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Intelligence Brief: Is CES Still Relevant For Operators?

CES attracts more than 180,000 attendees and, unofficially, kicks off the New Year’s technology trade show season. Yet, tell people that you’re headed to the show (much less taking a few analysts with you) and you quickly realize how much contempt is heaped upon it.

As if to avoid any ambiguity this year, at least of few of these conversations got right to the point, kicking off with “I hate CES.”

Personally, I enjoy CES. Its become an annual tradition I look forward to. But, it is also easy to see why so many people do not. It’s crowded. Meetings are spread out across disparate venues. It’s in Las Vegas. For every impressive innovation launch, there are at least a dozen or so more questionable innovations that take the stage at CES. Consider the LavvieBot smart litterbox for cats. Or the WAAN connected lightsaber (“intended for all enthusiasts fed up with bad quality or fragile lightsabers”). Or the Miliboo smart sofa, a 2019 CES Innovation award winner complete with smart speaker and wireless charging integration.

These sorts of products (and the press releases heralding them) might seem silly. They lend CES the image of a gadget show versus an event focused on critical industry issues and getting business done…an event like MWC.

That’s the wrong view to take. Even if you aren’t a couch potato, don’t own a cat, or rarely find yourself going to battle with the neighborhood Sith Lord, writing off CES as just about gadgets isn’t just wrong, it’s a risk no operator can afford.

Think, for a minute, about the tech trends these devices I just highlighted speak to artificial intelligence (AI) and the connectivity of everything. In some circles, these get flagged as Intelligent Connectivity. In others, they are just understood to be foundations of how consumer and enterprise business are being built in 2019. Their specific instantiations might be laughable, but the trends they represent are not. Those trends also a part of what we’ll all be talking about post-CES.

Folding phones. We’ve been hearing about the arrival of new phones for years. This is the year we finally get them and figure out how they’ll be put to use.

5G networks and services. Just like folding phones, we’ve been talking about 5G for years. And just like folding phones, this is the year we’ll see its arrival in a very real way. Unlike folding phones, we have a pretty good idea of how it will get used, though nobody truly expects that we have all the answers already.

Autonomous vehicles. Buses. Tractors. Personal cars. Flying taxis. In many ways, 2018 was a bad year for autonomous driving, including rollout delays and even accidents. CES 2019 even had its own accident news. To the extent that autonomous driving is a when not if proposition, you can’t get away from CES without running into it (no pun intended).

Wearable tech. Smartwatches and fitness trackers are now (somewhat) mainstream. Smart glasses, medical grade health tracking and robotic augmentation aren’t. They all impact the way we’ll interact with technology.

AR/VR. It’s rather unoriginal to bemoan the slow progress of AR/VR adoption: despite perennial hype, device uptake has been slow. And yet the promise is real, with product innovation (the type you see at CES) taking us closer to executing on that promise.

Smart home. What was once largely the purview of hobbyists has become something accessible to nearly anyone wanting to secure their home, monitor their energy usage, watch for water leaks or just schedule their heat and lighting.

AI. I mentioned this earlier, but it’s worth repeating. From smart speakers and language translators to its integration into everything above (smart home routines, phone settings, health tracking) you cannot ignore the impact of AI on the entirety of enterprise and consumer technology.

IoT. It’s a broad term, sure. In the same way, AI will be a part of nearly everything noted earlier, IoT could include much of it: wearables; AR/VR devices; smart home kit; connected cars. That’s also why so much of CES focuses on IoT things.

Even before CES kicked off this week, it was obvious these would be the dominant themes. So why repeat them here? Because they’re all important to service providers in one way or another.

While they might get put to use in some strange ways, each of these technologies and business segments is important to how operators will make money. The devices they sell at retail. The services integrating those devices. The tools used to target customers. The tools used to support customers while keeping networks up and running. The components of a successful fixed-mobile business. They’re all important to operators. They’re all important to the customer experience.

That doesn’t mean that every random CES product is relevant to every operator. The challenge, then, is to figure out how they all fit together and which ones can be integrated into a monetized offer.

In a classic case of “forest versus trees,” it’s easy to get caught up in the news from CES and miss out on the broader messages and business themes it telegraphs. Love it or hate it, though, it’s impossible to deny the importance of CES, not just for retailers or gadget buyers, but for anyone looking to understand the shape of service provider and enterprise business strategies.―Mobile World Live

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