The internet of things may be the most overused, annoying, comically oversimplified tech term of 2014, dreamt up by some winnovator god knows when, but it was the keystone (and keynote) of an increasingly schizophrenic CES that, in the last few years, has been searching for a more cohesive theme.
Yes, that's a carrot. At one of Lenovo's CES party / showcase nights.
CES 2015 was easily the least mobile device-focused CES since 2008, when many companies were still deciding whether or not to respond to the unexpected popularity of the first iPhone. At that point, CES was firmly entrenched in the television and personal media market - TVs, camcorders, PMPs, and Blu-ray were the talk of the town. (Granted, I wasn't there, so comparing the show floor and overall experience is something I can't do.) In the years that followed, CES became a proving grounds for mobile devices. Hell, OEMs launched 76 Android tablets at the 2011 show.
Now, just four short years later, CES is moving away from mobile hardware and back to its roots in the home electronics industry, where connected technology is making substantial inroads everywhere from coffee makers to thermostats to pacifiers. I have no doubt this is producing a palpable giddiness in CES's organizers, too, as though hotboxed in a porta-potty with Mitch Hedberg at a Phish concert. That is to say, it's a nostalgic joy for consumer electronics at large: your oven is cool again (pun not intended). Your thermostat is cool again (pun moderately intended). Your refrigerator is cool again (pun absolutely intended).
Razer's Android TV was a CES fan-favorite, but that's almost certainly because of its $99 price point above all else.
The net-utilizing things spectrum (or NUTS, as I call it - nice try, IoT people) has been a dream for years now, and we finally are carrying around the technology in our pockets to make that dream a reality. It's a nice feeling, too. While something like the Nest thermostat would have been possible to make functional seven years ago, it would have been undoubtedly clunkier, more limited, and decidedly dumber than the product we have now. Between Bluetooth, ANT+, ZigBee, Wi-Fi, and ultrasonics, we have so damn many ways to connect our stuff to our other stuff that the NUTS products are dropping left and right lately.
While profit margins in the mobile industry dip like the price of oil, the highly standardized connectivity those devices offer is breathing life into heretofore unknown companies in the consumer high-tech space. This is a very interesting process to watch unfold, both in the serious and sometimes laughable senses. Many of these companies have no idea what they're doing, but many of them are also introducing us to the previously mundane niceties of say, door locks and sprinkler systems. The kind of stuff you wouldn't find yourself thinking about too much until you could control it with your smartphone.
Sound nerd photo: this is the 13th Klipschorn ever built. They're basically made the same today, 68 years later.
Cars are getting similar renewed attention from previously uninterested consumers. Apple's CarPlay and Google's Android Auto are being promised on an increasing number of models this year, and it seems safe to say we'll probably see at least a few such vehicles with both on sale this year in the US. The more interesting part is that those cars are not in the high-end luxury or sport categories - they're quite regular. VW's introductory Android Auto model seems likely to be the original everyman's hatchback, the Golf, while Hyundai will debut it on the decidedly thrifty mid-size Sonata. (On a separate note, we should be getting a Sonata to test so that we can review Android Auto once it is released.)
Android Auto on a Hyundai Sonata
Ford, GM, Fiat-Chrysler, Honda, and Nissan (read: the bulk of the cars produced on earth when you add in Hyundai and VW) are also Android Auto partners, though none have yet announced specific availability. Still, when I spoke to Ford it was clear that they understood they were a bit behind (Ford will launch Android Auto cars - just not yet); automakers are definitely trying to respond to consumer demand for a smarter, more connected vehicle. CarPlay and Android Auto seem to be reaping the benefits of that demand in what, for the auto industry, is a very short period of time. Not to be too bold, but their success seems basically assured at this point, something I don't think is easily said of many 'new market' efforts in the tech business.
Mercedes-Benz is not an Android Auto partner, but the AMG GT's interior is too cool not to photograph.
Still, automakers have a lot of catching up to do compared to the little supercomputers in our pockets, and I think we'll see CES be a proving ground for more and more ambitious interconnectivity efforts in the years to come. I look forward to it: the vehicle dashboard has been in the memory card/DVD-GPS stone age much too long already. These Neanderthal MMIs are almost certainly teetering on extinction in favor of adaptable, projectable systems like CarPlay and Android Auto. I don't know about you, but I want Ford designing my car's infotainment UI about as much as I want Samsung designing my smartphone's - that's a track record of disappointment I'd prefer to avoid.
As always, TVs, headphones, speakers, and other multimedia products were on display at the show, and while mobile news was in relatively low supply, there were a few smartphones of note announced. LG's G Flex 2 was by far the highest profile smartphone launch at CES 2015, followed surprisingly closely by ASUS's ZenFone 2 and ZenFone Zoom, both highly affordable Intel-powered handsets with impressive specifications. I think that's a CES trend we'll see more in coming years, too - the show is a good launching platform for companies with small marketing budgets looking to get their otherwise competitive products on the big stage. ASUS actually stole the show a bit, I'd say - with a vacuum of real smartphone news from Moto, HTC, Samsung, and Sony, ASUS was able to get a lot more attention on its low-price/high-power approach that has become wildly popular in China, Brazil, and other emerging markets thanks to companies like Xiaomi. If anything, ASUS' launch made clear the strong consumer demand for good, cheap, unlocked phones, something American carriers have tiptoed around for years in an effort to protect contracts. With contracts quickly going by the wayside in favor of financing, I think we'll see a lot more interest in the US in these economical handsets.
ASUS chairman Johnny Shih never disappointments.
Lenovo, HTC, and ZTE announced phones at the show, but those are likely bound for relatively tight geographical distributions - products announced more out of roadmap convenience than an expectation of major consumer interest.
Android tablets undoubtedly took the biggest hit in terms of announcements at this year's show, though. While a few did launch (from ARCHOS, for example), it's clear that manufacturers aren't spitting them out at the rates they did even a year ago. It's possible we'll see a resurgence of new tablets at MWC in March, but it looks to me like the overall market for Android tablets has hit a snag. Android tablets started premium (XOOM, Galaxy Tab 10.1, Transformer), went budget (Nexus 7, Galaxy Tabs, Acer/ASUS stuff), and then tried premium again (Galaxy Tab Pro / S, Nexus 9, Z3 Tablet Compact). The flip-flopping isn't encouraging as the overall tablet market shows signs of faltering growth. Android certainly has stronger tablet market share than anyone, but the iPad still seems to be asserting itself as the one real high-end tablet out there after nearly five years, not that it's having exactly record sales, either.
Despite evolving, CES still does not want for whacky gimmicks.
Getting back to CES itself, though, the show is doing what it always has: evolve and branch out. As mobile hardware announcements leave the captive audience safety net of CES for their own events or more competitive mobile-only shows like MWC, the nascent market for connected products is starting to fill in that gap. CES's core products - TVs, consumer A/V, crappy phone accessories - still have a strong presence at the show. With anchor booths like Intel, Qualcomm, Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, Sharp, and LG now having the added support of Ford, GM, BMW, Mercedes, Fiat-Chrysler, and Toyota, CES is still clearly "the" consumer electronics show of record.
As for our role in it as an Android news site, though, that's understandably getting a little less intensive. Many of these products relate back to what we cover at Android Police, but fewer and fewer are so relevant as to warrant the in-depth attention we provide so many other things that aren't announced at something like CES. That's not to say we won't be there next time, but more that we'll be there with a different set of expectations.