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CES 2008: Understanding Industry Trends

Introduction

In the financial world, we talk a lot about trends. Trends are pretty fascinating things actually...it's the idea that, given a little know-how of what to look for, you can predict the move of an entire sector of the market. The "know-how" can actually be very, very diverse - anything from watching what raw materials are being purchased to how much money a company is borrowing via bonds or giving out to buy back its stock.

In the computer world, trends are just as important. For those of us who are end users, raw materials or company bonding for R&D aren't as useful. Such things tell us that the companies are doing something, but don't ever really give us a clear indication of what. Instead, we're left looking at what a company chooses to highlight in the public arena. Companies will usually do this via one of two ways - trade shows and press releases.

Of those two methods, trade shows are by far the most important. Many of the products that are shown on the floor of CES or CeBIT are not even ready for market yet, but the company wants to make sure that these gems of next year are showcased. For a lot of people, going to a trade show is a cool way to look at the new toys coming out soon. However, for those of us who know where to look, the trade show provides a two year (overlapping) roadmap for where the industry is moving as a whole.

This year, I wanted to share some of that thought process. Tim and I have shown you some pretty cool stuff from the show floor this year, with messages about current and soon-to-be products. But when you read between the lines, you get to see something even more fascinating - the whole hydra-headed industry marching more or less in step towards a common goal.

Start at the beginning...

One of the first questions I'm asked when I start talking about CES as a roadmap is, "Well, who's drawing it?" It's a fair question - after all, it takes a lot of clout to be able to steer the entire industry towards a common goal. And the answer to that question at the end of the day is even more interesting - we are drawing the roadmap, as consumers.

As we get buried under the mountainous minutiae of press release, arrogant CEOs and sub-standard products, it's easy to lose sight of the idea that we're in charge. But in reality, when we aren't buying a product, the company begins to wonder why. The bigger the company, the more it digs into the issue, scouring for problems with focus groups, surveys and even psychologists.

The show floor is about more than what's on the tables today, it's also about what will be there tomorrow.

The show floor is about more than what's on the tables today,
it's also about what will be there tomorrow.

The big companies like Microsoft and Intel are the ones who have the most money to spend on such issues, and that's why they follow the initial map we draw before anybody else. These industry leaders set the specific tune for the market as they respond to the customer feedback from both successful and failed products, looking to design new features.

For instance, laptop battery issues made Intel go back to the drawing board with the old Pentium III specs to create the Pentium M, and the chip was lavished with so much praise for its performance per watt that motherboard makers began creating desktop boards for it. Intel listened to the consumer praise, as well as the criticism of its Netburst architecture, when it went to the drawing board for the Core architecture - many of the temperature and speed enhancements of Core are adapted directly from the Pentium M.

Intel's Centrino platform was released to complement the new low-power chipset, which was designed to pair low-power devices together. So, for industry members making components such as WiFi or southbridges, the gauntlet was on the table - catch up or be left behind. With the hardware in place, Microsoft could begin coding en masse to make use of the new designs, providing the "best mobile experience" as it altered hard drive seek rates, data organisation, caching, and power states. Now, software designers were challenged to keep up, altering their code to recognise network connections going to sleep, unusual cache patterns and other issues that the changes introduced. If the programs keep crashing, users will switch to another program - not another entire platform.

Note my single-minded focus on spotting trends. That, or the D-Link booth babes. Either is possible.

Note my single-minded focus on spotting trends.
That, or the D-Link booth babes. Either is possible.

On the consumer electronics fronts, it is again the giants that lead the way. The likes of Toshiba, Sony, and Apple push the bounds of what is to be expected from your TV or media player. Others in the industry either catch up or are rolled over - even mult-billion pound coalitions like the HD DVD consortium. In the end, there is one path - and your company either catches up or leaves the major markets behind, instead looking for niche spots wanting your particular brand of crazy.

That's great, but...

So, what does this have to do with the price of rice? Everything. We know that the big boys are the ones that respond first to our market statements, and we know that trade shows tend to be where they do it. After all, Intel and Microsoft really aren't there to just 'market' - these companies are huge, and don't exactly need shows like this for doing business.

Instead, it's all about selling your concepts to the populous. CES brings over 140,000 industry-minded people together, and by building elaborate booths (Intel and Microsoft have two of the largest at the show), you capture the attention of everyone walking by. People stop, listen to the upcoming products, and begin to wonder when other members of the industry will make use of them or catch up with their own versions. It's about selling that roadmap.

So, let's step onto the floor of CES and do a little digging. After a couple keynotes and a couple booth stops from different sectors of the market, it becomes clear as day - 2008 and 2009 are all about bringing our multitude of devices great and small together. It's all about interoperability.