That record scratch you just heard came from thousands of designers and R&D specialists who suddenly have to remake 3D models of laptops, phones and desktops. That sigh is coming from hundreds of programmers stepping up their new interfaces and that ripping noise is myriad press releases getting torn up and rewritten. After all, it’s almost CES time again and Apple and Microsoft just rewired the design paradigm for every single me-too, laggard CE company around the world.
Companies that you haven’t thought about in a solid year — Sony, LG, HP, HTC, Dell, etc. — have been working all summer on new models to display at this ages-old event. A thinner, nicer laptop here, a gaming rig there. Maybe a curved screen for the truly adventurous! There isn’t much focus on 4K just yet — the content isn’t there — but it’s a consideration, and everyone is ready to rock and roll with Retina-style displays to ensure you can’t see a single pixel.
But now what? Microsoft’s new Surface Studio looks like a tablet on a stand but is powerful enough to render parts of a Pixar film. Slap on a dial and you can pick colors and tools and the screen doubles as an upright and a drawing pad. Given the tendency for folks like Sony and Dell to cater to the lowest common denominator, what can they do to compete? Expect a few clever hacks from the likes of HP — maybe a touch-sensitive all-in-one that is cheaper than Microsoft’s $3,000 PC — but it’s a bit late in the game and I doubt any of the OEMs knew what was coming.
Next we have the iPhone. Who knew that you could put all kinds of cool stuff into a phone if you took out the headphone port? Plus taking out the headphone port lets you sell an entire constellation of wireless devices, a dream come true for folks like Altec Lansing and Skullcandy. But if only one phone in the dozens that will be released in Vegas is wireless-only, what’s the point? Expect a few me-too headphone-less phones this year, but not many. Then, when consumers least expect it, they’ll throw out headphones wholesale. Also expect plenty of “Portrait Mode” camera knock-offs, touch-sensitive non-mechanical buttons and metallic colors. After all, wherever Cupertino goes in mobile, the rest of the world follows.
And now we have the MacBook Pro. While the Touch Bar had been rumored for some time, I doubt anyone expected anyone to actually get excited. That’s a mistake. Ever since the days of the Optimus keyboard geeks have wanted a touchable LCD interface focused on hot keys and keyboarding. Now that the MacBook Pro has gotten it, expect a Sony laptop with a “Touch Spot” and a Samsung ultralight with a patented “Touch Fun Sensor.” Alienware will probably have a “Gaming Touch Zone” alongside HP and Dell’s “Productivity Mini-Screen.”
These new designs are an October Surprise for major CE makers. They also mean that CES will be a little more boring this year as manufacturers increment rather than evolve. I fear 2017 will be a sad year for CE. The Pixel and the iPhone will be the phones to beat, the Surface models will be the laptops of choice for certain professionals and MacBooks will be the choice for many more. And manufacturers will have to race to figure out ways to wow and impress while Microsoft and Apple do it on a whim.