10 Questions for CES

by Doc Searls

CES 2005 started yesterday, as of when I'm writing this, here in Las Vegas. The topical breakdown on the Flash-infested CES home page goes like this:

  • Audio

  • Digital Imaging

  • Emerging Technology

  • Gaming

  • Home Networking

  • Home Theater/Video

  • Mobile Electronics

  • Wireless

You can bet there's some Linux in all of them. To find out how much and where, I did a search for "Linux" in the Search CESweb.org bar at the top of the index page. It said:

    The page cannot be displayed.

    There is a problem with the page you are trying to reach and it
    cannot be displayed.

At the bottom it says, "More information: Microsoft Support".

Pretty quick dead end right there. Also, not a new one. Two years ago Don Marti wrote:

just as (sing along with Poison, everybody... "Every rose has its thorn/ Just like every night has its dawn/Just like every cowboy sings his sad, sad song")...Every trade show has its embarrassing buzz-killing back-stabbing bureaucratic drones. The Consumer Electronics Association put a stupid browser detector on their Web site to prevent you from registering for a media pass for CES without one of the Approved Browsers--which naturally excludes any of those innovative devices we go to CES for!

Although the CES site still is served up by a slow and disorganized Microsoft Web server, at least I was able to register with a Firefox browser. A small light of market awareness shines in the bureaucracy.

So, why am I at CES? One answer is there's no more Comdex. That leaves CES alone with the distinction of being the biggest technology show in the US. I believe CeBit in Europe still is bigger overall. Peter Hirshberg calls it "the world's silliest trade show", but that's only on the surface. It's still a great place to hunt down cool Linux stories that almost nobody else is talking about, mostly because they're too busy providing the same Big Vendor Sports coverage as the other thousand-plus reporters at the show.

I also want to follow up on last year's trends and stories. I reported on CES 2004 in two pieces: "Hunting Palms in the Desert", in the April issue of Linux Journal, and "Grass Roots vs. Giant Roars", in a November Linux for Suits column. The first piece expressed my disappointment at the lack of any Linux publicity by any major and few minor vendors--only one year after a landmark keynote speech by Kunitake Ando, President and CEO of Sony, that positioned Linux as the new OS of Choice for consumer electronics products. The second piece took the CE Linux Forum, which Sony and a raft of other Big Boys co-founded, to task for its relative invisibility. An anonymous reader replied:


CELF doesn't have an agenda of building a distribution. They have an agenda of specifying/building open source technologies that enable Linux to be usable in consumer products. They've done a fair amount of that; check their 1.0 spec. There's at least one distro in the market that delivers ALL of these capabilities.

Consumer products are not intended to be "development target systems". Why would you expect consumer product companies to attempt to provide their consumer products in such a way that they are usable as development target systems? Is it wrong that they won't spend any effort in this regard? Their usage focus is on the consumer user experience, as it needs to be. Consumers don't care what's inside.

Linux in consumer products is moving very fast and very deep. There are multiple phones now on the market from the likes of Motorola PCS, NEC, and soon Panasonic. There are multiple products from Philips, with many more expected. The move to Linux in Asia is so significant that Microsoft is one again moving to a FUD campaign: witness Balmer's recent "we'll sue NEC and Panasonic for patent infringement if they ship Linux based products" speech in China.

In summary:

  • CELF has done good enabling work.

  • Linux is moving forward extremely well in the consumer space.

  • Openness of consumer products as a development platform is irrelevant.

Plenty of consumer products, of course, are intended to be development target systems, or what our industry calls platforms. Besides the big obvious one (PCs), there are hand-helds devices, such as PDAs and MP3 players, to name only two.

Still, the anonymous writer's point of view is standard inside the consumer electronics business, which always has been top-down and few-to-many. When people in industries such as this one talk about "markets", they don't mean the open and free places--virtual or physical--where vendors and customers gather to do business and make culture. They use "markets" as a synonym for categories, populations and demographics. To them the "consumer electronics market" is a vast population of faceless individuals that Jerry Michalski perfectly called "gullets who live only to gulp products and crap cash".

The PC business threatened and undermined the consumer electronics business by introducing open platforms, low costs and high degrees of flexibility and usability. With a platform like that and with the huge assortment of tools that grew around it--including all those we know and love from the free software and Open Source development communities--almost anyone could join the category and make money, by making useful products.

I predict that, in the long run, Linux, free software and open source will finish the job of leveling the consumer electronics marketplace--while the spotlights continue to point at HP, Apple, Microsoft, Sony and other Big Boys. Linux will infiltrate and undermine the Existing Power Structure simply by being useful.

There is a huge difference between Linux and its proprietary competitors in the freedoms it provides to developers; also in the size of its development community. As Ted T'so explained to me a couple of years ago, other equally useful and cost-free operating systems are out there, but no other operating system in the world has a development community as large as the one that exists for Linux--nor is any other OS gaining more expert practitioners every day.

That's why I believe World Domination by Linux is as inevitable for consumer electronics as it is for everything else--including, yes, PCs. In the long run, more people will make money because of Linux than with Linux.

But how much movement in that direction will be evident at CES? That's the overall question I bring to CES while I am covering it again this year for Linux Journal. Here's the whole list, or as much of it as I can come up with before the show. If you have more or other leads to visit at the show--no press releases, please, write me at doc@ssc.com.

Linux-Specific Questions:

  • How many exhibitors will feature Linux in their exhibitor write-ups? Last year there were only 11 out of more than 3,000 exhibitors).

  • Will CELF have a presence at the show? How? And in what?

  • Is anybody making free PCs that run on Linux yet? Are they closed?

  • Who will be doing cool stuff with Linux, whether they promote it or not?

  • Will DIY (Do It Yourself) have any presence? Meaning, how much support will there be for individuals to develop their own consumer electronics products? I'm interested in VIA, whose Mini-ITX boards support DIY work everywhere.

  • How clear is it becoming that the term "consumer" is obsolete in a networked marketplace where customers and individual developers are highly involved? Don Marti says, "If you treat your customers like "consumers" you will get your ass kicked by people who respect customers". So, how evident is that principle at CES 2005?

  • Will DIY broadcasting, or podcasting, have any presence? We know the satellite radio guys will have huge booths; but even there, I see room for podcasts as sources of programming--I hate to use the word "content".

  • Will any of the home audio and video systems have open architectures to support original contributions and adaptations by customers and third-party developers? Or will they be the closed systems I've usually seen in the past?

  • Will TiVo and other set-top boxes or home multimedia boxes take advantage of Linux's open nature? There was one company last year. How many, if any, this year?)

  • Will OggVorbis formats have any support?

  • Are there rampant GPL violations? (That's a question from readers of last year's report.)

In addition, here are some follow-up questions from last year, a few of a purely personal nature:

  • Will IBOC digital radio have any adoption? Or will the licensing costs, for example, keep early adopter types, such as college radio stations, out of the game?

  • Speaking of radio, will C. Crane and Sangean be back, and what will they be offering?

  • Will anybody--for example, telescope manufacturers--who makes stuff that hooks up to PCs start providing support for Linux, alongside Windows and OS X?

  • Will flip-out viewers show up on more digital cameras? They are extraordinarily handy for photographers who like to shoot a lot of candids--such as me, for instance.

  • Will anybody offer a radio that receives both satellite services, plus AM & FM?

I'll be reporting from the show for Linux Journal. Stay tuned and see what happens.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He writes the Linux for Suits column for Linux Journal. He also presides over Doc Searls' IT Garage, which is published by SSC, the publisher of Linux Journal.

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