The world's biggest gadget show opened today, and it's overwhelming. The usual reaction to the show is to gaze wonderingly at all of the wonderful new devices and wonder how and when you can get them. Make no mistake. There are a lot, and we'll explore them in some detail later. But first, a cautionary tale.
As has become tradition, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates gives a “pre-show” keynote on the evening before the show opens. He usually makes some product or service announcements and occasionally shows some cool new things being played with. We'll get to the real stuff later, but for now, here's a demo he did, walking over to a part of the stage at a Venetian Hotel ballroom set up like a kitchen. The lights dimmed, and a projector in the ceiling cast a screen image onto the top of a kitchen counter. It seems the intelligent house has detected via an RFID chip that Bill has brought out a bag of flour. The smart house then accessed a data base and came up with several recipes using flour including some for bread. Bill picked one for bread, and a small circle of light appeared on the counter, outlining the dimensions for rolling out the dough for bread, along with the recipe.
Pretty cool, particularly for the culinary challenged. But here's a question: who cooks in the dark? I hope there aren't any recipes that call for using knives to cut or to chop. It would seem as if the idea of projecting text into a kitchen countertop might not be that great. Never mind the color of the countertop. The lesson to be learned from the demo, and from CES, is to take a deep breath whenever whiz-bang gear and services are rolled out.
Much of the emphasis here is on connectivity and services. Microsoft and HP will roll out a home server, allowing computer owners to put all of their machines on one network and back up them all. They announced the use of the xbox 360 as a set-top box, to be used with AT&T's IPTV. Motorola is talking about moving content around the house.
The question, however, is: What if the owners of the content don't want you to move it around a home network, or off of a set top box? At a panel discussion on copyright issues, Jim Ramo, CEO of MovieLink, said that “the studios own the content.” They put up $100 million for a movie and can distribute it as they see fit, he said. The unasked follow up question: What if I see fit to share a move among my home computers, or on my TV set? The ungiven answer: Much of the good stuff talked about at the show here could be shut down or severely restricted.
In his opening “State of the Industry” speech, Consumer Electronics Association President Gary Shapiro made the pitch for the Digital Freedom Campaign. He said: “Piracy is wrong. But ordinary consumers are not pirates, and private conduct may be unauthorized – but that does not mean it is piracy. Consumers have the right to use technology, to benefit from innovation and to access entertainment while making sure that artists are properly compensated. That's why we hope to support legislation which would protect consumer's fair use rights and reduce the absurdly high penalties for innovators. We want to ensure that the type of innovation you see at CES with the new convergence will continue for years to come.”
It's a worthy goal, one we hope can be achieved. For the record, a panel of industry experts here said they didn't think a comprehensive copyright bill can be passed this year. But the task is worth undertaking before CES generates more disappointments than excitement.