3 reasons to beware of the hype at CES

With the Consumer Electronics Show looming Jan. 10-13 in Las Vegas, it seems a good time to reflect on some of the hot pieces of technology that the show brought us in yesteryear — and to note that not all of them ended up setting the world on fire as predicted.

That’s something to keep in mind when we start to hear about interactive TVs and organic displays, among other things, at this year’s show.

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In fact, every previous show had its “darling” — the one piece of technology or development that it seemed that everyone was showing off. But although the technology was always a cool advancement in a particular area, the adoption of some of these office-related or government applications has been slow in coming. Years later, we’re still waiting for a few of them.

CES 2004: The thin client

On the show floor, you couldn’t throw a marshmallow without hitting one of these. The thin client was supposed to change the face of the office space. With all of the computing and storage done in centralized machines, all the users were going to have on their desks were a keyboard, mouse, monitor and a tiny box that connected them to the rest of the computer.

Did it become the universally adopted technology that past CESers hoped it would? Well, look at the desktop computer you probably still have at your desk, and you tell me.

Sure, one can point to the logistical difficulties in overhauling an office’s inventory all at once to make this kind of solution work. But what probably was the biggest hurdle was the user mindset.

A typical computer user likes to at least have the illusion of control over things. And when you take away the physical box that is their computer — putting apps and storage on a server instead — no amount of explaining that their “computer” is still just as accessible and under their control as before will overcome the gut feeling that you are taking their computer away.

So, based on human nature, thin clients didn’t really have much of a chance.

CES 2008: The solid-state drive

Once these babies were developed to the point that the average person could actually afford them, everyone and their uncle were scrambling to find the most innovative ways to use them. So we were inundated with storage solutions, low-energy notebooks, and all manner of external drives, all using the new SSD technology. This type of drive is much, much faster than its conventional counterpart and is designed to last a great deal longer.

Unfortunately, the tiny capacity of SSD compared with a more conventional hard drive,  combined with its much greater initial cost per gigabyte, meant that they weren’t going to work their way into most computing applications anytime soon.

In fact, it wasn’t until a couple of years later that people got the idea to hybridize systems with a combination of SSDs for speed and conventional hard drives for increased volume. The cost of these types of systems was a much smaller pill for CFOs to swallow.

CES 2010: The 3-D monitor

Once “Avatar” came out, everyone was scrambling to show off their 3-D monitors, so we could all get the same experience at our desks or at home. They came in all sizes and were made for all sorts of environments, some with glasses, some without. And for the most part they really brought the 3-D experience to life.

But 3-D monitors still haven’t caught on, especially in the office environment. So what happened?

The answer is one of function. In almost every setup, you are not going to be using a monitor’s 3-D capabilities all the time. And until very recently, 3-D monitors were, well, not very good for anything else. Their colors were always off one way or the other, and they tended to lack in the brightness department. We have been finding notable exceptions in the past few months, so maybe the 3-D monitor will actually start finding a place on people’s desks in the near future.

So, what do these examples teach us? Pretty much what we already knew: that the most exciting technologies we see at trade shows are often a couple years away from common use, at best. And sometimes people at the show fall in love with something that never finds its way to general acceptance.

Keep that in mind as stories about the “next big thing” start to zoom out of CES again this year.

About the Author

Greg Crowe is a former GCN staff writer who covered mobile technology.

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