Dig­i­tal Life Matthew Web­ster

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

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.

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