COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Consumer Electronics Show roundup

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A visit to CES is an opportunity to confront the reality of the consumer electronics business, a $200 billion-plus industry in the United States alone.

What’s evident is that there are thousands of products that will not be here next year. Why? Because there are dozens, and even hundreds of companies, all selling essentially the same stuff. And only a few will get distribution and find enough customers.

That’s especially true with those products that have few barriers to entry and are easy to replicate, such as iPhone cases, power adapters, and other accessories, that make up about half of this year’s exhibitors. The pavilion of Apple-related products called iLounge (managed by the website of the same name) could just as easily be called iCase for the hundreds of case companies.

Among those cases were a few standouts. Element Cases showed a line of high-end cases, some made of metal, which wrap around the phone’s perimeter, priced at about $100. Incipio, an Irvine-based company, showed a broad range of attractive cases, including some with extended batteries for both iPhones and the Samsung Galaxy III. Mophie, the early leader in the battery case category, notably had no product for the iPhone 5.

Another category with lots of activity is portable audio. Numerous companies introduced headphones with a focus on style, trying to ride on the phenomenal success of the Beats By Dre Series.

Bose's feeble attempt to be hip is to add color to its staid headphones. Portable speakers were everywhere, trying to compete with the Jambox and the Beats Pill.

There were some interesting products in the automotive area. Harman Kardon introduced a system that lets you play Internet radio stations in your car as easily as regular stations. Its Aha system is being marketed to automobile companies to be installed as part of their entertainment system. Connection to the Internet is made via your cellphone.

Lexus showed a car that drives itself, but it’s likely a decade away for consumers. Texas Instruments is eyeing that big LCD screen in the middle of your car’s dashboard and wants to replace it with one of its DLP projection engines, claiming it will work on curved surfaces and is brighter.

Speaking of curved surfaces, display companies are using newly developed ultra-thin flexible glass to create curved displays for your phones and even TVs. It’s based on new glass fabrication technology that laminates layers so thin that it can be stored on a roll. These products will initially have fixed displays; don’t expect rollup displays for years.

TVs on display exhibited some amazing images, many with 4K resolution, twice that of our current models. The best of the bunch was LG’s 55-inch OLED HDTV for $10,000. OLED provides a wider view angle, and much higher contrast than LCD displays. Also on display were 3-D sets that use simple, lightweight, non-powered glasses that look great, but are still wanting for content.

With the PMA photo show now part of CES, there were many new cameras introduced. Most noticeable was the addition of Wi-Fi to cameras that allow you to shoot and instantly send your photo to Facebook or your online photo library. Canon even has come up with a square-shaped camera, the PowerShot N, focused just on this capability.

Fuji Film introduced its X100S, an update to its popular fixed-lens, large sensor camera that’s been compared to a Leica. Olympus, Panasonic and Nikon introduced new versions of their popular mirrorless cameras.

Tablets, the focus of last year’s CES show, were hard to find, in part because the major leaders, Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble, were absent from the show, along with Microsoft. One promising product was from Panasonic, a 20-inch 4K resolution (3840 x 2560) tablet designed for photographers and designers.

Among the hundreds of companies showing car and home chargers, Ventev’s Wallport and Dashport models stood out for their beautiful industrial design and functionality. They can rapid-charge two mobile devices regardless of make or model, singly or two at a time. Their Eco Charger uses 100th the standby power compared to ordinary chargers. (ventev.com).

Another big trend here was health devices. There are now dozens of companies — including Nike, Basic, Fitbit, Lark and Hapilabs — making wristbands, wristwatches and clip-on devices that monitor various health and activity functions. Hapilabs got a lot of attention from its smart fork, which monitors your eating habits and tells you when to stop. All of these devices connect to the computer or phone to produce a summary of each day’s activities and let you know how you are doing. Another gadget is the iBaby HeartSense, an add-on to the iPhone that lets a pregnant mother listen to her baby’s heartbeat instantly through her iPhone or iPad.

There were connected scales from Withings and Fitbit that measure your weight and body fat and send those readings to your computer or directly to your Facebook account automatically. So you can now not only read about your friends’ activities, but follow their weight and even compete!

In the cellular area, T-Mobile announced an attractive new pricing plan. Its Unlimited Nationwide 4G Data plan offers no-contract, unlimited 4G data for $70 per month.

Republic Wireless introduced its Wi-Fi smartphones nationwide plan that offers unlimited data, text and voice service for $19 per month. Republic keeps rates low by using a hybrid Wi-Fi cellular calling network that uses a combination of home, office and public hotspot Wi-Fi as its main network and the nationwide network of Sprint when Wi-Fi is not available. I’ll be doing a follow up column on this service when I have a chance to try it out.

Lastly, GlobalTrac showed a product that travelers can relate to. It's the Trakdot Luggage tracker, a device that you put into your luggage and it will send text messages telling you where the luggage is at any moment. It will be available in the spring for about $60 with a yearly $13 subscription fee.

So what is the biggest trend at CES? It’s connectivity of objects over wireless. It’s connecting our scales and cameras to the Internet, tracking our luggage, sensors in our potted plants that send us a text message when they need to be watered. It’s in-home alarms and thermostats and apps to turn on our coffee-makers. In this age of information overload, we’re about to be bombarded with a new level of data and messages that, until now, we never thought or cared much about.

Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer" published by Financial Times Press and available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and other booksellers. He has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others, holds 30 patents and is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Phil can be heard on KOGO AM the first Sunday of each month. Send comments to phil.baker@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor. Phil's blog is http://blog.philipgbaker.com and his Web site is philipgbaker.com

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