The Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which took place in Las Vegas at the beginning of the year, is not one I have ever attended or followed closely through the years. It is primarily about consumer products, mostly for the home, and while I am personally very interested in the area it is not one I have been much involved in professionally.
This year, though, as I read press articles about CES, I sensed that something was changing. The "gadgets" have grown up for sure. They have not only gone digital and added more and more capabilities, but they are now based on computing technologies that just a few short years ago would have been found only in high-end PC's. But the biggest change that caught my attention was the focus on connectivity, integration and open standards - all areas that I generally associate with IT systems not consumer products.
Many CES press articles observed that consumers want more choice than ever about what content they watch and listen to and when and where they watch and listen to it. We have gotten used to a level of flexibility and freedom in the World Wide Web that we want to transfer to the world of digital content. As one of the articles pointed out: "The average American household now owns some 25 consumer electronics products - televisions and stereos and high-tech gimcracks of every imaginable flavor," and later in the same article "[The] battleground for things like who makes the biggest flat-screen TV with the highest-definition picture was, of course, in full force at the show. But it is now only one of two battlegrounds. The other - call it branded ubiquity - is about who controls the interaction between the consumer and that gadget and, more and more, all the gadgets in the house as they become interconnected."
Then there is the emerging role of the Internet for digital media of all sorts. Another article said that companies talking about their vision of the future at CES presented their various versions of "digital convergence -- the epic shift of electronic entertainment, information and communications to the Internet." The article concluded that "The excitement in the next few years won't be wondering whether digital convergence will happen -- that's a given -- but in handicapping which of these many new ideas and which of the companies will come out on top.
Digital convergence can be viewed from different points of view, so let me share my own perspective. The standardization of technology components and interfaces at one level, opens up enormous opportunities for innovation in the application of the technologies for new products and services. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the innovation unleashed in the IT industry in the last ten years by the move to standards and standard components and infrastructures, especially the Internet, coupled with the availability of increasingly powerful and affordable technologies. Going "up the stack", I am very excited about the opportunities for innovation in the world of business, as software standards like SOA and standard business components help us better integrate and transform companies and industries.
There is no question in my mind that convergence is now coming to digital entertainment and consumer electronics. Consumer electronics products are being built using common hardware components from the computer industry, e.g., microprocessors, memory, storage and so on, and most of their capabilities are now being designed as software. The drive toward open standards to link all the components in the home parallels what has been going on in IT for the last 10 - 15 years, and without a doubt broadband Internet is emerging as the major communications and content distribution platform into the home.
This is a very big deal for those of us working in just about any aspect of IT systems. The number of users and devices our servers will have to support is now going up by leaps and bounds when you include the new digital “gadgets” in the home and beyond; the storage and information management requirements for working with digital content like IPTV are enormous. Systems management is more important than ever to make sure that all those digital consumer devices and services are working flawlessly all the time, and the bulk of technical support can be delivered electronically over the network. And security and privacy need to be properly designed and implemented to provide protection for the content without imposing onerous complexities on the consumers of that content.
My expectation is that using the Internet as an open, standards-based platform for providing digital entertainment to myriad digital devices will unleash a torrent of innovation, with all kinds of content being offered to people in a variety of business models. In the marketplace, I don't expect convergence at all, but rather an explosion of customer segments, as different companies compete to sell their products and services to people as has happened in the World Wide Web with e-business. Some companies will be very big, reaching large numbers of consumers. But many will be very small, providing "niched" offerings to highly targeted, limited audiences. In the end, people will decide how to apportion their finite time and money amongst all those companies competing for their attention.
It will be truly fascinating to see how it all develops.