Dylan’s Desk: The best of CES, from selfie sticks to smoke alarms

Look at these people using a selfie stick. They're so happy!

What will be hot in consumer electronics and computing in 2015? Read VB’s full coverage of International CES 2015 to find out.

The best things at CES, an annual festival of consumer electronics and excess in Las Vegas, were not what you’d expect. Giant televisions were everywhere, of course, along with the usual forest of cellphone cases, Apple product knockoffs, tablets no one wants, and cheap cameras.

But what I was most excited about were a handful of products that people will actually use.

Disclaimer: I didn’t go to CES myself. For the third year in a row I’ve escaped the mayhem by sending less jaded members of the VentureBeat news team to Vegas. But as a longtime gadget nerd, I wasn’t able to peel my eyes away from the ongoing spectacle, even from afar.

Here’s what CES tells us to look for in 2015.

Selfie sticks

There will be more selfie sticks. And, just as we did with people taking photos with their iPads, techies will mock them. But, just as with iPad photography, the joke will be on us. Because selfie sticks are genuinely useful — they are a simple hack, an inexpensive gadget that lets people take better photos. And not only solo selfies, but group shots — which means selfie sticks are in fact a very pro-social invention.

Over the holidays I walked past a group of three young women on the San Francisco waterfront, obviously all friends, each taking her own individual selfie with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. Each one held her own individual phone and gave it her own individual fake, selfie smile. It was so sad. What these women needed was a selfie stick.

USB Type C

The people who designed the original USB plug specifications should be forced to spend their retirement years doing jigsaw puzzles, because that’s what I feel like every time I try to plug something in. Who in their right minds thought it was a good idea to create a plug-and-port combo that is asymmetrical, but looks entirely symmetrical? It’s even worse given that many USB ports — in the past anyway — were situated on the backs of computers, in the dark, against the wall, where you can only feel your way to them. This disaster of industrial engineering has been pithily summarized with a graphic explaining how you need to rotate USB plugs three times before they work, which is explained by reference to quantum physics.

Enough complaining, though: USB Type C fixes this problem by making a USB port that is, at last, symmetrical — so it doesn’t matter which way you put the plug in. HALLELUJAH!

As a bonus, USB-C recognizes that people use USB as a power port as much as — if not more than — they use it as a data connection. So the new spec can deliver electricity in both directions: You can use a USB-C port on your computer to power up a phone, or you can connect a power adapter and use it to power up your computer. Slick! I can’t wait.

Terrycloth gadgets

FashionComm's terrycloth wearable.

This fitness gadget embedded in a terrycloth sweatband may be the most ridiculous-looking thing that Harrison Weber put on his body at CES — and he put a lot of things on his body. I personally think it’s incredibly ugly.

But the terrycloth is a sign that gadget makers no longer have to limit themselves to hard plastic thingies. If fitness gadgets are huge this year — and they probably will be — why not make them comfortable to wear? Why not start incorporating materials that feel good against your skin, like cotton, silk, and fleece?

The real problem with this dorky “smart sweatband” is not the terrycloth, it’s the protruding screen. That part needs to disappear.

Quantum dots

The problem with quantum dots is their name. As I was describing them to a new acquaintance earlier this week, he pointed this problem out. He said, “Every time you said the word ‘quantum dot,’ I imagine the word ‘asshole’ appearing across your forehead.” And you know what? He’s right. It’s one of the most ridiculous-sounding tech marketing terms to come out since “deep learning.”

But quantum dots are the rare example of a TV technology that you might actually want. (Unlike 3D TV.) It’s a technique for illuminating an LCD screen’s pixels with brighter, more natural light than you can get with the usual LED backlights. Quantum dots could make screens that are almost as vivid and gorgeous as OLED screens, and which use less power than current LCDs, but which are much more cost efficient. I want one.

Washing machines, door locks, and smoke alarms

Gadget bloggers made fun of Samsung and LG when they announced new washing machines. I made fun of LG when it touted a “smart refrigerator” last year. But LG and Samsung will have the last laugh, because they will sell billions of dollars worth of these appliances — since such appliances actually do something useful.

You can forget about the ugly phrase “Internet of Things” and its even uglier abbreviation, “IoT.” The sooner we leave these terms behind, the better. What they’re really about is connecting ordinary gadgets to the Internet, giving them IP addresses and APIs. Forget putting a screen on your fridge. Nest (now owned by Google) has the right idea about how to incorporate home appliances into the Internet: Give a gadget a modicum of intelligence, get it on the Internet (maybe by using Nest as the central hub), and let it communicate with an app on your phone.

I don’t need a dishwasher that can talk to me. It doesn’t need to use neural networks to figure out the optimal time to wash my dishes. Just a little bit of intelligence — like letting me monitor its energy and water consumption via my phone — would be enough to make me happy.

Dylan’s Desk: The best of CES, from selfie sticks to smoke alarms

Dylan’s Desk: Four trends to watch in the coming year

Happy New Year, dear readers.

It’s the traditional time for journalists to take a look at the past year, extend the trendlines forward, and make some predictions about how the coming year will play out.

Unfortunately, journalists’ track record on that score is not so great.

For instance, three years ago, I predicted five gadgets would dominate headlines in 2013: the Lytro camera, the Kindle Fire 2, the Tesla Model S, Nokia’s Lumia phone, and Apple’s iTV television set. Of those five, only one did really well — the Tesla — while the Kindle Fire took its sweet time about becoming a big deal, really taking off only in 2014. Lytro is all but out of business, Nokia sold itself to Microsoft after failing to take the world by storm, and Apple’s long-awaited television still doesn’t even exist.

In my defense, I’ll say this: All five were really cool ideas. But sometimes “cool” isn’t enough to make a product a stunning market success, or even a reality.

I also predicted, way back in 2000, that by 2010 we’d have glasses with heads-up displays capable of identifying people’s faces for us. I had no idea it would be Google bringing us that futuristic vision, of course, and I was off by a few years, as it turns out. Still — not bad, eh?

So with that mixed record in mind, I’m making these cautious predictions about what trends to watch in 2015. All four of these are pretty solid bets, I believe. Still, take my words with a grain of salt.

And I’ll see you in 2016.

Apple Watch

Apple has said that it would release its wearable device in early 2015.

When it comes out, the Apple Watch will be a significant test of the market’s appetite for smart watches. Its specifications put it miles ahead of any other wearable currently on the market, including as it does both fitness-monitoring features (including heart rate sensors) and smartphone-extending features (like wrist interfaces to popular apps, text messaging, phone calling, and so forth). But even more significantly, it includes support for Apple Pay, which promises to let people pay for stuff they’re buying at a store just by tapping their wrist against an NFC reader next to the cash register.

The Apple Watch has a couple of big strikes against it: At $350, it’s expensive; and it requires an iPhone 5S or later to work. As we saw in 2014, the iPhone has a shrinking share of the smartphone market, and that limits the potential audience for the watch by a lot.

My prediction: The Apple Watch will sell well, but not stunningly, in 2014. It won’t make a major difference to Apple’s revenues. But it will spur a lot more competition from other makers of wearables, particularly fitness bands and smart watches. And if Apple releases a second version, it’ll be sleeker, better-designed, and more successful in the market in 2016.

Virtual reality

Facebook turned virtual reality into a big thing this year by acquiring VR headset maker Oculus for $2 billion. Google responded with a $500 million investment of its own into VR company Magic Leap. Even Apple may be eyeing the VR market. Samsung has its own phablet-based VR system called Gear VR, and the Oculus development kit works with Samsung’s hardware.

None of these products are shipping in volume yet. The Samsung device is geared toward developers and early adopters (and is sold out of most outlets), while Oculus has been shipping developer-only kits for awhile. The demos are impressive, but we’re still at the stage where manufacturers are honing the experience and developers are busy creating content. In other words, early days.

I expect a lot to happen in virtual reality in 2015. Both Samsung’s and Facebook’s headset products should be more widely available in the coming year. While they’re going to find almost all of their initial usage by gamers, there are rich possibilities beyond video games. VR-based social media interactions (3D avatar, anyone?) are undoubtedly a big part of why Facebook was interested in Oculus. And there are possibilities for futuristic Minority Report-style interfaces implemented through VR goggles instead of big, expensive displays.

Still, growth will be slow, largely because of the expense of these devices, the fact that it will take time to develop much VR-optimized content, and the fact that you look really dorky when wearing a VR headset.

My prediction: Everyone will be talking about VR in 2015, but it won’t find major market traction until 2016 or later.

IPOs

The definition of a “startup” has expanded to realms not seen since 2000. Uber and Xiaomi, the latest beneficiaries of venture capitalists’ largesse, have valuations of $41 billion and $46 billion, respectively, according to the Wall Street Journal’s chart of billion-dollar startups. To date they’ve raised $2.8 billion and $1.4 billion, respectively.

With valuations like that, there’s only one realistic exit that will generate acceptable returns for these companies’ investors, and that’s an initial public offering. Both companies are well-positioned for an IPO, and in both cases the IPOs are likely to push their valuations into the $100 billion range, at least temporarily, satisfying investors and adding to the companies’ war chests.

The next tier of companies in the billion-dollar club is slightly more complicated. Dropbox, Airbnb, and Snapchat are all valued at about $10 billion. The first two are IPO candidates in 2015, but Snapchat remains essentially revenue-free. Unless the public markets have started to succumb to the same kind of madness they spiraled into in the late 1990s, that means Snapchat’s probably not a good IPO candidate in 2015. Groupon ($GRPN) and Zynga ($ZNGA) have both gone public in the past few years despite sketchy revenues, and both have been heavily punished by the stock market. So if Snapchat does try to IPO, everyone will be watching it closely for signs of irrational exuberance.

My prediction: Uber and Xiaomi IPOs will contribute to talk of a bubble, but don’t worry — the actual bubble is elsewhere.

Big data

Big data tools like Hadoop have finally hit the mainstream, as the IT world undergoes a once-in-a-decade architectural shift, this time moving toward clustered servers and distributed computing, storage, and network resources. But it’s the applications of big data that VentureBeat will be watching most closely, as data analysis tools enable companies to understand their markets and customers better than before, conduct ever-more-targeted marketing campaigns, and make more informed decisions than ever.

VentureBeat has a particular focus on marketing tech thanks to our new research arm, VB Insight. We’ll also be talking about these technologies at many of our upcoming events, starting with our Mobile Summit in February. But this isn’t just a VentureBeat thing: We’re focusing on marketing tech because it’s an expanding industry, with thousands of companies competing for attention, lots of confusion, and lots of complexity — yet it’s one where making the right technology choices can have a huge impact on your company’s top (or bottom) line.

My prediction: Consolidation will hit marketing tech, starting with ad tech companies, in 2015. But the overall market will continue to grow as many companies look for ways to target their customers more effectively and efficiently.


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Dylan’s Desk: Four trends to watch in the coming year

Bigos

“In the pots warmed the bigos; mere words cannot tell
Of its wondrous taste, colour and marvellous smell.
One can hear the words buzz, and the rhymes ebb and flow,
But its content no city digestion can know.
To appreciate the Lithuanian folksong and folk food,
You need health, [to] live on land, and be back from the wood.

Without these, still a dish of no mediocre worth
Is bigos, made from legumes, best grown in the earth;
Pickled cabbage comes foremost, and properly chopped,
Which itself, is the saying, will in ones mouth hop;
In the boiler enclosed, with its moist bosom shields
Choicest morsels of meat raised on greenest of fields;
Then it simmers, till fire has extracted each drop
Of live juice, and the liquid boils over the top,
And the heady aroma wafts gently afar.”

Adam Mickiewicz, the nineteenth century national poet of Poland.

I don’t know any recipe for bigos that calls for legumes, but otherwise it seems like Mickiewicz got it right. This is a traditional Christmas Eve dish in my family, with a recipe that my mother (who is not Polish) got from my great-grandmother (her grandmother-in-law) who emigrated from Poland in 1920 or so. Great-grandma Viola made the dish without a written recipe or without measuring anything, but my mother watched her and took notes. My brother and I now make it nearly every year.

A coworker who is Polish tells me that it’s not traditional for Christmas Eve, but often eaten on the second day of Christmas — as well as other times, outside the holiday season. I got the impression that he didn’t consider it anything special. It’s basically a simple stew of sauerkraut, meats, mushrooms, and kielbasa. Bay leaves, allspice, and perhaps juniper berries are the essential seasonings. It doesn’t look very pretty, so I’m not posting a photo. But after a day or two of stewing it gets really, really tasty. It’s especially good with rye bread.

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What Uber tells us about tech startups vs. journalists

Adam Tinworth via photopin cc
Adam Tinworth via photopin cc

We know this much: Uber has a huge public relations problem on its hands.

On Monday, Buzzfeed reported comments made by a senior vice president on Uber’s team, Emil Michael, at a private dinner. Michael’s comments suggested that he felt Uber would be justified in hiring an opposition research team to dig up dirt on journalists, such as Pando Daily’s Sarah Lacy.

Lacy has been pretty vocal in her criticisms of Uber and other representatives of what she rightly calls Silicon Valley’s “asshole culture.” She called out Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick as an example of the kinds of “assholes” who may be abrasive, but also cultivate a culture of abrasiveness, jerkiness, and — in Uber’s case — misogyny. Lacy wrote that she no longer felt safe riding in Uber cars, because the company had done too little to vet its drivers and cultivated a culture that seemed to treat women as sex objects.

So you can imagine that Uber might be feeling a little uncharitable toward Lacy. But digging up dirt on a journalist in order to get even with her — well, that’s just not something most companies would contemplate.

Read the rest on VentureBeat, and find out what this all means for Uber — and for tech journalists and tech PR people.

What Uber tells us about tech startups vs. journalists