5 things I want to see at CES 2013

Tomorrow, the Consumer Electronics Show officially kicks off, not that many vendors are waiting. There already are plenty of Day 0 and -1 announcements, which make me wonder if this -- the first of two posts -- isn't already late: What I would like and not want to see during this year's big event. If early press galas are any indication, many CES participants won't hit the jackpot in Las Vegas this year. Sadly that's a trend.

Like 2012, I'm sitting out the tradeshow. The real benefit is mingling, and that's for everyone -- from journalists to manufacturers to distributors. CES really isn't about gadget geeks but everyday consumers and CE manufacturers getting goods to them. Why else would LG's press gala feature 39 new driers and 72 refrigerators coming this year? But the big noise is all about the toys today, as it will be all week.

I've picked 5 things I would like to see and probably won't get much of. Sigh. They are in no order of importance, because they all are.

1. Shipping products. Every year it's the same damn thing. Vendors line up to out-yell one another about stuff they won't ship anytime soon. I can understand why LG wouldn't ship three-dozen driers immediately after the holidays. But what about real gadgets, like new cell phones or tablets or the strangest in-car thingy?

Vendors generate excitement about the next, cool toy -- but you can't have it for six to 10 months. The excitement is long passed by the time many CES products ship, if they aren't already imitated first -- or changed to imitate others. I can understand a few weeks, even a month, after the show. But six? Get a life.

2. Emphasis benefits. Vendors spend too much time checking off features when benefits matter more. So what if the smartphone screen is 0.1-inches bigger or that touchscreen tablet is 27 inches (what were you thinking, Lenovo). Vendors should emphasize what are the user benefits. How will these products improve buyers' lives.

In group chat this morning, we discussed the LG announcements. Colleague Wayne Williams smartly observed: "Can't see why my wife would want a washing machine that can be started over Wi-Fi. That's what I'm for, apparently". That's exactly right.

The first question that should be asked about any new product feature: Who needs it? The second: Who will use it? As Wayne also observed, a drier that saves 20 minutes time would be beneficial -- and that's something real buyers can care about. Sadly, analysts, bloggers, journalists and the social media set attending CES turn it into a freak show.

"There is a fundamental conflict between marketing to early adopters who are more profitable customers and evangelists, and the rest of us", Russ Crupnick, NPD's senior vice president of industry analysis, says. That conflict helps put the emphasis in the wrong place -- features that gadget geeks want instead of benefits that the rest of us need.

How funny. No tech company does better articulating benefits than Apple, and the company doesn't attend CES but instead debuts products at its own smaller events.

3. Apple showstopper. Speaking of forbidden fruit, no CES would be complete without some stinging showstopping announcement or rumor. But there isn't much noise this year, and that's highly unusual. Big deal, there are 40 billion App Store downloads. If nothing else, Apple buzz helps preserve the company's image as an out-innovator. Last week, I called 2012 a year of Apple iteration, and even investors question future innovation (this morning shares are down 26 percent from the record high set in September). Apple needs something to draw spotlight away from Las Vegas and back to Cupertino.

4. Contextual cloud computing. The so-called post-PC era is more marketing hype than reality. Apple would like you to think that way because it shifts emphasis to devices like iPad and iPhone. Instead, we live in the era of context -- and that is a major benefit vendors can promote.

During the mainframe era, people interacted with giant computers largely from dumb terminals. The PC era made information more portable for less money but still with more fixed location. Contextual cloud computing is largely location independent.

For example, many so-called knowledge workers don't keep 9-5 jobs. They aren't bound by the employer's physical building. As such, Jack Frost can switch from parent to product manager without leaving the couch, using his cloud-connected device. Computing context, not location, defines his role. Similarly, Jack Frost may start watching a movie on his tablet while flying and finish it at home on the HDTV. Context and location change but not the content. The point: The device's importance begins and ends with context, which interaction and not location defines.

Context is also about interaction. Early this afternoon, Mihaita Bamburic and I discussed benefits in group chat and whether a Wi-Fi drier makes any sense. "Wouldn't you want something that nags the kids to clean their room or take out the trash? Do their homework?" Something like "Facebook status update: Mom says take out the trash". Imagine if the parent could post that to their minor child's Facebook feed. A little embarrassment goes a long way as incentive. The point isn't the feature, whether or not it could logistically or legally be done, but that it's a clear, recognizable, contextual benefit that most consumers could understand.

5. Microsoft anything. The company that epitomizes the PC era pulled out of CES this year. There will be no CEO Steve Ballmer pre-show keynote tonight. Microsoft has a huge image problem right now. There is way too much negative buzz about weak Windows 8 and Surface RT sales during a time period that should have been a marketing boon. Over six months, Microsoft is releasing more new products than any other time in its history. Late 2012 and early 2013 should be a time of heralded innovation, of spectacular execution. But the buzz is more sour. Analysts, bloggers, journalists and other writers can't seem to convey enough bad about recent execution.

Microsoft really needs to hit the jackpot, even without commanding presence in Las Vegas. So far, the big news from Redmond, Wash. is negative. Tomorrow coincidentally is patch Tuesday, which highlights product security fixes rather than something positive. Time is for Microsoft to stir up the rumor mill or simply announce something big -- even if it doesn't ship for six to 10 months. There's good company along that timeline. Microsoft needs to do something.

Photo Credit: Consumer Electronics Show

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