My Virtual Visit to CES

There’s a lot to be said about the way that technology has changed the way we experience big events. Gatherings that we once experienced only mediated through dispatches from reporters are now covered with a full-wrap intensity that leaves behind more then enough content to allow us browse our way through at our own pace concentrating on our own interests.

I’ve never been to CES in Las Vegas. It’s a trade show. But this year, partly because of the convergence of video and the internet, partly because of the success of the iPad and the promise of new and different tablets and partly because retailing–especially electronics retailing–has seemed to collapse into a direct-to-consumer experience where we “shop” CES and buy on Amazon, CES has seemed like a pressing, even exciting, event.

So this this week I set aside time to attend. I didn’t fly to Vegas. I didn’t have to. Without leaving my desk, I feel that I’ve been able to easily and conveniently attend the show through the surfeit of unedited video on Techcrunch, Endgadget and the Guardian sites. There’s also been plenty of interpretation from CNBC, WSJ and the Times; and a few live feeds from the big presentations like Verizon’s four-CEO extravaganza.

The Verizon presentation also gave us the first detailed demonstration of Google’s new Honeycomb operating system for tablets. (Here’s another, less detailed, version of that demonstration.) You can see there that Honeycomb does offer real comprehensive alternative to Apple’s iPad. Google’s design sense is no match for Apple’s but the company’s strength in cloud computing more than compensates. With Honeycomb, a tablet–in this case, Motorola’s poorly named Xoom–hooks into Google’s powerful suite of cloud-based communication and productivity tools.

We could go on for hours about how the cameras, VOIP phone service and 4G connectivity will change the nature of communication, collapse distance, increase collaboration and reduce the need for travel. Personally, I’m more interested in the way these devices will change the kinds of information I have access to and the ways in which I’ll access it.

Full function tablets will change media in two ways. (Here you can watch Fast Money’s Joe Terranova pound the table about how this year’s CES will spark an acquisitions and generally re-orient various parts of the tech space.) The first is to converge a variety of media onto the tablet. The biggest effect of that convergence will come in the way we can access and view television, especially non-fiction television. Elsewhere I’ve made the case of that news video–morning show segments, the nightly news, CNN and CNBC–is more sensibly consumed like a magazine. And that several non-television outlets will become big producers of non-fiction video which is starting to happen at AOL. Let’s see if they can make a business out of it.

Already you can easily access 60 Minutes, the Today Show, CNN and most of CNBC as discrete short videos. Mindlessly vegging in front of the TV will always have its place. With the tablets and video content easily available on the web and, now, through apps, however, you’re not required to sit passively by if there’s something specific you want to see. In this form, TV watching becomes a purposeful activity where the viewer is assembling his own content selecting the subjects in interviewers/hosts that he most identifies with.

A good example of this comes from CNBC’s new iPad app which finally makes it easier to get the best out of the channel without either having to sit through the filler or search through the website. The Wall Street Journal will surely add that to the WSJ app or create one specifically for the growing quantity of quality video produced by the “paper.”

Luckily for television, there’s no reason to believe that TV watching will suffer. Being able to watch anywhere will expand viewership for news and entertainment. It might also bring back more quality television as the networks’ own production companies will be able to benefit from app-based distribution.

The second effect of how tablets will change media is the number of attempts to bring web content up to the television screen to mirror what tablets are doing with television content. Brian Stelter of the New York Times presents this story on the phenomenon. Ultimately, Stelter is not convinced by any of the products. Putting us right back where we were last year with a gamut of me-too tablets and e-readers that were announced at CES but never came to market. But that only makes the case stronger for a TV-sized convergence.

Big screen convergence is still waiting for its category defining product. Google TV obviously isn’t it. Some of the other attempts still feel like kludges. Perhaps Honeycomb and gestural recognition will come together next year in a satisfying way so living room viewers can navigate with out a controller from cable to Netflix to apps and the web. We’ll have to wait until next year to find out.

If those are the winners at CES, the clear loser seems to be Microsoft. Apple and Google have made great strides in defining the app-based architecture of mobile devices. With the launch of Apple’s App store for the mac this week–and if you’re an astute user of Google’s Chrome you’ll have started playing with their excellent app store too–cloud computing seems to have picked its teams already. Microsoft is still waiting to get in the game. (Here’s the WSJ’s Digits saying as much.)

A good example of how out of it Microsoft seems in this space is another Journal article about Microsoft Surface, the company’s table top computer. Big touch screens are going to become increasingly important as the cloud puts an emphasis on accessing work and entertainment data across a range of devices. Surface makes a lot of sense as a product but seems stranded over on the lost island of Redmond rather than integrated into the Google stream. It’s not hard to see the appeal of large touch screen tables that can be used by a succession of users who log in to find everything they need as if they’d brought their whole desk with them. But for that to work, Microsoft would have to have a substantial cloud platform that could rival Google or Apple.

Having said all that. We’re still in early innings on the cloud. Getting stable work applications is the first step. The second will be to see what kind of media apps can straddle all three screens. Will new information and entertainment sources emerge like Netflix or Techcrunch? Or will old media use its size, breadth and financial strength to push the interlopers out. That’s why Jeff Bewkes was on Verizon’s stage and Verizon has begun to launch the multi-platform service that might enable it to remain a toll taker in content.

Like the future of computing, there’s no obvious or inevitable outcome here. All we can do is watch.

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