For a tech journalist, covering the Consumer Electronics Show is like speed dating in track shoes. You race from one meeting to another, with maybe five minutes to form an impression of a product or a company. Will it last over the long haul? Is it marriage material? There’s no way of knowing.
The best you can hope to do is to figure out whether it’s intriguing enough to warrant a second date.
A lot of products shown at CES are silly. Others are just obvious. Yes, as HDTVs double or quadruple in size, screen resolutions need to keep pace to avoid looking like crap – hence 4K displays. Some products are concepts designed to attract attention at trade shows and will never be seen again; others will inevitably be killed before they reach retail shelves. And if the vendor insists a product will be shipping in March, you can be 37 percent sure you’ll see it by September, maybe.
What shows like CES are good for is getting the big picture on the trends currently driving the consumer electronics market. And the big trend this year is connections – connected homes, connected cars, connected bodies. You know, the whole Internet of Things thing.
Major vendors – including Cisco, Bosch, Qualcomm, and Whirlpool – were showing off their visions of smart homes, ones where the locks, lights, HVAC and more all talk to each other and to your phone. It was wicked cool stuff. It always is.
In truth, smart home technology has been around for at least a decade. But until very recently it was so expensive and difficult to implement that the only people who had it were the obscenely rich ones willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for home automation systems. Now you can buy this stuff at Wal-Mart and just plug it in. That’s the big news.
But the bright shiny smart home future promised us by CES 2014 may not necessarily come to pass this year or even next. It’s still kind of a mess out there. People who crave the Jetsons lifestyle today will likely be putting together their own solutions, piece by piece. And that raises some fundamental questions.
Like: Will your smart refrigerator be on speaking terms with your Web-enabled stove? Will we have to navigate separate apps for every smart device, the same way we juggle different remotes for our various home entertainment gizmos? How will devices designed to last for 10 or 15 years keep pace with technology that changes every six months?
Answers to some of these questions may be on the way. At the show, Qualcomm was showing off a mock smart house connected via AllJoyn – a free open source framework that allows devices from different manufacturers to talk to each other. Qualcomm calls it a “common language for the Internet of everything.”
The problem? The language may be common, but it’s not universal. For example, Panasonic, Linksys and LG have signed onto AllJoyn; Toshiba, Netgear, and Samsung have not. In fact, Samsung has its own peer-to-peer communications system called Chord that only talks to other Samsung devices. Until there’s a communications standard adopted by everyone, we’re going to see confusion and conflict.
The day you can just whip out your phone, see all the smart devices in your house and control them with a few taps of your fingers is the day smart homes will truly arrive.
Of course, we’ll also see dozens of startups diving in, hoping to solve these problems. We may even see a few of them at next year’s CES. But I’m not going to think about that now. Because all I want to do for the next 48 hours is sleep.