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A fairytale of CES

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The gadgets really are back, and they look very different

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In the beginning, the gadgets all lived in your house, mostly in your living room, and CES was so important it happened twice a year. The most important gadget anyone would ever buy was a TV, and they were so massive we turned them into furniture and built furniture around them. Real gadget fiends had stereo systems, stacks of components individually dedicated to playback or amplification, all pumping music out through speakers that filled rooms with sound and presence. Putting a TV or a stereo in a room other than the living room was a big deal; only the most decadent had televisions in the bathroom.

The signals for these TVs and stereos came from other gadgets: cable boxes and antenna systems and satellite receivers brought in live TV, while VCRs and DVD players played back Hollywood movies and camcorders let consumers record their own. Every new format innovation required a new device: record players and CD players and tape decks and DVRs and some new insane Sony format every other year like SACD or MiniDisc that always came bundled with some of the nicest acoustic guitar music you'd ever heard. Only the truest adherents bought more music in the insane format after listening to the guitar music.

the home theater ruled the land under a benign blinking 12:00

All of these things were different gadgets, and they filled the vast central hall of CES, until one day someone thought of connecting the TVs and the stereos and the church of the home theater was born, kicking off another rush of TVs and stereos all over again. We went from two speakers to four to five speakers and a subwoofer. Flat panels and HD arrived and kicked off an upgrade cycle so legendary that the TV makers still only talk about it in whispers, desperately hoping the light will shine on them once again. Central Hall at CES was where all the action was; the home theater ruled the land under the benign blinking 12:00 of a HiFi VCR.

To the north and south were entirely different worlds: South Hall was where the fledgling computer industry set up shop, promising to eventually change the world but mostly showing off bulky beige boxes that lived in your office or den, far from the glamorous living room world of the home theater. In the north, car accessory makers built a strange parallel ecosystem of stereos bred in the extreme conditions of car tuner culture, subwoofers and neon lights of the deep ocean.

But eventually the computer makers in the south formed a great alliance, built on a marriage between Microsoft and Intel that promised to forever rule the industry. The Windows PC was the only PC, and having fully conquered offices and dens, Microsoft gathered its strength and set its sights on the other two halls of CES. Microsoft wanted the other two rooms of your life: the living room and the garage.

Microsoft conquered South Hall and set its sights on the North and Central

And oh, this was folly: Microsoft CEOs stood on stage at CES for endless years announcing grand plans to put Windows everywhere in our lives, a forever-dream called convergence. PCs running Windows Media Center would turn into our cable boxes and run our home theaters, or WebTV would do it, or WebTV would do it if it was renamed msnTV. None of this worked. Despair set in. A group of rebels built the Xbox, whispered to be a grand Trojan Horse, using games to establish a beachhead in the living room until the mighty Xbox One arrived with great fanfare, promising to... run Windows and be your cable box, which also didn't work.

Microsoft AutoPC begat Windows CE for Automotive, which begat Windows Automotive, which begat Microsoft Auto, which begat Windows Embedded Automotive. Many Ford owners were made to suffer the pains of Microsoft Sync, their failed voice commands indistinguishable from howls of anguish.

Microsoft promised a world of screens all running Windows, always Windows, and each time these attempts to conquer the rest of your home failed, dead on the rocks of complexity and slow networks and a public that still thought computers were for nerds.

Then.

A great storm began at CES 2007, the winds blowing from the west on the second day, when Apple announced the iPhone in San Francisco.

We all know the story of the storm, the mighty forces that tore Microsoft and Intel apart, that crushed the PC and ushered in the age of mobile.

A new, seemingly unstoppable convergence began

The power of mobile was so overwhelming that the fat, comfortable kingdoms of North and Central Halls stood no chance. A new, seemingly unstoppable convergence began: first we put on headphones and the smartphone ate the stereo. Then it ate the camera, and the camcorder, and then the screens sprouted in size and even the mighty television began to fall. Instead of overtaking the living room, mobile allowed us to bring the experiences of the living room everywhere we went.

We are all watching TV in the bathroom now.

The car stereo, that strange beast from another world, quickly devolved, shedding features in a drastic survival gambit: from hundreds of buttons and GPS computers to the sudden proliferation of aux jacks and Bluetooth connections to finally just mirroring the smartphone itself. In 2008 you could buy a Mercedes with a dashboard storage card slot and a 6GB hard drive for ripping CDs; in 2016 GM dealers report that CarPlay and Android Auto are helping them sell cheaper cars. The world has changed.

The collapse of North and Central Hall meant that CES was left for dead; a show without a purpose, a church without religion. Microsoft left the South Hall, leaving Intel to stand alone. Many pretenders arrived: cheap Android tablets, 3DTV, then cheaper Android tablets, then cheaper TVs, then cheap Android TVs. For years we returned to the desert, and for years the desert gave us nothing.

For years we returned to the desert, and for years the desert gave us nothing

But last year tiny seeds of growth appeared: the gadgets were back.

The smartphone is interwoven into our lives now, an indelible part of the culture. Instead of Windows PCs everywhere, there are smartphones. We understand these phones; we know their astonishing capabilities and their frustrating limitations. They are part of us.

And the gadgets, they have evolved to do what smartphones can't do: they can measure our activity and our health with increasing levels of precision. They can take 360-degree videos. They can play music all around us. They can monitor our homes while we wander off, smartphones in our pockets.

It is true: the gadgets can fly.

Even the TV is struggling back to life after years of desolation that brought legendary companies to their knees. If we're all streaming HD video on our smartphones, TVs must become just as convenient and simple, while offering things smartphones can't: huge screens, higher resolution, and insane dynamic range that makes watching a movie in your living room meaningfully better than Netflix on a laptop or tablet.

It is true: the gadgets can fly

In North Hall, the carmakers have taken over from the stereo vendors, displaying entire cars as gadgets, boasting about their ability to build electric cars and self-driving cars and cars that are meant to be shared across entire cities at the tap of a smartphone button. "The car is the ultimate mobile device," they murmur, over and over again until it becomes the roar of an 18-month-old company saying its nonexistent new car will be as disruptive as the iPhone itself.

Instead of a world of gadgets connecting to the PC over USB or Ethernet leading to a world where Windows PCs converge into everything, we have a world of gadgets wirelessly connecting to a smartphone through the cloud, trying to do new things that can't converge into a smartphone. The smartphone can't run our refrigerators. The smartphone can't have a 360-degree camera. The smartphone can't drive our cars.

The smartphone should probably not fly.

Everything changes; everything stays the same. The smartphone revolution has blown through the desert and suddenly CES kind of looks like the beginning again: TVs and stereos and cameras finding new life in Central Hall, cars in the North, and computer companies in the South Hall, trying once again to find a way into the next future.

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