Digital Life Matthew Webster
Every January for the past fifty years, an American trade show currently called CES has taken place; in 1967 it was called the Consumer Electronics Show, which gives you an idea of what might be on display, but it’s nearly all computerised stuff these days, and it’s the biggest of its kind in the world.
You’d think it might be my kind of event, but I really couldn’t face it; there are 4,000 companies fighting to launch and demonstrate to you their latest gadgets, gizmos, toys and software, and about 200,000 people visiting it over four days. If those weren’t reasons enough to give it a wide berth, it’s held in Las Vegas, which would settle the matter for me, even if I lived in America.
Anyway, you don’t really have to go, because CES claims that it has more media present than the last Olympic Games did. That’s probably true – the press has always been inclined to be overexcited by the thought of an internetenabled hairbrush (don’t snigger – there really was one on display).
However, despite my grumbling, there is no doubt that CES remains an excellent guide to the digital industry, opening a window on the immediate future of retail technology, at least as far as the marketers and their investors see it.
This year, by popular acclaim, the star of the show was Alexa Voice Services (known simply as Alexa) which is software built by Amazon that allows you to control machines with your voice. It’s a simple enough idea; rather than twiddling a thermostat you say ‘Alexa, reduce the temperature by two degrees’ and it does. This doesn’t sound too exciting, but the longer-term possibilities are. We are increasingly surrounded by reasonably smart devices: cars, computers, printers, televisions, even cookers and washing machines. However, they all accept their instructions in different ways (buttons, knobs, dials) and can’t talk to each other. But make them Alexa-enabled (not difficult) and suddenly Alexa can act as a kind of translator between them all. This has huge potential, as it’s not hard to imagine the next step being one machine giving instructions to another.
It’s also easy to see people using it to replace a keyboard, especially on phones where typing is a pain. Baidu, the big Chinese search engine, has predicted that half the searches on its site will be by voice within three years. It all ties in with the huge increase in using smartphones to do internet-related stuff. The industry is moving fast, and you can be sure that over the next year or so, anything that can be ‘Alexa-enabled’ will be.
While I enjoy the abstract notion of some sort of unifying software that connects all technology, I do have my doubts about encouraging people to talk to their machinery. Imagine what it will be like on a train if this catches on, with everyone in the carriage barking orders at their laptops.
What else stood out at CES? Undoubtedly it was the massive and increasing quantity of data streaming around the world. Almost every single product being shown at CES collects data from its users and this becomes part of a future marketing plan; the data is even, potentially, a product in itself. We still don’t know how best to use this data or even who owns it; is it the collector or the person it was collected from? More work for m’learned friends, as ever.
But it was Alexa that really stole the show. Who would have thought that a company that started out as a bookseller would now be leading the world in advanced information technology? But I suppose that’s what booksellers did when printing first started. Plus ça change.