The mobile phone is the set top box

by Steve Blum • , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Long-odds prediction for the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show: the mobile phone will be the set top box. Expect a prototype that tethers a large screen display to a media-rich smart phone. You walk in the room and your stuff appears on the screen. You will only have one channel and it will be whatever you want to watch, where ever you happen to be.

If someone doesn’t roll it out here in Las Vegas this week, you’ll see it shortly from Apple (which is too hip to hang at CES these days) or at a mobile phone event in someplace like Barcelona or Orlando or San Diego, at the latest.

CES starts rolling with press conferences, briefings and product previews. Tuesday is actually pre-Press day – the big boys strut their stuff on Wednesday – but it’s turning into the most interesting day of the show. ASUS began holding its press event on Tuesday a couple of years ago, and MSI joined in. CES Unveiled, which is the official small company press group-grope, also happens Tuesday. By the end of the day, it’ll be pretty clear what the high tech buzz will be for the coming week.

ASUS seems to be trying to position itself as another Apple, talking more about design than technology. It’s not quite in Apple’s league yet, but fresh designs do set it apart from the mainline CE companies. Even Sony looks grey-suit by comparison. MSI seems to be following ASUS’s lead, promising a media extravaganza.

My bet is that ASUS will introduce nicely designed computers and an iPad knock-off that misses on functionality but comes in a couple hundred bucks under Apple. It will then immediately suck the air out of its real product announcements by hyping photoshopped pictures of concept designs that look rad but will never make it to the prototype stage, let alone a production line. MSI will then throw a big party, show off some solid but not bleeding edge products and wonder why ASUS gets better coverage.

More predictions for the coming days…

  • Everyone will promise an iPad clone of one kind or another. None will come close to the integrated elegance of Apple’s product, but buried deep underneath the me-too crowd will be one or two innovations from unknown players with star potential.
  • At least one company will set itself up for iPad-like success or PlasticLogic-like embarrassment by showing a tablet that combines a next-gen e-reader’s thin, light form factor and low power consumption with a touch-screen and basic productivity apps.
  • Cisco will once again offer the show’s most autistic press non-conference and walk away patting itself on its corporate back.
  • The big, old school CE players will showcase the usual upgrades of existing product lines, but won’t have anything truly new to offer.
  • The wild card will be the CE company that finally figures out a usable user interface for IPTV. Thomson’s Joe Clayton was right fifteen years ago when he called video navigation the coming killer app of the 21st Century. We’re still waiting.
  • Look for bigger, brighter displays and fewer boxes. All the electronics for everything worth shipping to a store can pretty much fit onto a couple of circuit boards and into the case of any consumer-grade display.
  • Expect less emphasis on company app stores and more on turn-it-on-and-use-it functionality. Last year, CE companies flogged dozens of partnerships with high profile consumer brands. Not because consumers wanted it, but because they couldn’t think of anything else to say. This year they’ll have a better idea of the customer experience they’re actually trying to sell.
  • Last year, the cool new thing was bleeding edge input devices that responded to waving fingers and heavy breathing. Good stuff and there will be more of it this year, in productized form.

We’ll know soon enough. The fun is about to begin.