawal's home theater setup in 2002.

Above: Rocky Agrawal’s home theater setup in 2002.

Image Credit: Rakesh Agrawal

The biggest difference between the two pictures that you can see is the decline of physical media: All of my CDs have been ripped to MP3s. The DVDs sit in a box in a closet. The VCR is also in a closet on the off chance that some day I may need to convert a VHS tape to digital. All of the electronics have been swapped out for new versions, with the exception of the speakers. I’ve had that Boston Acoustics surround sound system since 1996 and it still sounds great. (I’ve been tempted to swap it for a Sonos Playbar, but my friends who have that tell me its suboptimal compared with a true surround sound system.) Another important difference: with the exception of the TV, everything has gotten smaller.

The more important difference between the two pictures is what you can’t see: almost everything has become networked. In 2002, I had a ReplayTV DVR. It was the only device in my living room that was connected — and it did so using a dial-up phone line to get program listings. Now, nearly everything is connected. The speakers are the only thing without an IP address. Most of the other devices connect over Wi-Fi. The TiVo, Apple TV, Roku, Slingbox, Xbox, receiver, and Blu-ray player all have apps.

You also can’t see the services that sit in the cloud that support all of this technology. Although all of my CDs have been ripped, more often than not, I listen to Pandora, KQED, or Spotify, all over the Internet. I found the AM/FM antennae that go with my receiver and decided not to bother hooking them up; I stream the few radio shows I care about, either directly through the station or through the TuneIn app.

I used to collect DVDs; I’ve all but stopped. I don’t want more physical stuff to haul around.

But there are limitations to the changes in technology driven by content licensing and laws. I was going to remove the book and DVD from the “now” picture, but I realized they are there for a reason. I bought “Good to Great” for $4.35 from an Amazon marketplace seller (36 cents plus $3.99 shipping). I could have bought the Kindle edition, but that is $16.

With print books, DVDs, CDs and Blu-rays, you can legally resell them under the first-sale doctrine. Often these items have little value, so you can buy second-hand copies for cheap. But the first-sale doctrine doesn’t apply to their digital equivalents. In most cases, I can’t buy a Kindle copy of the book that someone has finished. (There are companies trying to create secondary marketplaces for digital goods, but that requires the permission of the content owners.)

Hit movies like Toy Story are often unavailable on digital services or are expensive. Toy Story isn’t on Netflix. I can rent it from Amazon for $4 or “buy” a digital download for $20. (Note that Amazon sells the DVD for $17, plus shipping — though shipping is free if you subscribe to Amazon Prime.) For all the whining about digital media that content providers do, they actually have a lot more control over pricing for digital goods than they do for physical goods.

My TV programming should all be available in the cloud as well. But TV programmers have been reluctant to let that happen because they are wary of digital and they want to keep the lucrative revenue streams from cable companies coming in. Innovative services like IAC’s Aereo are tied up in litigation almost from birth. Even services created by programmers, like Hulu, have a patchwork of restrictions.

Even with all of the changes over the 12 years, it sure doesn’t look like I’ve simplified things, has it? One of the current challenges is that some services are only available on some platforms. And the quality of the implementations can vary a lot by platform. Some services have done a great job of being everywhere. I can get Netflix and Hulu on the Tivo, Apple TV, TV, Roku, Blu-Ray, and Xbox. But I can only get iTunes Radio on my Apple TV.

If I could pick only one of the content devices, it would be the TiVo Roamio. If I could pick two, it would be the Roamio and the Apple TV.

What should we expect in the next 12 years? Don’t look to CES for the answer. The last few technologies hyped at CES — 3D TVs and OLED TVs — have fallen flat on their faces. The last major announcement during CES that mattered was in 2007. But that was Steve Jobs announcing the iPhone — in San Francisco, not at CES.

In the next 12 years, I expect to see:

  • Even more cloud services and the continued shrinking of devices that are physically present in the home. Google Chromecast is a great example of this. It’s a tiny device that does a lot of work. Depending on your TV, you might be able to hide it entirely.
  • More cooperation from the cable and satellite operators with media streaming devices. Cable companies have historically wanted to control the set top box. But in the last year, we’ve seen a lot more openness toward working with other platforms. For example, I can watch Comcast’s Xfinity Video-on-Demand content on the TiVo. Cable companies seem to finally be realizing that the set top box business is really expensive.
  • A continuing shift towards technology players like Apple and Google and away from consumer technology giants like Sony and Panasonic. A lot of this has to do with user interface. The TV guys don’t know how to create high quality interfaces. Even though my TV has native support for Netflix, Hulu, flickr and a bunch of other services, I use a different device because the interface is so painful. Among the traditional consumer tech giants, the only one that has a chance in creating good interfaces is Samsung. (Although I was at a friend’s place the other night checking out his new Samsung TV and that interface was terrible.)
  • More personalization and bringing social experiences to the TV. By this, I don’t mean doing what Google tried to do with the disastrous Google TV. Few people want the entire Web on their TV. (To the extent that they want to do that while watching TV, they have tablets.) But it’s taking relevant elements of social experiences and bringing them to the TV. A number of the devices I own have Facebook, Picasa and flickr apps, but right now they’re pretty awful.
  • Better control mechanisms, including voice and more tablet apps. The idea of moving a cursor on a screen six feet away using infrared technology that was popularized in the 1980s is ridiculous. Tablets have gotten so cheap that you can deliver rich control with two-way feedback. The entire purpose of the Nook HD that you see in the picture is to control the Roku, Tivo, amp and other devices. Today’s tablets have better resolution than the TVs that sit six feet away. This also includes better search tools to navigate the much larger ocean of content. TiVo’s universal search is an important first step. Devices will also be able to better talk to each other. Even though consumer electronics devices support CEC over HDMI cables, behavior is inconsistent. In 12 years, your Dropcam and doorbell should be talking to your TV over WiFi.

Pop quiz for electronics geeks: one product visionary is represented in both pictures. Can you guess who it is? Leave your answer in the comments.

More information:

Apple designs and markets consumer electronics, computer software, and personal computers. The company's best-known hardware products include the Macintosh line of computers, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. Apple software includes t... read more »

Google's innovative search technologies connect millions of people around the world with information every day. Founded in 1998 by Stanford Ph.D. students Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google today is a top web property in all major glob... read more »

TiVo Inc. incorporated in August 1997, a developer and provider of software and technology that enables the search, navigation, and access of content across sources, including linear television, on-demand television, and broadband vide... read more »

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