Consumer Electronics and Personal IT trends for 2020

Every year in January, the Consumer Electronics Show is run in Las Vegas, USA and this show does give a glimpse in to what trends will affect consumer electronics and personal IT. In most cases, these are products that will be on the marketplace this year or products that are a proof-of-concept or prototype that demonstrates an upcoming technology.

The problem is that this exhibition focuses on what will be available in North America but a lot of the technology will be relevant to the rest of the world. In a lot of these cases, localised variants will appear at various trade shows or PR events that occur in Europe or other areas.

As well, the trade-show circuit will attract service-level information-technology companies who don’t need to make hardware or have a hardware platform, or be a content creator. Here, it will be simply about the provision of IT-based services as part of a ubiquitous computing environment including the concept of experience-driven computing.

Connectivity Technology

Over the past year, the two main technologies that were called out regarding online connectivity or the home network were 5G mobile broadband and Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) wireless local networks. This is about very-high-bandwidth wireless data communications whether out and about or within your home or other small network.

As various radiocommunications regulatory agencies around the world “open up” the 6GHz waveband for Wi-Fi network use with the USA’s Federal Communications Commission the first to do so, the Wi-Fi Alliance have created a specification identifier for network equipment working this waveband. Here, it is known as Wi-Fi 6E as a way to identify the fact that the device can work the 6GHz waveband, and is in contrast to Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) devices that only work the 2.4GHz and 5GHz wavebands.

D-Link DIR-X5460 Wi-Fi 6 router press picture courtesy of D-Link USA

One of D-Link’s Wi-Fi 6 routers that also supports Wi-Fi EasyMesh – setting the standard for home network technology this year

Both these technologies became real with an increase in client devices or small-network infrastructure hardware supporting at least one of these technologies. This included laptop computers and smartphones having this kind of functionality baked in to them as well as more home-network routers, distributed-WI-Fi systems and range extenders being equipped with Wi-Fi 6. There is even the fact that some of the network-infrastructure vendors like Linksys and NETGEAR are offering routers that combine both technologies – 5G mobile broadband as a WAN (Internet) connection and Wi-Fi 6 as a LAN (local-network) connection.

A step in the right direction for distributed-Wi-Fi networks was to see major home-network brands offer routers and/or range extenders compliant to the WI-Fi EasyMesh standard. This allows you to create a distributed Wi-Fi network with equipment from different vendors, opening up the market for equipment from a diverse range of vendors including telcos and ISPs along with a pathway towards innovation in this space.

Bluetooth hasn’t been forgotten about here with the new Bluetooth audio specification being “set in stone” and premiered at CES 2020. This specification, known as Bluetooth LE Audio, works on the Bluetooth Low Energy profile and supports the LC3 (Low Complexity Communications Codec) audio codec that packages the equivalent of an SBC audio stream used by Bluetooth audio setups in half the bandwidth. This allows for longer battery runtimes which will also lead to smaller form-factors for audio devices due to the reduced need for a larger battery.

It also supports multiple independent and synchronous audio streams to be sent from one source device to many sink devices. This strengthens use cases like hearing aids that work with Bluetooth and may supersede the inductive loop as a technology for assisted-listening setups. As well, the multiple-streaming technology will be a boon to applications like multichannel Bluetooth speaker setups; or Bluetooth headphones as part of assistive audio, multilingual soundtrack options or semi-private listening arrangements.

The Bluetooth LE Audio technology is to be released in the first half of 2020 with compatible devices being on the market by 2021. But there will also be the issue of having device support for this technology being baked in to operating systems as a class driver.

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 Ultrabook - USB-C power

USB 4 will be the next stage for hardware connectivity and will include Thunderbolt 3

As for wired peripheral interconnection, USB 4.0 will be surfacing as a high-speed connection standard for computers and mobile devices. There will be compatibility with Thunderbolt 3 due to Intel signing over the intellectual property rights for that protocol to the USB Implementers Forum. But this may be used by some computer vendors as a product differentiator although the market will prefer that USB 4 computers and peripherals work with those that use Thunderbolt 3. Let’s not forget that the physical connector for USB 4 will be the Type C connection.

Let’s not forget that newer Android phones will use USB Power Delivery as the official standard for transferring power from chargers or powerbanks to themselves. This is about avoiding the use of proprietary fast-charge technologies and using something that is defined by the industry for this purpose.

Computer trends

Lenovo IdeaPad Creator 5 15" clamshell laptop press picture courtesy of Lenovo USA

Lenovo IdeaPad Creator 5 15″ clamshell prosumer / content-creator laptop

At the moment, as I outlined in the article about “prosumer” content creators being identified by computer manufacturers as a significant market segment, this year is being seen as a time to launch performance-optimised computers targeted at this user group. These units will be optimised to work with popular content-creation software in a sure-fire manner.

Let’s not forget that Lenovo is tying up with NEC in order to create the LAVIE computer brand that targets mobile professionals. This was after Toshiba spun off their laptop-computer division as “Dynabook” brand then sold it to Sharp; and Sony sold off their VAIO computer brand with it existing as a premium computer brand. But is this symbolic of what the Japanese computer names are heading towards where they focus on creating premium business laptops and tablets.

As well as offering their newer-generation CPUs, Intel has demonstrated that they can offer their own high-performance personal-computer display infrastructure. They even demonstrated a graphics card that use Intel-designed discrete GPU technology. This leads towards them competing with NVIDIA and AMD when it comes to discrete graphics-infrastructure technology and could lead to a three-way race in this field.

It is alongside AMD placing a lot of effort on their Ryzen CPUs which are leading towards them in a position to effectively compete on a par with Intel’s Core CPUs. As well, Intel and AMD could head towards creating performance computing setups that are based around their CPUs and discrete graphics infrastructure technology, including setups that have the CPU and discrete GPU on the same silicon.

There is also an increase in the number of “Always Connected PCs” that run with ARM RISC microarchitecture rather than the traditional Intel i86/i64 CISC microarchitecture. They will be about operating on batteries for a very long time and have 4G, if not 5G mobile-broadband modems with classic SIM or eSIM service authentication. Most likely I would see them as being the direction for portable mainstream business computing.

Dell G5 15 Special Edition budget gaming notebook press picture courtesy of Dell USA

Dell G5 15 Special Edition budget gaming laptop with AMD Ryzen and Radeon silicon

For gaming, Dell has premiered a budget gaming-grade laptop that uses an AMD Ryzen CPU and an AMD Radeon graphics processor but is styled like their other “G Series” gaming laptops. As well, Lenovo took an interesting step with one of their gaming laptops by using Intel integrated graphics processors for its graphics infrastructure while equipping it with a Thunderbolt 3 port. Here, the user is to buy an external graphics module, typically the Lenovo BoostStation card-cage unit which is their first product of its kind that they released, to have the machine perform at its best. What this is about is a trend towards creating an entry-level performance laptop product range, very similar to buying the increased-performance “GT” variant of a popular family car model.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 FOLD prototype folding-display computer press picture courtesy of Intel USA

Co-engineered by Intel and Lenovo, ThinkPad X1 FOLD is a foldable-screen device built on the Intel Core processor with Intel Hybrid Technology (code-named “Lakefield”). (Credit: Lenovo) – an example of what folding computers are about

 

Another trend that is being shown frequently is multiple-screen or folding-screen portable computers. This is being promoted by Intel and Microsoft in the context of Windows 10X and newer Intel chipsets. It is being driven by the multiple-screen or folding-screen smartphone that Samsung and others are on the verge of releasing as finished products. But this technology will have a limited appeal towards early adopters until it is seen as legitimate by the general user base.

As far as small-form-factor desktop computers are concerned, Intel is working towards a modular “next unit of computing” platform which has the whole computer system on a card the same size as a traditional PCI expansion card. This platform, known as Ghost Canyon uses the “Compute Element” which is the user-swappable card, is intended to bring hack the joys of us upgrading a computer’s performance by ourselves even if we go for a smaller computer platform.

Connected-TV technology

This year has heralded interest in 8K UHDTV which has effectively twice the resolution of 4K UHDTV. As well, the 8K Association has been formed in order to set standards for domestic 8K UHDTV applications and promote this technology.

It is in conjunction with ATSC 3.0, also known as NextGenTV, being premiered at CES 2020 as a new direction for free-to-air TV in the USA. It us being valued thanks to people moving away from cable and satellite pay-TV services towards Netflix and other video-on-demand services augmented by free-to-air TV. Here, it will allow Americans to benefit from 4K UHDTV and Dolby Atmos technology via the TV antenna. Like with DVB and HBBTV-based standards used in Europe and Oceania, this technology combines the over-the-air signal with broadband Internet data to achieve advanced TV experiences.

There is also increased robustness as far as antenna-based reception is concerned which may allow for use of indoor antennas without their associated problems. As well, mobile users will benefit from this newer technology for on-the-road viewing. But there will also be an emphasis towards broadcast-LAN operation with one tuner offering a broadcast signal amongst multiple TVs. Users can upgrade their existing televisions to this technology by connecting an ATSC 3.0 set-top box to their TV as they see fit, but there will be some TVs, most likely “living-room” models from a few manufacturers, that will support this standard.

The 4K AMOLED screen is entering the “Goldilocks” territory when it comes to product price and screen size – not too big and expensive, not too small or cheap, but just right. It is seen by the trade as a “mid-market” territory but, for a TV, it is about something that appeals to more people without being too ostentatious or requiring one to pay a price’s ransom.

The advantage it has over the LCD screen that rules this market territory is to have increased contrast and richer colours, something that those of you who have a smartphone or tablet with an OLED display benefit from. As well, it is a technology that legitimises the high-dynamic-range and wide-colour-gamut video reproduction technology being pushed by the film and video industries.

Here, Sony released the first 48” 4K AMOLED screen that would be able to fit most viewing areas. This includes apartments and small houses as well as use in bedrooms, or secondary lounge areas including living rooms which aren’t frequently used for watching TV. As well, some AMOLED TV manufacturers are pitching sets that cost under US$1000. Here, this price point puts the AMOLED TV within reach of most middle-class families who are considering upgrading to this kind of technology without paying a price that sounds too vulgar.

Another trend affecting TVs is support for variable high refresh rates. Here, it appeals towards games consoles being able to work with game-optimised variable-refresh-rate monitors typically partnered with PC-based desktop gaming rigs, offering the same kind of display refresh rate as the display card on a gaming-rig PC would offer. This is being factored in because the large-screen TV is being valued in the context of gaming, especially with one-machine multiple-player games or the excitement of playing a favourite game on that big screen.

As well, I see the Apple TV and Android TV platforms as dominant smart-TV / set-top-box platforms due to the existence of strong code bases, strong developer communities and a well-nurtured app store. Here, the Android platform will appeal to TV vendors who haven’t invested in a smart-TV platform along with some third-party set-top box vendors. But the Android TV platform as a set-top-box platform has to be disassociated from the so-called “fully-loaded” Android boxes that are sold online from China for access to pirated TV content.

This is being driven by an avalanche of video-on-demand services that will appear over this year. Some of these will be subscription-based and offer new original content produced by the service’s owner while others will use advertising, perhaps as part of a freemium arrangement, and work heavily on licensing deep back-catalogue material. There will also be an effort amongst the new video-on-demand providers to take an international approach, appearing in multiple markets around the world, most likely with the goal of licensing content in all international markets concurrently.

It will even lead to each content-production name having its own video-on-demand service that primarily hosts content from its stable. But the question that will come about is how many video-on-demand subscriptions will we be having to budget for and maintain if we want content that reflects our choices.

Audio Technology

The DAB+ digital broadcast radio platform is increasing its footprint within Europe and across some parts of Africa and Asia. It includes some European countries like Norway and Switzerland moving their broadcast infrastructure away from AM and FM radio to this technology.

Pure Sensia 200D Connect Internet radio

Pure Sensia 200D Connect Internet radio – a representative of the current trend towards the “hybrid radio” concept

Here, it would be about an increased variety of devices that have broadcast-radio reception functionality based on this platform, including those that have Bluetooth and/or Internet-radio functionality. As well, more vehicle builders are being encouraged to supply DAB+ radios as factory-standard in all of their vehicles. Let’s not forget that value-priced DAB+ and Internet radio equipment will be equipped with a colour display that shows things like station branding or album cover-art while you listen to that station.

RadioDNS will be something that facilitates a hybrid broadcast-broadband approach to broadcast radio. This will include the ability to switch between broadcast-radio channels and an Internet radio stream for the same radio station or allow for richer supporting content to appear on the set’s display. It can also be about a “single-dial” approach to finding stations on broadcast and Internet bands. But RadioDNS has been given more “clout” in to the USA due to it being able to work with AM, FM or HD Radio (IBOC digital radio on AM and FM) which is used there.

Sonos’s partnership with IKEA, the furniture store who sells furniture that you assemble yourself with an Allen key, is demonstrating that a high-end multiroom-audio platform can be partnered with a commodity retail brand. What it could lead to is an incentive to build these kind of platforms around a mixture of premium, value and budget units, allowing for things like a low-risk “foot-in-the-door” approach for people starting out on that platform or people who have the premium equipment building out their system with cheaper equipment in secondary listening areas. It could even put pressure on the industry to adopt a common standard for multiroom-audio setups.

The streaming audio-on-demand scene is moving in a manner as to shore itself up against Spotify. Initially this is about offering either an advertising-supported free limited-service tier as what Amazon and Google are doing, or to offer a premium service tier with a focus on CD-quality or master-quality sound which is what Amazon is doing. But it could easily go beyond the “three-tier service” such as improved playlists, underrepresented content, support for standalone audio equipment, and business music services. As well, your ISP or telco could be providing access to a streaming-audio service as part of their service package or you buy a piece of network-enabled audio equipment and benefit from reduced subscription rates for an online music service.

The headphone scene is setting some strong contenders when it comes to excellent value-for-money for noise-cancelling Bluetooth headsets.

Bose initiated this battle with the QuietComfort 35 II headphones with the technological press’s reviewers seeing them as a standard setter for this class of headset. Then Sony introduced the WH1000XM3 headphones and these were seen on a par with the Bose cans but at a more affordable price with some press using terms like “Bose-killers” to describe them. Bang & Olufsen came in to the party and offered a premium noise-cancelling Bluetooth headset known as the Beoplay H9. But lately Bose also answered Sony by offering the Noise Cancelling 700 headset that effectively did that job in a minimalist form. This is while Sony are intending to launch the WH1000XM4 this year to raise the bar against Bose and their current product.

As far as “true wireless” active-noise-cancelling earbuds are concerned, Apple with their AirPods Pro and Sony with their WF1000XM3 have established themselves at the top of the pack for excellence. What I see of this is someone else could answer them to achieve that same level of excellence especially at a value price. This product class is also likely to benefit from the Bluetooth LC Audio specification due to the requirement for a small battery in each earbud and the small size of each earbud.

What Apple, Bose, Sony and B&O are highlighting is that they could easily compete with each other to achieve excellent products when it comes to headphones you use with your laptop, smartphone or tablet. It could even be a chance for other companies to join in and raise the bar for premium everyday-use headset design, including the idea of having audiophile headphone qualities in this class of headset.

Voice assistant platforms and ambient computing

Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant will still bring forth newer devices, whether in the form of speakers or displays. But Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana will be part of the Open Voice Initiative allowing the same physical hardware to handle multiple voice assistant platforms.

A question that will arise through this year is whether there will be a strong direction towards having these devices work as a fixed audio or video telephony endpoint. This is whether the device works in a similar fashion to the classic landline telephone service with its own number; or as an extension to a smartphone that is part of a mobile telecommunications service.

The voice-assistant platforms will end up becoming part of an ambient computing trend that is underscored by facilitators like Internet of Things and distributed computing. Here, it is about computing that blends in with your lifestyle rather than being a separate activity.

As far as the Internet Of Things is concerned, the Connected Home over IP protocol was set in stone. This effort, facilitated by Amazon, Google and Apple with the oversight of the Zigbee Alliance, is about an IP-driven Internet-Of-Things data transport architecture. The idea is to do away with protocol gateways which were being used with various smart-home applications but the manufacturers were goading consumers to use their own protocol gateways with their devices rather than a third-party solution. There will be an emphasis on a safe secure interoperable Internet-of-Things network.

Data security and equipment maintenance in our personal and business lives

The Social Web will be considered a very important part of our lives with us primarily benefiting from it on tablets, smartphones or highly-portable laptops.

But it will still be a key disinformation vector. One of the new methods expected to be exploited this year is the creation of deepfakes. These are audio and video items created using artificial intelligence to make it as though a person said something when they didn’t. There will even be the ability to make the voice or face of a deepfaked person appear older or younger than they were when they were recorded, while make the voice or face appear as fluid as that of a real person.

Here, it will be used as a cyber weapon to create political, social and business instability by these representing our leaders whether they be in government, business or other circles. The deepfake will also be of value as a phishing tool in order to make the threat or plea appear to be more authentic to the victim.

As well, ransomware will begin to take on a network-wide dimension and affect business and service availability. Sensitive data, whether of a personal or business nature, will end up becoming the bargaining chip for ransomware hackers. This is in contrast to access to a computer user’s data resources which was often the case with ransomware.

The Internet Of Things will also be considered a continual security risk especially due to poor software and firmware quality control. It will lead to a conversation regarding the maintenance of our online devices through their lifecycle, including making sure they are running software that is stable and secure.

Then there is the “end-of-support” issue where a manufacturer ceases to show interest on older online devices that are currently in use. That is a question that is surfacing when one invests a significant amount of money in to the devices and people don’t want to throw out older equipment just because the manufacturer doesn’t want to support it anymore. It also goes against the grain of the post-Global-Financial-Crisis attitude most of us have adopted where we don’t want to support a throwaway society but want to see what we buy exist for the long haul.

The Sonos debacle raised the issue about what level of functionality the user should expect from their device along with how platform-based setups consisting of legacy and newer devices should behave. It also raised the issue of keeping the device’s software stable and secure.

Conclusion

This year will be considered a very interesting time for our online life as we see improvements to existing technologies along with newer conversations about how system-based technologies continue to evolve with a secure stable mindset.

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