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3 Takeaways from CES 2018

Joel Zien

Joel Zien

January 16, 2018

Man in full body white suit with light stickers attached

Like many consultants in the software space, I went to CES this year. Infamous for its energy and scale, CES is so noisy that it can be hard for business leaders to know what to do with it all. Having sweat it out on the ground every day of the event, I thought I’d share a quick digest of what product-centric companies ought to be thinking about next.

1. Google and the Normalization of Voice

Anyone with eyes to see noticed that Google was basically the event’s wallpaper. Even outside the confines of the LVCC, massive digital billboards bearing the company’s name could be seen lining the entire strip.

But what’s noteworthy isn’t Google’s footprint so much as the simple yet powerful message their ads endlessly repeated: “Hey Google.” The point being that, yes, sure, voice is increasingly a thing, but the final push along the technology adoption curve is a matter of habituation and normalization, not more sophisticated technologies. Talking to devices is a new paradigm, and people need to feel comfortable doing it if it’s going to embed itself in their day-to-day lives.

I’m no journalist so I’ll let you read about Google’s giant gumball machine elsewhere. But the point is that across their marketing efforts, the Internet-company-turned-product-giant’s strategy was simple yet laser focused: get people used to talking to the Google Assistant, whether it’s on their own products or the ever-growing list of third-party products that leverage their VPA.

Google’s strategy could be distilled into a single word: onboard.
Google’s strategy could be distilled into a single word: onboard.

If your business is looking to leverage new technologies — whether it’s voice, machine learning, or wireless charging — take a page from Google’s book and think about what it will take to get current and prospective customers used to the idea. Even if you’re just thinking about adding connectivity to a device that has until now been less wired in, you have to ask yourself how people are going to welcome the change as an inevitable and natural evolution of your product.

2. Consumer Electronics & the Need to Differentiate

I sat in 3 smart speaker demos and examined the booths of many more, and all of them, without exception, were powered by Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, or both.

Now don’t get me wrong. As people increasingly come to expect their speakers and other electronics to be powered by personal assistants and voice interfaces, this is a good, even necessary move. But at the end of the day, how are you going to differentiate yourself from the vast sea of products doing the exact same thing?

Paper towel roll with the words 'Smart Speaker' written in red marker
In a world where all speakers are smart, what makes you special?

Even more to the point: how are you going to differentiate yourselves from the creators and proprietary owners of these personal assistants when they are releasing their own hardware too?

The appeal to sound quality is not enough. My bet is that audiophiles are a shrinking market, and for superior quality, they are turning to boutique sound masters working out of Denmark. Both of whom probably don’t care about CES.

The point is that people are valuing usability and software integrations as much as sound quality. Look at the Apple AirPods: People are buying them for their ease of use and quick access to Siri, not their superb sound quality.

Which means that for producers of smart speakers and other audio electronics, there’s a real risk of commoditization: under the hood, it’s all the same.

People are valuing usability and software integrations as much as sound quality.

While everyone else is getting into bed with the big tech players in the same, straightforward way, heads of innovation at consumer electronics companies need think about what else they can do to stand out.

The media streaming company Roku, for instance, is developing its own virtual assistant and plans to license it to smart speaker manufacturers in an attempt to own the entertainment experience more fully. I’m not saying you should do the same thing. Far from it. But while everyone else is following the trend (remember when everyone had an app?), Roku is figuring out how to translate its offering into the new technological space.

Right now the only question on current customers’ minds is: Amazon or Google. Don’t expect to see your name on that list unless you do something about it.

3. Tech Literacy for Big Business

Many of the business leaders I spoke to at CES were simply overwhelmed. And I can’t say I blame them. Flashy gizmos aside, there were so many new technologies, platforms, and product innovations that there was no end of questions for them to chew on. More than once did I hear “I’m simply confused.”

As consumers of products, we ask ourselves the relatively straightforward question, “What should I buy?” But as the makers of those products, you have to ask trickier things like “What technologies, if any, should I introduce into my products, or my stores, or my marketing efforts? How will those integrations advance my company’s mission? How will they add value to my customers’ lives? How will those customers see that value? And how, if at all, will this differentiate me from current and emerging competitors?”

Add to this the time factor: some of these innovations, like voice, are already in full swing, while others, like 5G, are just getting started. And while some of these may be flashes in the pan, others (again, like 5G) are going to have deep, game-changing, industry-wide ripple effects.

Inside CES 2018 with a crowd of people around multiple booths
Image courtesy of Intel.

At the bottom of all of these questions sits a baseline of tech literacy. You don’t have to be on intimate terms with the code-level nuances and user-interaction implications of every emerging technology, but you need to know people who do.

As a consultant at a firm that makes software-powered products (full disclosure), my job is to help large companies leverage technology intelligently, in a way that makes sense for them. Composed of software developers, designers, and product strategists, we are effectively a storehouse of technical expertise, and we’re on a mission to help businesses navigate the kind of chaos that CES represents, and then wisely, prudently execute on it.

You don’t have to be on intimate terms with the code-level nuances and user-interaction implications of every emerging technology, but you need to know people who do.

This isn’t the time for me to give a full pitch, of course, and any good business leader will do their due diligence when choosing a product development partner. But whatever you do, you need to get deeply familiar with, or familiar with the people who are deeply familiar with, the technologies that can evolve your business properly.


Voice is everywhere. Even in cars! That’s neat, sure, but what does it mean for you? How do you use it to create competitive advantage in the marketplace? If someone’s going to hire your product over the one at the booth next door, it’ll be because you thought more fully about normalization, differentiation, and the unsexy technological plumbing that sits underneath what you make.

Until you actively focus on these areas, you’re beholden to the same trend waves as everyone else. And, just like those other companies, you’re not doing a whole lot besides championing Google technology every time you say theirname to activate your product in the middle of a demo. Not like they need that kind of free advertising.

Ultimately, you have to think about the long term. Roku’s bet may succeed or it may fail, but at least they understand that Google and Amazon don’t need to be (and ultimately won’t be) the only players in town. By narrowing down the use cases for virtual assistance, Roku is arguably turning an ill-defined toy everyone may soon get bored with into something that knows exactly what it is. That’s a “smart device” in the best sense.

Joel Zien is a Principal at Connected, a digital product development firm. Follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.

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