LAS VEGAS -- While scads of technology reporters gravitated toward flashing lights and shiny surfaces here at the "CES Unveiled" press event that kicks off the 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show, I headed to global consulting giant Accenture's quiet table in the back, where stacks of documents lie untouched.
What I found: unannounced data on the latest market trends. (Let the gadget bloggers duke it out over novelties. I'll take the big picture any day.)
The consumer electronics market is now a four-horse race between PCs, smartphones, tablets and televisions, according to Accenture's fresh data. All of these devices are considered to be "multi-function," a distinction I'll address in a moment.
On the way out? Single-function devices such as DVD/Blu-ray players, cameras (photo and video), and -- perhaps surprisingly -- gaming consoles.
The data comes from an 11,000-strong survey Accenture conducted in 11 countries in September 2012 -- the very beginning of the holiday season -- asking consumers on purchasing intent for various types of devices.
Those four hardware horsemen? They all showed growth: PCs were up 20 percentage points from a year ago; smartphones, 14 percentage points; tablets, 7 percentage points; TVs, 13 percentage points.
Other consumer electronic categories showed "largely flat or declining" interest. (The small rays of sunshine here: basic mobile phones, GPS navigation devices, personal fitness devices, e-book readers.)
Accenture's biggest insight from all this data was that consumers "are less likely to buy single-function electronic products," as opposed to multi-function devices. But after a review of some of the data, I'm not sure that quite does the true lesson justice.
It's not that consumers actively make purchasing decisions based on number of functions. It's that the market is consolidating, and once parity is reached in a particular use case, that single-purpose device begins to decline. (Low-end compact cameras, I'm looking at you.) The exciting thing is that we're seeing a point where consolidation has reached a natural limit. The PC, smartphone, tablet and TV all serve different enough purposes where true consolidation is no longer a good idea for each form. (For example, we want to work on our laptops but play on our tablets. And neither satisfies on-the-go quite like a phone.)
Accenture doesn't say any of this, of course -- the above is me talking. But its analysts reach the same conclusion anyway: "This development amounts to a call to action for electronics manufacturers," it says. "They need to focus squarely on innovative devices with multiple applications."
In other words: innovation will follow consumers' interest. Now that we can acknowledge the four general categories and back it up with data, industry players ought to focus on perfecting them.
Here's a look at some of the ownership data:
Smartphones: 26% owned in 2009; 58% owned in 2012.
Tablets: 8% owned in 2009; 25% owned in 2012.
HDTVs: 45% owned in 2009; 62% owned in 2012.
E-readers: 6% owned in 2009; 14% owned in 2012.
PCs: 91% owned in 2009; 94% owned in 2012.
But that's just ownership. When it came to purchasing intent moving forward, the four hardware horsemen were miles ahead of the pack -- "a greater separation...than Accenture's research has ever shown," the company says.
"Over time, mass-market single-function devices will be increasingly at risk," the authors write.
There were other insights. Tablets don't yet command as much attention (in terms of time spent using them) as PCs, phones or TVs, though they were used almost three times as much as e-book readers. And people with Internet-connected TVs seem to use them more for web browsing than streaming services like Netflix, a curious statistic that may change as more services become available.
Furthermore, PCs still dominate most typical use cases -- people use them more to e-mail, search for information, read news, bank, navigate maps and network with people than the other devices, even though phones and tablets are optimized for some of these cases.
Finally, despite the myriad benefits of keeping all of these devices on a single, common platform -- an electronics company's dream, from Apple to Samsung, that Accenture calls the "superstack" -- consumers don't seem to care all that much about it. They're very aware of the platforms, but are easily willing to defect when a better product comes along. (This explains all those Microsoft Xbox 360 game consoles in Apple households.) Which makes pursuing the platform everything and nothing at the same time.
But it all comes back to the cloud. These four hardware categories are keeping ahead because they are, in their Internet-connected incarnations, serving distinct but complementary purposes.
"The combination of intense desire for innovation and willingness to experiment with platforms and brands opens up tremendous opportunities for consumer electronics companies to win the hearts and wallets of consumers," Accenture writes. So, you know, don't screw it up, guys.