Notes from CES

Friday and Saturday, I made a quick, two-day trip out to Vegas to get a sense of the digital zeitgeist at CES. Some quick impressions follow:
CES is staggeringly, indescribably huge. Oceans of people, noise, gadgets, 150-yard lines for taxis. There’s no way I could have seen everything in my two days there.
Stating the obvious: PCs are finally coming to the living room. And everyone wants to provide the interface you use to select and manage your movies, music and anything else that might come down the internet pipe. The big question for this area: what’s the right balance of passive entertainment vs. active participation and discovery? Over the next few years, I think we’ll see an explosion of creative, low-cost internet video likeRocketBoom start to consume more and more of our attention. But as of yet, no one knows for sure how we’ll discover all this new stuff, or knows whether we’ll even want to from the living room.
Stating the obvious, part II: Given the porn industry’s long history of pioneering new consumer media technology, no one should be surprised that the Adult Entertainment Expo ran concurrently with CES.
As media of all kinds becomes digital, Digital Rights Management threatens to be an enormous hairball for everyone concerned. For an industry so utterly dependent on convincing people to continuously upgrade to the latest and greatest from older technology that functions perfectly well, locking digital music and videos to specific hardware people have seems to be sheer stupidity. But as long as everything is locked down, it will push people to search for solutions outside the mainstream. How long will it be before we see an open-source media center interface without DRM that integrates CD and DVD ripping with a nice library interface?
The need for storage is starting to be more pressing than need for bandwidth. Three years ago, the industry was consumed with solving the last mile problem. Now, thanks to ever-faster cable pipes, DSL lines and an emerging fiber-optic network, many of the bandwidth issues have been solved. Now, as more and more video and music is digitized at increasingly high resolutions, the digital storage demands of average households are growing exponentially; and for the first time, the cost of storage has dropped to the point where that’s entirely feasible. For portable devices, this means more flash memory; for table-top devices, increasingly large hard drives.
Not surprisingly, the consumer electronics industry remains much better at hardware design and engineering than software interfaces and usability. Sony’s new MP3-playing walkman, for example, is shockingly hard to use. Some of the whizzy new twisting phones from Samsung look cool, but are way, way harder to use and figure out than they should be. It’s acceptable when used horizontally as a keyboard; but when you’re actually trying to use it as a phone, the important buttons are so small and poorly distinguished that usability is seriously impacted.
CEScamp was fun. It wasn’t really a BarCamp in the way I had expected, but more of an informal blogger gathering, which I think was what most people wanted anyway. Thanks for organizing it, Albert!
Famous faces: Todd Rundgren wandering through the Microsoft booth, Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock presenting for XM. And of course, Robert Scoble, Doc Searls and Amanda Congdon at CEScamp.

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