LAS VEGAS — If you were expecting a whiz-bang, must-have product to be unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year, I’m not sure I’ve seen it. This year’s exhibition has been more about trends than about big halo devices or services.
One big trend this year centers on “smart TVs.” More specifically, that means TVs that connect to the Internet, have apps, run Android, can tell you the weather, plug into services like Netflix or Hulu, and generally don’t act much like a television. These sets also tout motion controls (a la Microsoft’s Kinect Xbox peripheral), accept voice commands, and interface with complex remotes that feature trackpads and QWERTY keyboards.
And not only are there tons of these TVs floating around the show, but manufacturers who’ve never made a television — like Lenovo, a PC-maker — have jumped into the game.
You might be wondering why this is. But I’m not. Almost every company here seems to be frantically scrambling to preempt something that hasn’t even been announced yet: Apple’s rumored TV.
But what makes a smart TV really matter to a consumer — and what will certainly be the focal point of any Apple television that ever exists — has nothing to do with remote controls.
It has to do with content, and that’s something few companies here are talking about at all.
Sure, a smart TV will be really nice to have in your living room if someone can create a user experience that doesn’t feel like a pain, but it won’t matter much if you don’t have the content you want on the set or you don’t have any way to get it.
What’s interesting to watch is companies somehow missing the mark on what consumers really need. It’s not that we’re unhappy because we can’t get the weather report on our television (isn’t that what the Weather Channel is for?),or that we can’t use motion controls to swipe-swipe-swipe to find something to watch.
The problem is that we can’t get the content we want because cable companies and their partners are still bottlenecking the distribution of movies and TV shows. They haven’t been able to find the right ways to work together (or don’t want to). This is why the previous generation of Internet TV products — the streaming services and set-top boxes sold by companies like Google, Hulu, Netflix and Roku — hasn’t completely replaced old-fashioned TVs. These services and devices only allow you to watch a subset of content from their partners.
Until this problem is solved, these manufacturers are still going to look over their shoulders at Apple because it’s been one of the few companies that seems to be able to wrangle disparate content partner deals.
The other major trend happening at CES 2012 is the rise of the ultrabook. If you don’t know what an ultrabook is, take a look at the latest MacBook Airs.
PC makers have started cranking out similar designs which focus on thin, light, beautifully designed laptops — and they are all over this show.
Not only are the familiar faces in this game (Samsung, Lenovo, Sony, etc.) but young companies like Vizio — previously known only for their cheap HDTVs — want to be part of this story. If there’s one thing I can promise about 2012, it’s that the big, bulky laptops of yesteryear are not long for this world. Chip-maker Intel touted the fact that there are more than 75 versions of the ultrabook coming in the next 12 months.
Talk about market saturation.
But ultimately, what’s most interesting about the consumer electronics industry (and what you clearly see here in Las Vegas) is that it really isn’t about those explosive moments when everything changes. Those moments hardly ever happen — and they typically don’t happen at huge trade shows where everyone wants to show off their latest and greatest.
No, technology moves iteratively, deliberately. Ploddingly? Yeah, sometimes — especially when you see 50 versions of the same thing and none of them seem to work quite the way you want.
But still, I do think we will get there — both with the explosions and the ones that trickle out slowly.
I just hope you didn’t buy a TV or a laptop recently.
Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge, a technology news Web site.