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CES 2013: The reports of hardware’s death are greatly exaggerated

Posted by Ben Smith on 18th January 2013

At CES last week we saw the usual trail of news stories about the latest technology and gadgets. All very exciting of course. Indeed, you can read about some of our selected highlights from the show here (personally I can’t wait to get my hands on Valve’s Steam console).

However, a Guardian report last week highlighted that several media outlets are lining up to claim CES is on the wane. It is claimed that: “the pre-eminence of the internet and software has marginalised an event still tethered mainly to hardware”. Wired is quoted as saying: “As software matters more and more, CES matters less and less”.

In fairness, some of the criticism also questions the relevance of the idea of a trade show in the “era of real time social media”. This is a fair question, but to my mind a separate discussion for another day.

The real crux of the complaints though, focus on this idea of ‘hardware’ becoming more irrelevant. This is surely a ridiculous notion – I mean what is all this software running on exactly?

Indeed, part of the problem here seems to be that these publications are taking a very narrow view of what constitutes hardware. Perhaps the most telling quote came from BuzzFeed, another sceptic highlighted by the Guardian:

“…software and services have become the soul of consumer technology. Hardware (seriously doesn’t the word “electronics” in the conference’s dusty title make your eyes instantly droop a bit?) has become increasingly commoditized into blank vessels that do little more than hold Facebook and Twitter and the App Store and Android and iOS.”

And there, to me, is the problem clearly displayed. The black shiny box around the outside of the latest smartphone is not the hardware that matters. What really counts is precisely the “electronics” that are being dismissed here, and no it should not be met with a sigh.

I know Qualcomm has got quite a bit of stick for its keynote this year (it was weird), but when Paul Jacobs actually got round to talking about the new Snapdragon chips (it did get lost a bit) how could you not be impressed by what they are capable of?

But no, apparently the absence of Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google, or “the only companies that truly matter to people” (now that really does make me sigh), means that CES is not really giving the inside track on future innovation in the consumer tech space.

I’m sorry, I know those companies are great and all – I use all of their products on a daily basis – but I just find this argument so reductive. There are so many amazing companies doing truly astonishing work at the chip level, that allow these companies to deliver the products they do, that “matter” just as much.

And it’s not just the apps processor in the phone in your hand; it’s the RF chips sending and receiving the 4G signals left, right and centre; the new small cell basestation at the end of the street receiving those signals; the backhaul systems necessary for the whole network to work; the datacentre and the server your cloud software is stored on; the Smart TV you watch in the evening; in fact, anywhere you care to look in the consumer tech market chips are driving new product innovation.

So is CES done? Maybe. Is hardware less relevant to the future of consumer tech? Absolutely not.

It’s important not to forget, that regardless of the OS, or the logo on the outside of your phone or tablet, the really clever stuff is going on where you can’t see it. The next time you experience an amazing tech product, spare a thought for just how much incredible work has been done by chip designers and engineers to make that happen.

Photo courtesy of Aaron and Ruth Meder.

Ben Smith

Ben’s deep knowledge of sectors as diverse as electronics and IT, cleantech and medtech means he has a wide range of experience to draw on for his clients – ensuring that no two campaigns are the same. Ben’s expertise lies in helping his clients to raise their profiles beyond trade media and he has a proven track record in running campaigns that deliver coverage in national, business and consumer publications.