Author(s): Ben Wood
Geoff Blaber, George Jijiashvili, Shaun Collins
Yesterday, CES officially opened its doors, and there were plenty of trends and products on show. Here are the top announcements that grabbed our attention.
Amazon and Google Flex Their Muscles
In years gone by, CES was dominated by companies such as Microsoft which effectively "owned" the show thanks to their presence and widespread reach across so many of the other exhibitors at the event.
In this modern era, it is Google that has taken over that role with a blitzkrieg approach to marketing, dominating the Las Vegas skyline with lavish advertising, combined with a massive stand directly outside the main entrance to the Las Vegas Convention Center. Its giant installation includes a fairground ride that allows attendees to travel through a Disney-like experience centred on products using Google Assistant.
Inside the stand there's also a showcase of the growing number of Google Home products as well as a big wall dedicated to "Friends of The Google Assistant", spanning everything from kitchen appliances to an eclectic mix of smart home products.
This could be seen as little more than a vanity project by Google, but it acts as an extremely powerful vehicle for it to narrow the gap with Amazon by reminding all the companies exhibiting products that work with the Alexa platform that they would be foolish to ignore Google. In fact, if they work with Google, they too can be part of the Google promotional machine at CES.
Amazon, on the other hand, takes a more conservative approach, although it has definitely stepped up its efforts this year with a more sizeable product showcase featuring a wide range of its own devices as well a massive array of third-party devices. However, it's certainly a shadow of the rock 'n' roll approach that Google has embraced.
Nonetheless, Amazon's less flashy, more diligent approach continues to pay off. Before the show started, it revealed that it sold tens of millions of Echo devices in 2018 and that there are now more than 100 million Alexa end points (excluding smartphones), which include more than 28,000 smart home devices from more than 4,500 brands. In contrast, Google's last published figure, in October 2018, stood at 10,000 devices from 1,000 manufacturers. This number has definitely increased at CES, but nonetheless Google still lags.
The contrast between the two approaches is palpable, but it would be foolish to suggest that Amazon's lead in raw volume of products is unassailable. In fact, one of the main conclusions from CES is that Google is hell-bent on closing the gap, and the battle between these two companies looks poised to intensify as they seek to establish themselves as the preferred partner in this domain. Watching it unfold will be an interesting ride.
Verizon Sets Out Its Eight Currencies of 5G
In the afternoon keynote session, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg presented the vision behind his company's 5G strategy. Mr Vestberg talked about eight "currencies" of 5G: peak data rate, mobile data volume, mobility, connected devices, energy efficiency, service deployment, reliability and end-to-end latency.
Together with partners ranging from the New York Times and Disney Studios to a medical start-up, Verizon sought to illustrate the benefits of some of these currencies. He also outlined that 5G would bring a reduction of up to 90 percent power usage in the network and the ability to create service plans in a matter of hours rather than weeks or months, as is the case currently. The CEO also unveiled the Built on 5G Challenge, offering innovators up to $1 million in seed money to come up with applications and uses for the technology with the carrier.
Mr Vestberg delivered a slick and well thought-out vision of what his 5G network will look like. However, there were few convincing and large-scale examples of solid applications or uses that will specifically exist because of the very low latency or very high speeds that 5G promises, or that will depend on these two factors to work. And here lies the challenge for even the most forward-looking network operator investing vast sums in these next-generation networks.
We believe Verizon should be commended for having stuck faithfully to 5G technologies to deliver its service, be that to the home or for specific trials, but the core challenge of 5G remains: what are the large-scale applications that will allow it to thrive and pay back those huge investment schedules?
There's undoubtedly a commercial benefit in being first to market with a new technology in the US, but that won't be enough to succeed. Like many others, Verizon recognizes that applications and uses will come from partnerships and from fostering cultures that encourage innovation and ideas within 5G. As Mark Thompson, CEO of the New York Times, said in his speech, "we will see the full fruits of 5G next year".
Qualcomm Underlines Its Automotive Credentials
Qualcomm made a number of automotive announcements at a CES press conference, largely hoping to capture opportunities in infotainment, telematics and connectivity. The launch of the third generation of its dedicated Snapdragon platform for infotainment is a logical step as the segment has advanced well over the past 18 months. And as infotainment demands become increasingly segmented, it makes sense for Qualcomm to offer a tiered portfolio of chipset platforms as it does for smartphones.
Qualcomm also maintained the momentum from 2018 for vehicle-to-everything communication (C-V2X) with a host of announcements. Most important was that Ford will begin to deploy C-V2X commercially by 2022, but it also pointed to commitment from Audi and Ducati, both of which are testing C-V2X using Qualcomm technology. A deal with the city of Las Vegas to trial the communication system was also unveiled, and it will see C-V2X roadside units installed across the city for testing as well as to advance commercial deployment. The development is a strong endorsement of the technology and reflects our view that connectivity is a necessity to augment sensors and cameras as well as to deliver autonomous cars that can intelligently interact with the smart city.
Nvidia Announces Its Drive AutoPilot System
Nvidia claims that its AutoPilot platform, which is based on its Drive Xavier system-on-chip, is the world's first commercially available level 2+ automated driving system and that it will enable supervised autonomous vehicles to go into production by 2020. This is an important advance for the industry and should be a leading factor encouraging the first tentative steps toward commercialization.
However, we continue to believe that autonomous driving will happen first in tightly controlled, commercial environments. The challenges of human hand-over with level 3 passenger cars means that mass-market implementation of Nvidia's Drive AutoPilot system is likely to be in premium vehicles for premium driver-assistance functions. The company's marketing of the platform is tacit recognition that the road to full autonomy will be a steady journey rather than a sudden leap.
Huawei Turns to Non-Cellular Connected Devices amid US Headwinds
The launches of Huawei's MateBook 13 laptop and MediaPad M5 Lite tablet at CES are a far cry from the smartphone splash it has made at the show in the past. The Chinese giant has been swept up in a geopolitical conflict and a resolution for Huawei remains unclear until wider political challenges are overcome. As a result, its mobile channel has come under significant political pressure, forcing Huawei to focus on non-cellular connected products for the US market. Its PC and tablet businesses have seen remarkably strong growth in the US, so Huawei continues to use tablets and laptops to maintain and continue building its brand presence despite the absence of smartphones.
Huawei's inability to sell smartphones in the US is a frustration to its ambitions of growth in the country, and the MateBook 13 and MediaPad M5 Lite are reminders of the quality and competition the US market is being deprived of. However, in a broader context, the decision by other countries to stand alongside the US in "strongly advising" its network operators not to use Huawei network equipment is a much bigger problem and one that's likely to linger until geopolitical tensions between the US and China settle.
MediaTek Unveils Artificial Intelligence Solutions for Smart Home Devices
MediaTek introduced a range of artificial intelligence solutions at CES including its TV AI picture quality technology, the MT8175 AI vision platform for smart displays and smart cameras, and the MT8518 AI voice platform for smart speakers. The Taiwanese player suffered a challenging 2018, hurt mainly by weakness in the smartphone market, but its TV and smart speaker chipset products in particular were bright spots and remain priorities for growth. They strengthen MediaTek's portfolio and beef up its capability as it looks to increase its relevance and competitiveness in edge computing and artificial intelligence more broadly.
This is critical if MediaTek is to reduce its dependence on smartphones and maintain its market share position in voice assistant devices amid growing competition in an increasingly fragmented market. Similarly, its launch of a chip supporting Bluetooth and Wi-Fi 6, based on the 802.11ax standard, for network access points, routers and gateways will help solidly a strong position in access points at a critical point ahead of Wi-Fi 6 certification.
Garmin's Music and Safety-Focussed LTE Smartwatch
Garmin announced an LTE smartwatch called Vivoactive 3 Music, with connectivity by Verizon. The device is an upgrade of the version released in 2018. Cellular connectivity lets watch wearers receive texts and download music from Spotify and Deezer without using their phone. It's unclear if users will be able to stream music.
Garmin also emphasized the smartwatch's two safety features enabled by cellular connectivity: assistance and incident detection. Holding down one of the buttons for few seconds notifies pre-selected emergency contacts about the user's exact GPS location. And if the watch detects a fall, it automatically sends out a distress message. This is similar to the Apple Watch Series 4's latest feature, but differs in that it will not call emergency services.
The LTE-enabled Vivoactive 3 Music delivers five days of battery life under normal use, with up to four hours of continuous LTE use. Its availability and pricing are expected to be revealed in the coming months.