Consumer electronics collapse into the mobile phone

12 January 2014 by Steve Blum
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Copernican model of consumer electronics.

Smart phones, tablets and wearable bits of networked silicon dominated the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, as the television was declared dead, high end audio and desktop computers were invisible in the flagship booths of major manufacturers and laptops were indistinguishably grey.

The week began with an analyst with the Consumer Electronics Association – the show’s organiser – projecting that smart phones, feature phones and tablets will, together, account for 45% of industry revenue in 2014. TVs and PCs will each fall well below 20%.

The new consumer electronics universe is an orrery of tiny displays, sensors and processors orbiting mobile phones and using them to organise and filter data, and send it on to cloud servers to be fully crunched. The rapidly growing power of mobile chipsets will soon render the distinction between computers and mobile devices meaningless, except as alternatives for physically optimising the fit with human senses and ergonomics. Televisions become simple display devices for content created, stored or managed on smart phones.

The two major obstacles to achieving that revolution – opportunities, in other words – are power consumption and bandwidth. Battery performance is improving steadily but slowly, while demand grows at the pace of Moore’s law. The need for something new – micro fuel cells? – will become increasingly urgent. Mobile bandwidth is a function of spectrum, power and proximity to wireline backhaul. Talk of an impending bandwidth crunch has focused on mobile carriers and licensed frequencies, but unlicensed spectrum could be hit even harder. On the one hand, personal and household devices are proliferating and, on the other, carriers are trying to off load more traffic onto unlicensed bands.

The future is one where the hardware business – which favors big manufacturers with global distribution and economies of scale – consolidating, and the applications and content business becoming the province of small teams and entrepreneurs, who can use sophisticated digital tools and access cloud services as efficiently and easily as corporate giants.