While it’s possible to gauge some broad themes while attending each year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the larger patterns crystallize once the show has ended—after we’ve had a chance to consider all of our CES reports, photographs, and discussions without booming speakers or massive, flashing televisions in the background.
Having handed out our Best of Show Awards and spent many hours exploring the show floor and related events last week, we’re ready to offer some big picture perspective that will hopefully be valuable for both users and developers this year. Ten trends struck us as particularly noteworthy for the Apple community; here they are, in no particular order.
10. “Good, better, best” is going third-party.
9. Good design for everyone?
8. Apple now controls (almost) everything—and developers are chafing, largely because of Lightning.
7. We’re officially in an iterative period.
6. Thunderbolt and AirPlay accessories are a mess.
5. Bluetooth is the future, but not (yet) a panacea.
4. There was next to zero buzz about 802.11ac at CES.
3. Indie development is increasingly important, but not yet where it needs to be.
2. Appealing to niches—but potentially big niches—is becoming an even bigger deal.
1. The “me-too” phenomenon is becoming concerning.
Read on for a detailed discussion of each trend—and feel free to share your views in the comments section below!
10. “Good, better, best” is going third-party. Apple has long offered “good, better, best” configurations for its computers—an inexpensive MacBook with little RAM or storage on one side, a loaded version on the other, and a compromise in the middle. At CES, we noted that larger developers are beginning to follow Apple’s lead and apply the same concept to their product lines. Monster explicitly pitched the Intensity, Inspiration, and DNA headphone families this way, as just one example.
9. Good design for everyone? Ikea has famously insisted that everyone should be able to afford well-designed products—a premise that sometimes seems to be at odds with Apple’s “design premium” philosophy. At CES, we noted that third-party developers are becoming increasingly willing to offer really great-looking products at prices anyone can afford: for instance, iHome was showing off some beautiful Beats by Dre-like headphones around the $40 price point, while Soundfreaq’s cousin company G-Project debuted sharp $100 urban boom boxes and sub-$50 grenade-shaped speakers. Unfortunately, many developers are now openly saying that Apple is pushing them to raise their prices, sometimes by considerable amounts, solely to boost the Apple Store’s profits.
8. Apple now controls (almost) everything—and developers are chafing, largely because of Lightning. Apple’s Made for iPod/iPhone/iPad licensing program was never popular with developers—it was grudgingly accepted as a cost of doing business with Apple, and later expanded to let Apple approve virtually every new electronic accessory in advance. Because of higher costs, approval delays, and related issues, third-party developers aren’t happy. They’re saying that Lightning connectors are forcing them to raise accessory prices to untenable levels, and that Apple’s approval processes have become inconsistent and more than occasionally unreasonable. Some companies openly proclaimed that they’re moving away from Lightning just to limit their involvement with the MFi program, and get back to sensible accessory pricing. We’ll have to see how this plays out.
7. We’re officially in an iterative period. Developers said that there’s no question at this point that the post-Steve Jobs Apple is not in a “revolutionary” stage, pushing major innovations forward, but rather in what may be a prolonged period of modest iterations on existing products. They are openly wondering who is going to be the next inspirational thought leader in the space, and whether that person will come from Apple or elsewhere.
6. Thunderbolt and AirPlay accessories are a mess. Remember Thunderbolt, the incredibly fast computer connectivity standard that promised to speed up hard drives, enable next-generation connectivity with monitors, and so on? It’s not dead in the water, but it’s obvious that it’s heading in FireWire’s direction—a very distant second fiddle to USB 3.0. Apparently, Apple is switching to new Thunderbolt cables and chips to eliminate problems with the first-generation versions, a possible bummer for users who invested in the standard early, at great expense. AirPlay, Apple’s wireless standard, is effectively dead for third-party developers; very few new AirPlay speakers are coming, and companies that were big on AirPlay went silent this year. Bluetooth is taking over, justifiably.
5. Bluetooth is the future, but not (yet) a panacea. It was impossible to miss the growth of Bluetooth accessories at the 2013 CES: tons of speakers, many more headphones, and all sorts of other add-ons featured Bluetooth connectivity this year. Watches? A Bluetooth toothbrush? A fork? All of the above were at the show—and many are now powered by low-energy Bluetooth 4, boasting outstanding battery life as a consequence. Moreover, some formerly AirPlay-only speakers have gone Bluetooth at markedly lower prices, which is great.
Note, however, that Bluetooth 4 doesn’t deliver extra bandwidth or lower power consumption for audio streaming purposes, both desired by speaker and headphone developers. As a result, Bluetooth 4’s benefits will instead be primarily for medical/fitness devices, input devices (keyboards/stylii), and other low-bandwidth products. That means we’ll be waiting for another Bluetooth standard, as well as new devices to take advantage of it.
4. There was next to zero buzz about 802.11ac at CES. The next-generation Wi-Fi technology 802.11ac began to pop up in accessories last year, and has been tipped for addition to Apple products this year. It is supposed to be a critical enabling technology for the sort of high-bandwidth, high-resolution streaming that upcoming wireless televisions will demand. Its absence from discussions at 2013 CES was surprising.
3. Indie development is increasingly important, but not yet where it needs to be. Kickstarter and Indiegogo accessory development campaigns get a lot of attention elsewhere, but we’ve passed on covering most of them because they’re so speculative. Even some of the biggest ones—including Pebble—substantially miss their claimed delivery dates, make unrealistic promises, and/or wind up disappointing their backers. Who wants a “revolutionary” iPhone 5 dock to be delivered six or eight months after the device was released?
Yet there are some exciting signs from the indie development community, including creativity and risk-taking that may yield real benefits for iOS users in the future. Having previously funded keyboard and stylus projects on Kickstarter, Adonit is now a fully-functional company, having exhibited twice now at CES and released Best of Show Award-winning products each time. Following Lunatik’s lead, other small developers are pushing forward with distinctive, small-batch designs that larger companies might have written off due to manufacturing challenges. Numerous indie developers such as Martian Watches and ConnecteDevice are experimenting with new watch accessories that may change the way people interact with their phones; they’re influencing larger watch companies such as Casio, as well. And there are all sorts of other outside-the-box accessories, ranging from app-controlled massage vests to a kit to let kids build their own sensor-equipped toys.
2. Appealing to niches—but potentially big niches—is becoming an even bigger deal. Ten years ago, iPod accessory makers tried to make products that were broadly appealing, hoping to win over nearly everyone. Today, thanks to the massive and diverse iOS user base, developers are trying to create products that deeply satisfy niche audiences. Yesterday’s neutrally-designed iHome headphones and speakers have evolved into surprisingly compelling Iron Man headphones, Avengers audio systems, and Minnie Mouse audio products. Huckleberry showed a collection of 3-D-molded DC Comics iPhone 4/4S cases that were chasing the same crowd of cartoon- and comic-loving collectors. Of course, there were the inevitable/ridiculous Gangnam Style battery packs and plenty of uninspired celebrity-endorsed accessories, but there are signs that some companies are thinking deeper about winning over customers.
iHome was demonstrating a new electronic stylus and app package called the Disney Creativity Studio, using Mickey Mouse art and Disney animators to teach children how to draw—a brilliant idea. Parrot showed Flower Power, a really smart Bluetooth accessory and app that help measure soil conditions for plants, a solution targeted at gardeners. Is everyone going to pay for these things? No, but they’ll thrill their target users, and that will be a huge win for people.
1. The “me-too” phenomenon is becoming concerning. As noted above, finding true innovation in the Apple accessory world isn’t impossible, but there’s definitely a lot of overlap between products and companies right now. One company scores a hit with glossy plastic headphones or a small Bluetooth speaker, and suddenly there are 10 or 20 very similar alternatives out there. A particular developer’s heavy-duty iPhone cases become popular, then dozens of developers debut extremely similar versions. Yes, choices are great, but what we’re seeing too often are alternatives that offer only modest differentiations—low-hanging fruit solutions, designed more to capture market share than improve a category. Audiovox’s 808 Studio Headphones typify this trend; they’re just a cheaper-looking, cheaper-feeling, cheaper-priced alternative to Beats by Dre, without taking any steps forward.
The year is still young, so our hope is that Apple-focused developers will use 2013 to seriously reconsider their product lines and brand identities, seeking true differentiation and thoughtful solutions to customers’ real-world problems. This year’s CES was a huge event with plenty to see, but if each company arrived at the 2014 show with just one attempt at a “revolutionary” or “big step” product, even alongside existing products, the world would be a much better place for the effort.
We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.