Imagine the most crowded electronics store you?ve ever been in. Multiply the frenzy by a factor of at least 100; reduce the aisle space by half. Add in women wearing glitzy evening gowns with TV sets on their heads and grown-ups dressed as butterflies when it?s not Halloween. Toss in flipping stuffed dogs and singing robots, longer-than-long lines and the Fuji blimp. Put on 20 different kinds of music at the same time.
For most people that?s the closest you?ll ever come (outside of the acid trips described in a book about the Grateful Dead) to the chaotic energy known as the CES or Consumer Electronics Show. Not so for the tens of thousands of people from all walks of consumer sales who travel to Las Vegas to gamble on our techno future when they?re not pulling slots or shooting craps at the official casinos.
Innovations that can?t grab a buyer?s attention here may never make it to production -- let alone store shelves. And even those that do may never make it to our homes, offices, cars or wrists.
It helps to have a salesman who can pack a room.
Microsoft Salesman-in-Chief Bill Gates pulled out the stops. He introduced ?Behind the Technology,? a video takeoff on VH1?s ?Behind the Music? that poked fun at himself and included a cameo from Bill Clinton, then grimaced as Shaq called him a loser after Gates blew a live Internet video game. At one point he slid across the stage on a scooter to play the role of young William just home from school. Those were the frills.
Gates was really there to talk about what he calls ?smart living in the digital decade? as he showcased the products he wants emphasized in the stores this year and beyond. Smart living comes from a mix of ?advances in devices, advances in connectivity and advances in services.?
When Gates spends 30 minutes on one product during his CES keynote he?s sending as clear a signal as the one he hopes people will be receiving on Microsoft-enabled watches: Microsoft thinks getting constantly updated uni-directional information from a watch is not only commercially viable, it?s desirable.
Grab them by the wrists and their hearts and minds will follow.
The watches would be just the beginning for SPOT, as in Smart Personal Objects Technology. Gates sees a world populated by SPOT magnets with information beamed one way via the FM band. Pop one that is linked to local traffic reports on your dashboard and you might get home without a lengthy delay. A SPOT magnet on your refrigerator could update school information.
The watch format offers as many of these services together as the user chooses to receive, then it is all pushed to the wearer/user in a format he or she chooses. You might choose the ?at a glance? rotation of information across every category or you might prefer to follow the progress of a playoff football game play by play on an almost instant basis.
Watches that keep time based on the atomic clock aren?t new; neither are watches that sync with a PDA. I tried this one on and it could be the real Dick Tracy deal. If it works and the service providers come on board, it could be an incredibly valuable tool.
Am I likely to race out and grab one? Doesn?t matter. I?m not the target. The cluster of 20-something males on the upper deck of the acid-green nVidia bus after the presentation raved about it, though. Their primary concerns: how much will the watches cost and how much will the service cost? All except the gadgethead juggling multiple cell phones made it crystal clear that anything too far over $100 total wouldn?t be on their lists or wrists.
Fossil, Finnish company Suunto and Citizen have licensed the technology from Microsoft with delivery scheduled for this fall. The watches will start at an estimated $130-150. Still to be determined: how much Microsoft will charge for the services or how they will be sold. Neither gets a percentage of the other?s sales.
Consumers will go to a Web site presumably controlled by Microsoft to select and personalize the services they want to receive ? weather, traffic, travel, news, sports, where their favorite band is playing that night.
What does this have to do with online news -- or any form of news distribution?
Start with SPOT. If Microsoft charges me to receive news on my new Suunto/Citizen/Fossil watch, is the tech Goliath paying the media sources I choose for the right to distribute that news? Do they get a piece of the subscription fee? A licensing fee? Will content providers have to spend any money on development to make their sites information accessible? Can it be software driven or does it require an editor?
Will Microsoft even let me get news and sports from anyone but MSNBC, ESPN and other MSN partners?
The watch is a one-way feed. Gates spent the rest of his time exploring the present and future of bi-directional ? and even multidirectional ? media.
You don?t need to sit in front of a computer at all. The new ?Smart Displays? ? called smart in Microspeak even though they?re actually dumb ? allow anyone willing to lug a 10-or-15-inch screen around to control their computer from any location on the home network.
With a home network and the right equipment, non-commuters like me can pick out recorded segments from NPR and beam them wirelessly to the stereo for listening in the kitchen or the living room. Add a subscription either to RealOne or ABC On Demand and I can defeat the programming choices of my local ABC affiliate by watching segments of ?Up Close,? the intriguing ABC News interview show, on any of my televisions.
I can listen to streaming radio or watch programming on demand delivered by broadband instead of cable or television. It doesn?t have to be commercials ? it might be the home movies of my niece?s Thanksgiving play or the snapshots as nephews opened their presents.
Another variation takes the concept a step further and allows users to load any digital media format into one portable storage unit with a video screen. Gates describes this as the key concept for the Digital Decade (more Microspeak) ? portability and connectivity. (Some concepts work only as long as the unit is logged into the home network.) Microsoft says units based on its Media2Go software are expected in stores for the 2003 holiday season.
Everything is everything. At least, it could be. Gates sees a world where ?virtually everyone is ? using all the different devices, the ones that are in their pocket, the one that's on their desk, and the one that's on the wall, and those (are all) working together.?
What stands in the way?
For the consumer: complexity, confusion, frustration and, in some cases, cost.
As easy as it may look to put all these pieces together when someone like me can?t get her Toshiba laptop and Toshiba PDA to communicate monolingually without doing backflips, Houston, we may have a problem. If most of the people I know have to try something more than twice it?s likely to go back to the store, or, if it?s a service, get canceled.
My family members with stock in Fossil who think the SPOT watch could be nirvana would be the first ones to take it back if setting it up turns out to be too complicated. Installing some of these other devices could send them over the edge. Gates knows it has to simple. He said so.
I?d find it easier to believe him if he would let the same piece of software work in all the PCs and PDAs on my home network or at least one PC and Pocket PC. Ditto for anyone who claims to be creating a synchronous environment on the one hand and on the other makes it impossible to use devices on your own network. (That would be you, Sony.)
Even the new Smart Display only works on Microsoft?s XP Pro, requiring an upgrade by most home users who want to try it. But it?s a start.
For news providers, it?s time to stop thinking about news only in segments delineated by distribution. Overall news consumption is well on the way to being more of a key metric than the way people consume news. How they pay for news still matters, but it?s time to stop thinking of that, too, solely in terms of how news is received.
Granted, most people still get the bulk of their news from traditional media -- television, newspapers, magazines and radio. An increasing number use the Internet as their primary news source, which may mean that they are getting much of the same content usually received from those other sources via a single distribution point.
But getting media from the Internet no longer requires sitting in front of a monitor with a keyboard tethered to a CPU. We can use media players, remote computer operation, a PDA, a cell phone or, if Gates has his way, a watch.
Even if this particular Gates vision turns out to be a blind alley.
Staci D. Kramer is Editor at Large at Cable World and was a contributing editor to Inside.com. Based in University City, Mo., Kramer's clients have included Time, Life, the Detroit Free Press, the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Multichannel News, APBNews.com, mediainfo.com, Editor & Publisher, The Sporting News, St. Louis magazine, several major papers in Canada, and numerous others. Her work has been syndicated by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, reprinted in two books and she has even co-produced a segment for "Nightline."