3D printers and their simultaneously awesome-and-nightmare inducing capabilities aside, basically everything I’ve seen at CES this week has been iterative and evolutionary in nature. Bigger, thinner, faster smartphones. Cameraphones with garish megapixel counts. A garishly specced digital camera with an Android phone shoved inside. Thinner, lighter HDTVs. Brighter, higher pixel-count HDTVs. DSLRs that shoot even better video. Point and shoot cameras that act even more like DSLRs. And so it goes.
I’m not complaining: Evolution and iteration are the name of the game in the CE industry. But this year’s CES is lacking in game changers and category busters: There’s no Phoenix rising from the ashes story (Palm webOS Keynote, 2009), no onslaught of technology that nobody’s sure they want (3D TV, 2010) or little guy taking a hot industry by storm (Nvidia Tegra 2, 2011). Instead, we’ve got notable but expected improvements to mobile phones in AT&T’s new 4G LTE network and the next generations of Android and Windows Phone devices. And we’ve got a fallen giant attempting to remake themselves in Nokia.
And oh yeah, Microsoft, a stalwart of the industry using their last-ever CES keynote to more or less say nothing.
And oh yeah, ultrabooks!
Don’t get me wrong, thinner, lighter, faster PCs are awesome. But really, ultrabooks aren’t a new category. “Ultrabooks” is a marketing term Intel dreamt up to put some muscle behind their big push to move CPUs this year. Windows-using road warriors and college students the world over will welcome the likes of Samsung’s Series 9 and the HP Envy 14 Spectre to stores near them, and that Nikaski prototype is interesting, but the notion of a thin, light, metallic wedge of a laptop isn’t entirely new. Nor is the concept of a tablet/laptop hybrid featuring both a full QWERTY board and giant touch screen. Good stuff, but evolutionary not revolutionary.
But there is great hope springing forth from the Nevada desert nonetheless. No, I’m not talking about voice controlled TVs or quad-prop flying objects controllable with smartphones. I’m talking about the demise of the spec sheet, a story I’ve heard multiple times from Senior-level executives at the show.
Nokia spent the entirety of our meeting talking about the design process informing their new Lumia line of Windows Phones, the 800 and flagship 900 in particular. From the torsional integrity of the seamless polycarbonate body to the razor sharpness of its smooth corners, Nokia’s new phones are all about hand feel, practical comfort, and evoking emotion in their users. Or so company reps would have you believe.
I believed ‘em. There’s nothing at all wrong with the performance of the Lumias, even though they “only” sport single-core processors. So rather than try to one-up their competitors in terms of clock cycle speed and megapixel count, Nokia’s instead talking about how their choice of colors and materials serves as the cornerstone of a new design language, and how you can toss your Lumia 900 casually on the kitchen counter without worrying about scraping its Gorilla Glass display. You know, user experience stuff: The things that make non-geeks stand up and take notice.
Similarly, Qualcomm – you know, the folks behind the Snapdragon line of CPUs – didn’t want to spend our meeting talking about multiple cores and megahertz and the competitive specs behind their S4 processors. They instead led me through demos of ad-hoc mesh networks poweringmultiplayer racing games and music apps that let a car full of passengers share DJing duties from their individual smartphones. Senior Directors told me they’ve been working on questions like, “The phones all have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so why can’t you and I exchange digital business cards without having to go through a server or make sure we’re running the same app on the same platform first?” Then they had me play virtual soccer (headers only!) and wave my hand around in space to control a photo carousel, all in the name of showing how the cameras and microphones already in your tablets can be used to enable motion tracking and gesture controls.
In other words, it’s no longer about the raw numbers of frame rates and RAM – it’s about making it easier for developers to leverage the devices’ hardware features to make their apps engaging, immersive, and otherwise amazing and useful.
Photographers will tell you that all the megapixels in the world aren’t worth a thing if they can’t capture a decent image. Windows Phone evangelists will tell you that it doesn’t matter that there aren’t any dual- (or quad-) core WP phones out yet because their OS runs amazingly on a single core. Apple fans have long said that smooth scrolling, touchscreen responsiveness, and intuitive user interfaces make irrelevant Cupertino’s unwillingness to publicly disclose the clock speed of their mobile CPUs.
Specs are a great way to compare baseline measurements of comparable devices, and to standardize minimum requirements for supporting accessories and software. But we might just be at the point where product managers and marketing execs alike are starting to realize that user experiences matter most of all, and so they’d better start spinning their stories in terms of what people can do with their products, and not just as a bunch of ultimately meaningless numbers on a spreadsheet.
Because really, which would you rather have? A “1.5 with 16, 720, and 14.4/1.46,” or a good-looking device that’s nice to hold and lets you wirelessly request your favorite song from the backseat in the middle of a family road trip?