CES 2012 preview: hardware is (almost) dead

At the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, hardware will take a backseat to software -- perhaps for good. Editor Andrew Nusca offers his preview in anticipation of next week's show.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor on

On Sunday, I'll be departing the chilly East Coast on a cross-country flight to balmy Las Vegas to once again attend this year's International Consumer Electronics Show. My colleague Rachel King will also be on hand, from San Francisco; noble chief Larry Dignan will be manning the cockpit from New York, with the usual crew at the ready, including Toybox bloggers Ricardo Bilton and Gloria Sin.

We, along with our consumer-focused colleagues at CNET, are more prepared than ever for the show. (This is the tech Super Bowl, after all.) But perhaps it's all for naught.

I expect this year's show to be one of the worst years in recent memory for new products.

It's not that manufacturers aren't trying; it's just that hardware innovation has taken a backseat to software (and software-as-a-service). Make no mistake, there will be newer, thinner, brighter televisions; higher-powered laptops and digital cameras; and more accessory announcements than you can shake a stick at. But that's not really where the action is.

The real action can be found around the interoperability of these products.

Mobile phones, e-readers, 3D home theater, netbooks, even Kinect -- those were the major themes of years past. There seems to be no clear winners this year. Arguably, the newest, most interesting stuff will not be pocketable but drivable -- a digital makeover for a two-ton gadget that's been around since 1885 or so, and happens to have a concurrent industry tradeshow in Detroit.

Though product announcements have already begun -- they'll pick up steam beginning this weekend; we and CNET will be there to catch them -- my gut tells me it will be a lot of the same old, same old on the outside. Displays will be displays. Buttons will be virtual. Glass will be everywhere. The real innovation will only be seen when the device is turned on and used. It can't be touched, only experienced. It's not what OEMs do; it's how.

That's a tremendously exciting prospect, of course. But it changes the dynamic of the show. What was once a veritable melee of press trying to get a photo of the latest new product is gradually becoming a tutorial, in which we need to understand how it changes our lives. It's a much less linear path. You will see a lot more press photos of screen projections than actual plastic or metal curves. (Unless it's the screen that's curving, of course.) That's where the innovation is. And there will be a lot of it.

As this shift occurs, it also threatens the show's dominance of the product announcement cycle. (I outlined some of this in a post last month.) Increasingly, the biggest tech companies -- Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Google and soon Microsoft -- have nothing to say at CES after the Q4 holiday blitz. (New gadgets, it seems, are no longer chained by the microprocessor product development cycle.) When these companies do say big things, it's when they are ready, and it's often not at CES: Facebook's Timeline, Amazon's Kindle and Singles, Google's new look, Apple's everything -- none of this debuted on a CES stage. The CEA's challenge is to redefine the show so it's less an endless list of things to see but to do; not a series of irrelevant new product demonstrations but an ideas exchange.

There are some concrete things we can expect, however. As I mentioned above, the car is increasing as a major component of the show: automakers reveal their hardware at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit and their software at CES. With the demise of the PMA show, digital cameras will be more plentiful at this year's CES. Mobile providers -- wireless carriers, not smartphone makers -- will be more prevalent as infrastructure buildout and industry competition heats up. (It's going to be plenty awkward between the AT&T and T-Mobile folks.) And whoever figures out how to significantly boost battery life, long the bane of the electronics industry, will be the saint of the show.

During the show, we at ZDNet will be conducting analysis of the biggest announcements and keynote presentations, highlighting the winners and losers and otherwise providing regular sanity checks during the brief, intense show period beginning Monday and ending Friday. We're excited to bring the best of the show to you; stick with us for more office water-cooler fodder than you could ever use.

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