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|The big convergence of all consumer electronics||| Print ||
|Written by Wanda NL|
February 19th Toshiba announced to drop their support for the HD-DVD standard. HD-DVD was in battle with Blu-Ray to become the high definition successor to the DVD. Many may believe the battle is won in favor of Blu-Ray now. These people might be wrong. Both formats will die in the collision that will reorganise the comple consumer electronics market up to 2011. Your perception of the future of gadgets can be thrown overboard. In the year 2011 your options to spend money on the consumer electronics market will be totally different. Tech specs will become irrelevant. Fashion will be key to future sales.
The history of consumer electronicsAll consumer electronic hardware in stores originates from 4 products. In 1876 the first telephone call between Alexander Graham Bell and mister Watson was a fact. It took one year more to have the first commercial telephone available. Kodak brings the first consumer photo camera on the market in 1888, half a century after the silver-chloride process was invented by Henry Talbot. The third important invention is the gramophone. It is the first commercial available gadget to spread music on a physical medium. The last key product is the radio, invented by an Italian named Guglielmo Marconi in 1895. He set the first steps in wireless communication. A fifth invention sped up the development of consumer electronics. It was Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments who invented the integrated circuit. He scaled down complete electronic circuits to fit on a single chip. The chip caused an explosion of new gadgets in the sixties and the seventies.
The incompatible 70's and 80'sDuring these years home electronics become much more affordable. Most families buy their first and second TV, a stereo system and a home telephone. People buy their first personal computer. The companies that sell all these new electronics display unlimited creativity in new products and new specs. The designs are gorgeous and have to persuade the customers. As many companies operate on the small islands of their local markets, the first format wars turn up. The Video2000 vs VHS battle for the best VCR system is well known by many. But differences in power plugs, signal standards and physical storage media start to confuse customers.
The history of comsumer electronics in an illustrated time line (click to enlarge)
With the personal computer compatibility got even worse. Who grew up in the eighties found out that all friends' dads bought different computers. An Apple II, a MSX, a Commodore 64, a ZX Spectrum or a first IBM PC. Exchanging tapes with games was impossible. The limited computing power and unique hardware designs demanded the programmers to focus completely on one system. Converting software cross-platform was a hell of a job.
Microsoft's OEM modelApple started the personal computer revolution with their Apple II and introduced the graphical user interface to the masses with their Apple Macintosh. But they sold software and hardware together. This closed deal kept Apple from holding serious market share. The new kid on the block was Microsoft. The company did not sell computers, but it was ready to deliver its Disk Operating System to any interested hardware maker. You just bought a license from Microsoft to run DOS and later Windows on your grey box PC instead of buying an integrated hard- and software deal. This so called OEM sales model delivered Microsoft a near monopoly position in the operating system market. Research on possible abuse of this position is still undergone, but we can say Microsoft delivered much needed uniformity in the personal computer market. The desktop metaphor is now market wide accepted for user interfaces because of the monopolist behaviour of the giant from Seattle. You can see that as a win.
Fast shrinking storageThe first Walkman in 1979 uses audio cassettes. Tape was the most important storage medium at that time. A few years later the optical disk appeared in the first Discman. Using disks gave direct access to different tracks. Years later, the first iPod used a hard drive to store even more music. Switching media was no longer needed. Today we expect a mobile audio/video player to have no moving parts at all. All data is stored on so called flash memory chips. The data is rewritable yet the information is kept when batteries run out.
Right now, the development of flash memory goes twice as fast as Moore's Law would predict. Moore said that the amount of transistors on a chip will double every 2 years. But between 2005 and 2008 we saw a 10 fold increase in capacity at a similar price! Moore predicted 6-7 years for a 10-fold increase. This speed will probably be kept for the next five years.
Which means our 20$ memory stick will do 40Gb in 2011. 500Gb flash memory in more expensive products will me quite normal. Today a full HD movie fits on 20Gb using a modern codec. Which means a 2011 media player can house multiple HD movies. We can load a single HD movie onto a cheap memory stick, Blu-Ray dies as well and Blockbuster becomes a memory stick rental firm! They have preloaded sticks with the blockbusters, and you order a custom stick online that is waiting for you at the desk 10 minutes later.
The obstinate games consoleDuring the nineties the personal computer became quite uniform. This does not apply to game console designs. At the moment we play on what is called the eight generation of game consoles. These 8 generations can be characterised by 8 models: The Magnavox Odyssey from 1972, the Atari 2600 from 1977, the Nintendo Entertainment System from 1983, the Sega Megadrive from 1988, the Sony Playstation from 1994, the XBox from 2001 and the Nintendo Wii since 2006.
Two legendary game consoles: the Atari 2600 and the Nintendo Entertainment System
The purpose of a game console is to be a cheap device, with decent gaming power, that must sell lots of games. The games make the money. To keep customers locked to one device, the consoles have a closed architecture. The first generations used ROM cartridges that could not be copied. Later generations switched to cost effective silver discs. To keep copying difficult, these discs had different data structures, they had different colours (black Playstation discs), or they had a complete different physique (PSP disks).
Not everything in the game console business is like Fort Knox. Sony opened its Playstation 3 architecture for scientific research. The Wii computer can do Linux. PowerPC, X86, Open GL and DirectX instructions are common to all 7th and 8th generation game consoles, which makes them little different from a Powermac G5 or a regular PC in the programming. Modchips once needed to open your console for copied or homebrew software are no longer needed as software hacks open the consoles much easier. Sega dropped their console devision and became a games software company. So even the once inaccessible console market is about to break open.
Internet brings us togetherAs internet is common to most world citizens now, something remarkable happened. You see hobbyists and professionals teaming up to work on software for free. In recent history software was developed behind closed doors at big software firms. Homebrew software was second grade and spread on bulletin boards. With internet the hobbyist skills combine into professional pieces of software. Open source code is available to anybody. This free and open software develops at a faster rate than commercial software. Today Linux brings user friendly competition to the operating system market, once dominated by Microsoft Windows.
Uniformity in hardwareAs all developers in hardware and software team up on the world wide web, complexity of hardware declines. USB replaced a magnitude of plugs that were used to connect devices before. Bluetooth does the same for wireless devices. The central processor unit simplifies. Three architectures are used for almost all processors. X86 runs home computers, PowerPC runs game consoles and ARM runs mobile and embedded devices. For graphics processing, OpenGL is the most important language to create 2D and 3D environments.
A TomTom GO 700 and an Apple iPhone: different products or more similar than you might think?
The central processor unit (CPU) is getting very fast. Too fast for most our computer uses. With extra power available, the emulation of older systems gets easier. All computer hardware more than 5 years old can be emulated in software on each new hardware system available today. As architectures get faster and more similar, the 5 year hardware-to-software conversion time will get even shorter.
At the same time people have more options to use old software nowadays. Why use bloated 2008 software, if the 2002 version works better on your basic demands at lightning fast speeds? Virtualisation is the generic term to describe all techniques to emulate hardware in software, and it will be key feature to all your 2011 products. Have a look at the separate article on this virtualisation.
Uniformity in designGrab an iPod Touch, a random compact photo camera, a Nokia N95 telephone, a GP2X portable game console, a TomTom Go 700 car navigator and a Chumby (a cuddly toy computer for Twitter users and RSS junkies). All these gadgets are made for different purposes, but they are almost identical technically! They all have an ARM processor at a few hundred megahertz. They all have a some megabytes of RAM, some gigabytes of flash memory and an LCD screen measuring 80-90 mm. And all gadgets already run Linux or can run Linux.
As the tech part of all hardware converges, the looks do the same. In 1970 a photo camera looked completely different as a telephone. Today they almost look identical. The only thing that defines the size of a gadget today is its screen. All gadgets available today, are nothing more than a screen with some embedded computing power. And it does not apply solely to mobile devices. Home devices suffer from the same design uniformity as well. Look at a Kodak Easyshare, an iMac, a Sony Vaio LT PC Television, A HTC Touch telephone. What do they look like? Exactly. They all look like monitors. Identity is gone.
The predictionWhen we look at all evolution described in this article we see 1 point of convergence at the horizon. Where all our electronic devices once started with the work of Bell, Talbot, Marconi and Kilby, we expect all consumer electronics to converge into 2 products.
The Mobile DeviceThe first electronic device we use in 2011 is a personal tool for communication, information and entertainment that fits in your pocket. It will replace your mobile phone, your photo camera,
your video camera, your car navigation, your portable gaming console, your laptop and your iPod. As we extrapolate hardware improvement rates another 3 years, we will see something like the RoadBox in 2011. The RoadBox will be your personal Swiss Army knife for information and communication.
Generic road device. The screen takes up all space. A webcam, microphone and photo button give little detail. Click here to see a fictive product leaflet.
The Home DeviceIn a paranoid world, where datamining by corporations and governments reaches unacceptable proportions, we will need a virtual vault at home. Imagine a safe storage device with enormous capacity for our documents, pictures and movies. This home device will have a key position in our communication and in our recreation. You will see the device as separate black box, and integrated into a big wall mount monitor screen. This device replaces your VCR, your television tuner, your personal computer, your game consoles, your record player, your DVD player and much more. While being a safeguard of your information at home, the device will also serve your data all over the world. You can sync your mobile device with it when you are on holiday. When we extrapolate recent hardware developments for another 3 years, we will see something like the HomeBox in 2011. The HomeBox will be the center of your digital home.
Generic home device. The black box serves all your data. It has no buttons as it is operated with your mobile device. Click here to see a fictive product leaflet.
The artistic nicheA small amount of creative professionals will need other tools than the 2 described here. These people with hip glasses will buy obsolete products like single lens reflex camera's, high definition shoulder cameras, laptops and tower computers. The rest of the consumers can do all they need with their mobile and home devices. Special products for these creative pros will increase in price. As consumer generated content sees an increase in quality, demand for professional high quality content will decline.
The big challengeNo producer of end products in consumer electronics will be safe for the next few years. Trend setter Apple will have to loosen its tight relation between software and hardware. Game console makers have to focus on software. Open source software has to further improve user friendliness. Producers of embedded systems like car navigation and air plane entertainment are confronted with users taking aboard their own up-to-date multi purpose devices, rendering their own systems obsolete. The simplification of the gadget-landscape will bring crimp to western markets.
Fashion ElectronicsAl all devices tend to look similar in 2011, fashion is the tool to bring identy back to the consumer electronics market. In 1980 we saw awesome devices with unique industrial design with the most fantastic specs and possibilities. In 2011 all these specifications are the same. The screen has a size almost the size of the device itself. Functions run on the same chips, talk the same languages and can be loaded on other devices with ease.
Clothing is never just practical, fashion defines your personal identity. Fashion will do the same for consumer electronics. All manufacturers of consumer electronics hardware have to answer the question "How do we give our products a unique character to help our customers shaping their identity?". In 2011 everyone can buy a generic computing box with Linux in China. Thus everyone can design a fantastic case for that generic piece of technology. And maybe other companies do this better than the current players on the consumer electronics market. Maybe my 2011 mobile device is a Prada or a Porsche. Maybe my wife calls me on a Dior. Or maybe we will see the oposite: that Garmin or TomTom is an outdoor fashion brand in 2011. Each CEO of consumer electronics hardware will face a massive challenge the next few years. And when you own a designer brand, a whole new world may lay at your feet. We predict the Las Vegas CES in 2011 to be very different.
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