The Consumer Electronics Show is clearly focused on consumers but given that we are in the midst of the consumerization of IT era, the show bears watching. And judging from this year's event, it appears the consumer market is far from done with tossing stuff over the fence at IT. But some of these devices and technologies could actually make our jobs easier, at least in some cases.
OnLive Virtual Desktop
We've been looking at remote desktop solutions for well over a decade, ranging from software solutions like VDI and Citrix, to hardware-based solutions from Clear Cube and HP. At CES a new entry hit, called OnLive Desktop, that's based on more of a cutting edge computer gaming specification and technology than its predecessors. OnLive Desktop is a full Windows and Office desktop for iPad provided the same "instant-action" technology the company uses for its high performance games. (The offering will be "coming soon" for other platforms, including Android, iPhone, PC and Mac, as well as monitors and TVs, the company says.)
Historically virtual desktops were hampered by cost, dedicated wiring and performance limitations. Coming from the consumer side forced OnLive to address these problems before launch because consumers certainly aren't going to pay for a better network, unique hardware, or accept high monthly charges. In fact OnLive's initial per month charges were dropped last year and the service's first-tier service is free, albeit with a limited number of spots available. The next level up is a guaranteed class of service for $9.99 per month.
The service has been in use for the last year and while I've seen issues in hotels and areas with older or bottlenecked networks, in homes with high-bandwidth connections or businesses with well managed networks it has worked well - granted with few people on OnLive.
It's clear that OnLive will need an IBM or Dell class partner to create a broad market for OnLive Desktop. The company does plan to allow on-premise placement of servers for private cloud offerings, which will clearly come with some not insignificant initial costs or guarantees - currently under development. But given we think the future of the desktop is in the cloud, this is likely the strongest near-term working solution yet headed in that direction.
Ultrabooks promise the benefits of a MacBook Air but run Windows. This class of product typically starts under $1,000 and weighs less than 3 pounds. Past attempts at such platforms were either prohibitively expensive (often costing over $3,000) and/or with less than 2 hours battery life. In addition they tended to be consumer-only, lacking things like TPMs (Trusted Platform Modules), image management, and business support programs. The Dell XPS 13, launched at the show, is the harbinger of a trend to address such issues. It is attractive, thin, light, starts at less than $1,000 and has an estimated 8 hours of battery life. In addition it has a TPM, can be integrated into corporate buying programs, falls within image management offerings, and can be wrapped with enterprise services. The Dell XPX 13 joins the HP Folio, which came out last year, in that it is business-focused but the Dell offering more aggressively embraces the consumer side of the equation and the consumerization trend. So far it is the most balanced of the offerings brought to market and sets the standard for what I think will be an increasing wave of products designed to both appeal to consumers but work in the enterprise.
Gaze and Kinect for Windows
Two technologies, one tied to Windows 8 and the other showing up next month, may seem consumer focused but they have enterprise potential. Kinect is the motion interface for the Xbox, designed to allow game play without a controller. Releasing next month, Windows Kinect will provide similar benefits for the Windows 7 platform. It should prove useful wherever keyboards and mice are awkward or inconvenient, such as while giving a presentation or in front of a classroom.
But it gets more interesting is as we move to Windows 8, which has a touch interface. Kinect could be used to provide a touch-like interface on a PC that doesn't support touch. Adding to this in the Windows 8 timeframe is Tobii Gaze technology, which essentially allows a user to control a computer cursor with his eyes. Coupled with a speech interface or using blinks as clicks this could not only put touch on non-touch PCs but better enable computer use by employees who are physically challenged; indeed, Tobii specializes in assistive technology products. Potentially it could also be of use to folks who can't control a mouse while at work; think of a forensic surgeon, auto mechanic, technician, or even a law enforcement officer while driving a car.
These two technologies could, using different vectors, address usage models for PCs that have been unsafe or impossible before now and better allow existing hardware to use Microsoft's next operating system.
HzO and Liquipel
Two technologies came seemingly from out of left field to CES, both designed to waterproof iPods, iPhones and other personal technology products. HzO is applied during manufacturing and waterproofs at the component level (water gets in but does no damage) and Liquipel is an external coating which puts a water resistant barrier and an optional damage resistant barrier on the outside of the device. IT buyers could spec products to come with HzO applied or have Liquipel applied after the fact.
Lots of hardware is out in the field and water damage is both expensive and common. Hardware used for testing comes immediately to mind and there's nothing to say that one or both technologies couldn't be applied to vehicles, allowing them and the electronics inside to better survive the elements. Given that moisture is often what causes electronics to corrode and decay over time these solutions could be the equivalent of a Fountain of Youth, significantly extending the useful life of hardware that operates in moist or humid environments. In tropical areas particularly this could be a godsend.
Of all of the technologies I've listed, these two could have the biggest long-term impact.
One More Thing
From virtual desktops to more attractive but increasingly IT-focused PCs, to doing away with keyboards and mice, and finally to making hardware immortal, you'd think this would be enough. However, IBM was at the show showcasing its Smarter Home technology, which dovetails with its larger Smarter Cities and Smarter Planet initiatives. Smarter Home is focused on making homes smarter, safer, and far more energy efficient. This is an example of an initiative that started in businesses and suggests that, just as enterprises are faced with technology coming in from the consumer side, IBM is pushing the other way and giving consumers this same wonderful opportunity.
Granted this has been tried, in some form or other, since the early 80s with the X-10 home automation standard but those consumer-sourced technologies never sold well. Perhaps what was needed was a product that, in this case, had initially been vetted in business and government. But, in the end, it's nice that given the wave of consumer products breaking over IT that someone is trying to return the favor.
Rob is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. Previously, he was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. Prior to that he worked for IBM and held positions in Internal Audit, Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Finance, and Security. Currently, Rob writes on emerging technology, security, and Linux for a wide variety of publications and appears on national news TV shows that include CNBC, FOX, Bloomberg and NPR. Rob also does a semi weekly radio spot for Wall Street Journal radio on consumer technology.