CES: Chasing Fool's Gold
By James Grahame
[I penned this editorial several years ago, but it still rings true today. CES 2011 runs from January 6th through the 9th, so expect to hear lots in the next few days about devices vying to become The Next Big Thing.]
The annual Consumer Electronics Show is underway in Las Vegas, as thousands of gadget makers vie for mindshare. The pages of tech blogs are saturated with new gadgets. And 99.9% of those devices suck.
The CES is an almost perfect demonstration of the scarcity of true human ingenuity. Each and every novel device is cloned a thousand times over as manufacturers jostle to introduce the thinnest, shiniest and most desirable widget in each product category. Part of the problem is the state of technology itself -- Manufacturers are always constrained by component availability, since it's insanely expensive to custom design bleeding-edge components such as the tiny hard drives (courtesy of Toshiba) that made Apple's iPod a runaway success.
Modern engineers were weaned on LEGO, and they find themselves applying the same building-block mentality to electronic design. If the boardroom calls for a new digicam or TV, it's often built around generic chipsets and display components from the same chip fabs and panel manufacturers that the competition uses.
Why am I taking the time to ramble about this? Because the most beloved devices from yesteryear were usually The Next Big Thing in years past. The Palm Pilot, Apple Macintosh, Sony Trinitron, Canon AE-1 SLR, Atari 2600, Apple iPod and other ground-breaking products are amongst the 0.01% of devices that demonstrate true innovation. Such development often requires massive financial and operational risks, which is what makes it so unpalatable to even the bravest CEO.
The scarcity of brilliant innovation highlights the technology industry's dirty little secret -- Innovation is bloody hard, and precious few companies are able to sustain cutting-edge development.
Sadly, many true innovators fail to achieve lasting financial success. Those that manage to get hit by lightning on a regular basis go on to become industry leaders. Sony was at the top of their game for almost four decades, Atari achieved greatness in the late 1970s before imploding a few short years later, Commodore shone brightly throughout most of the 1980s, while Apple has been on a wild roller coaster ride for the past 32 years.
Part of Retro Thing's quest is to highlight some of the most innovative gizmos from the past, such as the Regency TR-1 transistor radio, Sony Walkman, Canon 814 XL-S and Sinclair ZX-81. These devices are part of our collective past, which is why they evoke warm memories and eager anticipation for The Next Big Thing. Just remember it's often hard to see the forest for the trees. And that's especially true at CES.