The biggest change at CES
The annual gadget bacchanalia that is the Consumer Electronics Show is always a chance to glimpse the future. Among this year's most exciting reveals was a TV that can actually roll up like a blind — it probably will cost five figures, but it really will be coming to stores this year.
But as cool as a roll-up TV is, it's hardly the most surprising thing at this year's CES. The most surprising thing has been all the sharing.
For at least the past decade, each year's shiniest products came with a familiar pitch: Buy this thing because it's the key to our very special walled garden. In simple terms, that often meant things like "buy a Sony TV and get special access to movies from Sony Pictures," but more generally, it meant joining an ecosystem — buy this device and lock yourself in to Google's Android or Amazon's Alexa or Apple's iOS (not that the latter would ever deign to appear at CES).
It would appear that is no longer the case. At this year's CES, every company's ecosystem is now also appearing on every other company's stuff. The barriers that once separated products into little vertical silos appear to be crumbling. One might almost say that tech is having a "tear down this wall" moment — if walls hadn't suddenly become symbolic of much bigger issues.
What it does mean, however, is that we are entering a new era in tech that is ostensibly a bit more consumer friendly. But it also suggests that the biggest tech companies are shifting their business models.
The sheer range of products now including software or virtual helpers is mind boggling. Google's Assistant, its virtual intelligence product, can now be found everywhere: both in fridges themselves, and on e-Ink fridge magnets that remind you to leave for an appointment; on speaker systems like the much-coveted ones from Sonos; and in TVs, cars, and so much more.
That pattern is being replicated all over CES, but with a twist. Products that used to only have one ecosystem now have many. Samsung is including not only its own Bixby assistant on its TVs, but also Google's Assistant and Amazon's Alexa. Sony's TVs, which run on Android TV, will also support Apple's AirPlay standards for connecting sets to mobile devices. It's a remarkable change when even the notoriously closed Apple starts interacting with its competitors to support its own formats.
The reason is not mere altruism, though. Rather, it's about the maturing state of digital technology. In the early stages of the digital revolution, there was a logic behind lock-in: As a device became more popular, app and content makers would create more compelling stuff for it, which in turn enticed even more people to buy it. It was a virtuous cycle that led to exponential growth.
When markets start to mature, however, growth slows because the audience hits its limit. When that happens, you no longer want your customers to be restricted in which device they buy; instead, you want them to have access to your services on as many products as possible, because the revenue model starts to shift more toward content and services that customers pay for on an ongoing basis.
We've seen this before. In the early days of digital music, songs and albums purchased on, say, Apple's iTunes store were only playable on Apple's iPod. That helped fuel widespread adoption of the iPod because you had to have one to listen to digital music (well, legally anyhow). But as everyone started to get MP3 players and then later phones and other devices that could play digital music, it no longer made sense to limit people, and the software that constrained certain songs to certain devices was dropped. In fact, more long term, we saw a shift to services rather than individual purchases because digital content changed people's behavior and tastes.
So now we see the same pattern repeating but for voice assistants and content ecosystems. We are much closer to the ideal of buying any TV or random device and having whatever ecosystem you want available on it.
Still, I can't help but think of my parents, who recently bought a new TV, and who took some time to figure out the various components of Android TV or Google's Chromecast feature, that lets you send things like YouTube videos or photos from their phones to the big screen. It seems that more options would only confuse them. And even the more tech savvy will probably find little benefit to having multiple ways of doing the same things.
This suggests that what's needed are more standards — more agreed-upon industry norms for how to get content from one device to another, or more interoperability, such as the recent agreement between Amazon and Microsoft to get Alexa on Windows computers.
In the meantime, however, the changes at CES are still a net positive. You might not need three AI assistants in your fridge, but the fact that you have options is a step in the right direction.