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Commentary

Walking the CES Walk, Talking the CES Talk

LAS VEGAS -- Three things I learned at the Consumer Electronics Show: (1) IT is irrelevant. It used to be that innovations in computing flowed from big business down to the small-office and home markets. Now it flows in the other direction. (2) Hardware is no longer the bottleneck for anything. And (3) universal connectivity is still a long way off.
LAS VEGAS -- Three things I learned at the Consumer Electronics Show: (1) IT is irrelevant. It used to be that innovations in computing flowed from big business down to the small-office and home markets. Now it flows in the other direction. (2) Hardware is no longer the bottleneck for anything. And (3) universal connectivity is still a long way off.Being at a big tradeshow, as I have this week, is like being trapped in a Hall of Mirrors that distorts your perceptions. Tiny things become huge. Spend three or four days immersed in the unremitting din of PR and marketing hype and you begin to accept as reasonable things that, in the real world, are obviously ridiculous. Maintaining perspective can be difficult. Stepping back to get a wider view can be nearly impossible. Still, if you can winnow out the hype, there's always something to think about.

IT Is Irrelevant Once upon a time computing was all about productivity. Personal computers were literally smuggled into businesses because they could produce spreadsheets, and they revolutionized the business world. Nowadays your typical teen-age gamer runs a far more powerful PC than your typical business bean-counter, and it seems the bigger the company the more hostile it is to bright ideas about its IT infrastructure.

That's why the biggest computer show in the United States is the Consumer Electronics Show, not the Corporate Electronics show. Consumers are where the money is. It used to be different, and back then Comdex was the king of the tradeshows in Las Vegas, but no longer.

Computing is not about productivity anymore. It's about entertainment and lifestyle and this year's hottest buzzphrase, "the user experience." (I blame Microsoft and its Vista hype machine for the endless repetition of "user experience, and someday I'll find a way to make them pay for it.) Computers no longer help us have more time for other things. They have become the other things we want more time for. The meteoric rise in the importance of video is currently the clearest example of this.

Hardware Is Not A Bottleneck Video is also a clear example of the opportunity for another reason: the vendors are doing video because they can, not because there's incredible pent-up demand for it. (If you haven't read Aaron Ricardella's piece on "If Video Is The Answer, PC Industry Looks For The Right Question" you should take a look.)

I have seen products this week that blew me away that will sell on the street for $99. The cost of computing once kept it out of the consumer market, but no longer. Once upon a time the price of a megabyte of storage was a number with a decimal point after it. Now it's measured in gigabytes, and the decimal comes to the left. A terabyte of network attached storage, which used to be a separate line item in the corporate IT budget, is now a couple hundred dollars for a WiFi-equipped housing that does RAID 1 and a few hundred more for a pair of 750GB hard drives.

(And there's a corollary: NAS used to be so complicated it came with its own system administrator. Now the hardest part is finding an open outlet on your power strip.)

Silicon is cheap and it gets cheaper quicker than ever. I toured the Broadcom booth this week and got a look at what its second generation of high-definition video single-chip solutions can do -- like play either Blu-Ray or HD DVD disks and give you picture-in-picture and multi-layer overlays so you can open the scene-selection menu while the movie continues to play behind it. What that means is that high-end HD TVs and players will be low-end faster than any previous generation of technology.

Connectivity Still Isn't Universal While some technologies, like video, are coming along very quickly, others -- specifically networking and connectivity -- seem to be bogged down. The WiFi standard, 802.11n, for example, is still trapped in standards-body hell. WiMax doesn't seem to be anywhere, and WAN is a seething swamp of conflicting technologies and advertising claims that looks too dangerous to go near.

CES didn't do anything to help make me feel better about any of these things. One of my few sit-down appointments this week was with Greg Raleigh, who helped pioneer the Multiple-In, Multiple Out (MIMO) technology that makes 802.11n so much faster than 802.11g. The ink was almost still wet on the business card he gave me: his company, Airgo, was acquired last month by Qualcomm, and he's now Vice President, Wireless Connectivity, for the wireless chipmaker.

Raleigh does have a commercial ax to grind, but he's one of the visionaries in wireless, so you have to listen. He's satisfied that Draft 2.0 of the 802.11n standard makes that technology ready for prime time, even though the IEEE won't ratify it until perhaps 2008. The Qualcomm suite where we met was running a demo that streamed simultaneous HD video signals through a Draft 2.0 router, which definitely supported his optimism.

He was equally enthusiastic about the future of wide-area networking (WAN) technologies like EV-DO Rev. C, tomorrow's version of the cellphone data services marketed as BroadbandAccess by Verizon and Power Vision by Sprint.

"EV-DO is a much smoother migration step for the carriers than WiMax because you don't have to do a forklift upgrade of the network," he said. (He does have a vested interest in the outcome of this particular technology battle: Qualcomm makes WAN chipsets and modules that currently go into 91 laptop models, and he said the number of WAN-ready machines will increase greatly this coming year, while the cellphone carriers will begin to offer WAN services that are more flexible and less costly.

The current problems with wireless connectivity were obvious everywhere you turned at CES -- there was either not enough of it in some places (particularly not enough WiFi, and you'd think the industry that sells this stuff would use it better), and too much of it in others, where vendors struggled to get their wireless demos to work through the electronic storms of conflicting signals.