Levy: The Rosy View From CES

Early in my visit to this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas—an orgiastic celebration of gadgetry where 140,000 people pack 1.7 million square feet of convention-floor space to gawk at every new gizmo imaginable—I got an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Besides the usual booth-stalking, schmoozing and interviewing, I went to formal keynotes and presentations from companies like Microsoft and Yahoo. Each one opened with a slick appetite-whetting video. And each video was almost identical. Furthermore, I realized I had been watching a variation of that video for years. To everyone but the execs who ordered it up, the video is boosterish noise. But upon examination, it turns out the values of that video reveal the rose-colored visions of the consumer-tech industry, a vision that shapes the thousands of products and systems on display at CES.

The video is a mélange of still pictures —sometimes moving clips—of people and the screens that give pleasure and meaning to their lives. The soundtrack, invariably, is an upbeat Green Day-ish power-pop song, played loud. The models are mostly young people, always attractive. Some of them are "edgy" (grungy wool hats, jeans with holes in them, an occasional tattoo), but everyone appears to have taken a shower within the last 40 minutes. And do they ever love those screens! Media-player screens, television screens, computer screens, GPS screens and mobile screens. The gorgeous people stand at riverfronts, breaking up in laughter at something they see on their phones. They sit in coffee shops and ponder unseen (to us) profundities on their laptop screens. Families arrange themselves around sectional couches, sharing special moments on elephant-size hi-def televisions. Sometimes we glimpse those screens, as thumbs and fingers race across keyboards or remote controls and peck out text messages, choose on-demand video "snacks," geo-locate the nearest Starbucks or send pictures of ski vacations to one another.

This year at CES there was no breakthrough product to dominate the conversation. (The only one universally cited as eyebrow-raising was Sony's super-hi-res TV display called OLED, which will eventually make you junk the wide-screen LCD you just bought.) Digital pundits described this as a transitional year, when previously announced technologies finally ripened into plausible products. That's a nice way of saying that there was not much news. Trying to discern a theme to the proceedings—tying everything together in an event that ranges from Internet refrigerators to robotic gutter cleaners—was tough.

But if you took that aforementioned video into account, it was easy to understand the ethos of the show. This was the year of "anywhere, any time" fever, when Hollywood's output—along with Web information and the personal stuff we generate ourselves—gets distributed and subdivided so we can amuse or inform ourselves at any time or place. Standing side by side at the show with the companies that make stuff to watch things on were companies that make stuff to watch, like NBC (rejiggering its newscast for Web consumption) and Sony Television Pictures (chopping up shows like "Seinfeld" into four-minute phone-friendly "minisodes"). In the new age, users won't have to worry about where content comes from or where it's stored. Everything will just work, and now can be supercharged by the interactive and social nature of the Net. Right?

Maybe not. In some cases, the underlying systems don't sync. In other instances, the schemes are unintentionally Rube Goldberg-esque because of closed systems (like mobile network carriers) or copyright concerns, which by nature are at odds with an "anywhere, any time" ethos. Prime example: the music industry. The promise of electronic distribution and new means of discovery have spurred a boom of music-based start-up companies. But their imaginative business plans are often frustrated by established labels that still view the digital era as nothing but a threat.

Another aspect of "anywhere, any time" that the industry soft-shuffles is the fact that the advertising supporting much of these services not only will be omnipresent but will know who we are, what we like and where we are. In some cases that can be useful, but there's something creepy about the concept, and consumers may seek a way to opt out or drop out.

Finally there's the question of how well things will really work. I find it ironic that in the midst of all the tech optimism at CES, people are constantly complaining that their hotel broadband is deadly slow, that the Wi-Fi hotspots on the show floor clash with each other, that the cell networks are overwhelmed with too many connected people. If we can't get today's stuff working smoothly, what does that portend for tomorrow's ambitious plans?

The video I'd really like to see would show those happy, shiny people rebooting frozen computers, impatiently waiting for videos to load on mobile phones and writhing in frustration that DRM restrictions prevent them from using their iPods to watch programming they ordered on demand from their cable company. But the odds of that happening are slimmer than those of hitting the million-dollar jackpot on a Vegas slot machine.

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