CES Big Picture #1 (no pun intended): Hi-Def virtuous circle is complete

On the heels of returning from the Consumer Electronics Show last week, a lot of people are asking the obvious questions:What was the big news?Did you see anything interesting or cool?
Written by David Berlind, Inactive

On the heels of returning from the Consumer Electronics Show last week, a lot of people are asking the obvious questions:

  • What was the big news?
  • Did you see anything interesting or cool?

Given how I've been reflecting on my visit to Las Vegas in order to answer these questions, it seemed equally appropriate to share my observations here in a series of posts that discuss what I think were the big trends coming out of the show. For the cool interesting stuff, you can check out my series of CES videos (there will be about 30 of them by the time we're done posting) featuring a little more than 40 products or technologies that I thought were worth a look. 

Personally speaking, I don't agree with the consensus that CES was upstaged by the introduction of the iPhone. The iPhone is but one of many newfangled multimedia communication devices that we'll see in the next year or two. So, in the big picture, although no one could wait to see what it would look like when the iPhone finally surfaced, it's not that big of a deal. While not insurmountable, its limitations (the one network it works on, inability to load software on it, lack of corporate email connectivity, it's digital rights management software, etc.) are actually far more newsworthy to me than it's advances. Sure, it has a user interface that some believe to be revolutionary. But I'd argue that the UI on Synaptics' Onyx concept phone that was shown to me at CES was even more so (and not nearly as deeply tied to certain proprietary). 

CES 2007 was actually a stake in ground on several fronts. Perhaps the biggest of those -- just in terms of sheer number of ecosystem participants -- was on the hi-definition front. I wasn't at CES 2006 but I didn't have to be to know that hi-definition's virtuous circle was incomplete. There wasn't a lot of content itself (on media or broadcast). The HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray war (a war that 's still a wrinkle to the virtuous circle) was finally becoming headlines. There were plenty of hi-def displays (flat panels, etc.) in early 2006, but back then entry into the market with a display that  was non-hi-def wasn't the death wish that it is today. Hi-Def production, especially at the consumer level (cameras, "burning" gear, etc.), was still somewhat of an enigma as well (with the HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray debate echoing over that issue).

But CES 2007 was very different for hi-def. I'm not sure how many LCD, plasma, or digital light projection products were on display at CES. But it easily numbered in the thousands and, while I didn't take inventory, pretty much all of them were 1080p-compatible (1080 lines of progressive resolution -- regarded as true high defintion). Moving backwards down the food chain from the display, are the content sources (players, drives, etc.) and those were at CES in force as well. But here of course is where the Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD debate bubbles up. Generally speaking, like Beta vs. VHS, the two competing formats for laying HD content on a DVD platter means that many consumers will have to choose between the two technologies when buying anything that can accept HD media (computers, stand-alone drives, players, etc.).  But here at CES, solutions that ameliorate the problems associated with making that choice are also here (for the first time). For example, LG showed a drive that can play both formats. Last October, NEC announced a chip that bridges the divide and TimeWarner is working on an HD lingua franca called Total HD.

For the virtuous circle to be complete, consumers will need burning technologies and also being shown at CES 2007 were some burners for both HD-DVD and Blu-ray. For example, Toshiba was showing what it claimed to be the first HD-DVD burner for a desktop system and there are other burners, for example, a Blu-ray burner found in certain Sony Vaio notebooks (Sony is one of Blu-ray's biggest backers). Burners? Check.

Content is also turning up. Not only weren't consumers very empowered (by the available technology) to produce HD content a year ago, many of the pros were sitting on the HD-DVD/Blu-ray fence. Now, particularly with technologies that playback both, the pros are going to be less gun shy when it comes to picking one or the other (some will simply do both) and consumers doing HD will become more mainstream rather than early adopters.  That last point is particularly so given the bumper crop of the last component of the HD ecosystem: the cameras. Not only were HD cameras everywhere at CES (including in the hands of attendees who were "rolling tape" as they strolled around), the prices for these gizmos are plummeting due to their abundance. For all that video that we produced at CES, even though we had our Panasonic HD-cable HVX-200 camera, we taped in plain old DV video because the hi-def experience isn't quite there for the Web yet. But who knows. Maybe by 2008, it will be.  

Upcoming: some other trend spotting from CES. 

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