We ate entirely too much Sbarro.
Hey, it was a quick meal fix in a pinch and there was so much at CES to view / listen to / play / swipe / poke / drool over, that a microwaved pizza slice was often the best option. The three-to-five minutes that it took to inhale a triangular piece of mediocrity was ample time to reflect on the handful of key themes that kept popping up across the miles of exhibitor floorspace, conference track events and flashy keynote speeches. Back at the office, I managed to gather my tomato-sauce-stained notes and expand on the most prominent dynamics from this year's CES.
The Year of the ________?
In most years at CES, there is typically one product or category that grabs all the media attention and consumer buzz. Last year tablets were the big craze. But there doesn't appear to be a clear winner this year. Some may argue that the emergence of Intel's Ultrabook category won that right with a dizzying number of models released from leading brands, while others may contest that OLED TVs were the next must-have. Aside from those two examples, there weren't really any 'game-changers'?. Maybe it wasn't a product or category at all but a trend known as the 'ecosystem'?'?¦
Owning the Ecosystem
If we had a nickel for every time the word 'ecosystem'? was uttered, we'd have a big ol' bag of nickels. But what does this new buzzword mean? Simply put, the ecosystem is the synergy created by a single provider that can offer users hardware (devices), software (an operating system), content for those devices (music, e-books, games, apps, etc.), and an online marketplace to purchase content ' all working together seamlessly. Apple has this structure in place now ' you can download a book from iTunes, read it on your iPhone on the train home from work bookmark your spot when your stop arrives, then resume reading from that point on your iPad while reading from the couch when you get home. Because it took Apple years to build and integrate this model seamlessly, they're in the leadership position and competitors are scrambling to catch up.
In most cases, one single company does not have the necessary resources in place to handle an across-the-board solution so they have naturally turned to strategic partnerships or acquisitions to fill-in the gaps. Last year the industry saw these building blocks being put into place. In February, Nokia and Microsoft announced a strategic alliance where that mobile cog helps Microsoft build out their own ecosystem. In April, Dish acquired Blockbuster's assets from bankruptcy auction, giving them more content firepower against a slew of competitors in DirecTV, cable networks and Netflix. Finally in October, Sony bought out Ericsson (you'll see the 'Sony Ericsson'? brand phased out in favor of 'Sony Mobile'? in the next few months) in a move that gave Sony complete control of the device end and allows for future integration opportunities with PlayStation 3 and content from the PlayStation Network.
To best understand the marketing implications of this ' first marketers must understand how consumers engage with these devices. Long gone are the days when a consumer sat in front of a TV with undivided attention. Today, that consumer could very well be using multiple devices at the same time. It is the responsibility of the agency/advertiser to understand the best way to reach the audience across multiple screens through a comprehensive brand experience. The benefit of these ecosystems is the ability to provide an integrated, one-stop solution across all touchpoints completely customizable to the assets (physical or digital) available. However, the downside is the device fragmentation, where consumers have multiple devices but not from the same manufacturer / ecosystem ' then that synergy and compatibility is lost.
Convergence on Convenience
In this ecosystem model, the ability to move from device to device with similar entertainment content is the ideal experience. There is a similar dynamic of interoperability through a 'connected'? home where various 'smart'? devices, appliances and systems work together for a more functional, efficient and cost-friendly residence. Imagine being able to get a text from your fridge to remind you to pick up more eggs because it knows that you're running low and you're close to the grocery store. Or maybe your bathroom shower mirror is voice controlled with the ability to give you today's weather and top news stories as you get ready for work.
These experiences are getting closer to reality and as they do the ability to enhance existing behaviors will come with it as well. For example ' your fridge then sends you a coupon on premium free-range eggs (because it syncs with your search/browsing history and recognizes that you're a foodie with a golden heart). Or your bathroom shower mirror gives you headlines from the New York Times that you can bookmark and sync to your phone to read on your drive in ' all included with a single NYT subscription.
Such emerging communication channels and opportunities may be a few years off. Fragmentation issues will still remain and there needs to be sufficient consumer demand for market viability but it's interesting to think about how a truly connected home might affect our day to day lives.
3DTV Today and Beyond
3DTVs aren't going anywhere. There's still a battle between active glasses (battery-powered, with a lens shutter) and passive glasses (polarized lenses like the kind you get at the movies). There were only a few autostereoscopic or 'glasses-free'? models on the exhibition floor ' mostly in some beta form from the big CE brands or offered by smaller specialty companies. In past years, the adoption of 3DTV was a 'chicken vs. egg'? scenario ' content was scarce so consumers didn't want to spend for the extra capability that they would use minimally and content creators and distributors didn't want to front the cost against a small universe of capable TVs. This was the same growth pattern that HDTV went through about a decade ago. But now, with most new higher-end sets featuring 3D capability (at a marginal cost), there is less consumer trepidation, especially when considering dedicated 3D television channels (ESPN3D, 3Net, etc.) and an ever-increasing slate of 3D movies released each month. All of this points toward consumers becoming more comfortable with 3D engagements.
That doesn't necessarily mean that the format will lose the luster of its impact entirely ' it just needs to be approached with caution. While it's easy to fall into the trap of creating gimmicky content (i.e. a soccer ball flying out of the TV), the approach should be the same as any other advertising medium where the focus is on the message and communication to your target audience first, not the effects. Designers don't say 'holy crap, we HAVE GOT to put a lens flare on this'? then build a concept using that as a starting point. Once that message is crafted, a few ideas to potentially explore are applications that can show size and scale (i.e. various classes of pickup trucks), precise details (i.e. industrial design of a sleek new handset), or use to provide depth to a scene / environment (i.e. panoramic shot of a tourist destination).
It'll be interesting to see these dynamics shape up over the next twelve months. It's highly unlikely that a game-changing product pops up this year. Any announcements from Apple (traditionally absent at CES) can shake things up as well. Who knows if any of the industry's leading brands will be able to gain traction on Apple's ecosystem, but it's certainly an uphill battle. Smart appliances could become more widely adopted as consumers become increasingly tech savvy leading the way for further growth in that category in coming years. 3DTVs and content will continue to grow but by the end of the year will it remain a fun novelty or will it become a serious way to enjoy the home television experience?
As for next year's CES, making predictions for what we'll see is always a crapshoot. I'm guessing 3D-capable mobile devices. And hoverboards.
Over the next few weeks, we'll be reporting back on a cross section of our time at CES ' everything from industry trends to brilliant new products to mind-blowing apps. Stay tuned.