A brief look back at CES 2001

While everyone is chattering about CES this week, I thought it may be fun to take a look back and see how far things have come in ten years of consumer electronics. As I sit here at home with dual 22” monitors hooked up to a 30mb broadband Internet connection and a PC with a 256gb solid state drive and dual core 1.4GHz processor blowing warm air over my Nokia Lumia 800 I’m reminded of the speed with which our industry changes. Mostly it’s so quick that we don’t even notice change – sometimes it’s slower than we’d like (power anyone?) but change it does, so I thought I’d start with a 2001 slide from Bill Gates’ CES keynote as the backdrop for a quick look at some changes. Ten years ago much of this slide was a pipe dream


Smart, Connected Devices
I actually owned (still do) one of the black and white Compaq devices shown in the images above. Pocket PC 2000 was released in that year but Palm Pilot was the dominant device of the era with its Graffiti handwriting system. I was the proud owner of a Philips Nino at the time and fondly remember sitting in a bar in Atlanta, marveling at my technical prowess in getting it to talk over IR to a Motorola Timeport, the ultimate jet set phone of the time that was released in 2000. Synching email over a 9.9k connection seemed like science fiction back then – it seems quaint now but infrared was the connection medium of choice as Bluetooth was only in its infancy, as was Wi-Fi. In September of 2001, Pocket PC 2002 came along and everyone I knew was fighting over the Compaq 3800 series – deciding whether the pricier 3870 model was worth the premium over the 3850 due to the inclusion of Bluetooth. I went for it and some began a journey from Bluetooth to Wi-Fi.


No New Wires
Though Bluetooth had been around since 1994, it really started to gain momentum in 1999 when 3Com, Lucent, Microsoft and Motorola joined the Promoter Group to advance the standard. It used the same unlicensed 2.4 – 2.8 GHz radio spectrum as the 802.11b Wi-Fi products and there was much chatter in the technical group in which I worked as to whether you could reliably have a Wi-Fi connected PC (via a PCMCIA card of course) and a Bluetooth connected phone working in tandem in your PC. Again, this all seems crazy now – you wouldn’t imagine buying a PC with either of these technologies and you certainly wouldn’t by using PCMCIA cards. Back in the early 2000’s though, that was the way of the world. The Xircom Realport was another legendary piece if kit for the traveling tech lord as it combined a 10/100 Ethernet interface and modem in to one card. Oh how we rejoiced and how cool one looked if they had the telltale red card in their PCMCIA slot. Arriving at a hotel you had the satisfying knowledge that you could connect to the in house Ethernet (almost never) or hook up your super fast 56k modem to sync email and browse the web.

Broadband Internet
So it took a few years for Bill’s predictions above to start to arrive but the paced started to pick up – albeit not with broadband Internet which took until later in the decade to start to become more widespread. The FCC defines broadband as 4Mbps down (and 1Mbps) up and in the early days of this speed leap, the chatter was all about ISDN, DSL, satellite broadband and cable. I enjoyed a relatively fast radio based broadband service when I lived in Reading, UK for my early years at Microsoft though the reality is we’ve learned that whatever “fast” is, its never enough. In under ten years, broadband has not only become a utility service that many of have come to rely on at home, the penetration of broadband within a country has also become a key economic indicator.

Digital Media
The image above immediately has you thinking about digital music and we’ve clearly seen a revolution there, pushed forward by Apple with iTunes and iDevices – though other were pushing before that of course. During a pilgrimage to Redmond in early 1999 a number of friends and I spent a day hunting down the Rio MP3 player – though I personally opted for a Sony MiniDisc player and resolutely stuck with that (I still have 2 of them!). Rio had quite a line of products along with Napster and others helped to change the way we think about digital music beyond the CD. When I show my daughter a CD or <gulp> a vinyl record in years to come she’ll no doubt be amazed that music was a physical medium. The same with movies of course – I still have a stack of VHS tapes somewhere which were then duplicated and added to with DVD’s which are now sat gathering dust as the vast majority of my movies are delivered across the Internet through Netflix. I remember TV ads in the UK from British Telecom in the early 2000’s that foretold this way of watching movies and at the time, a move across the Internet was a postage stamp sized, pixelated window of content. Things changed more slowly here than I expected but we had two trends pulling against each other – broadband speeds going up and digital video quality improving (but increasing in size too).


That’s a (very) very brief look back through my history around a few technology trends but it’s helped me set my mind on CES this year as I’m going to attempt to break free from the Microsoft booth at CES and take a wider look at emerging technology that may have the same impact over the next ten years. I’ve not touched in the examples above on the dramatic changes in screen technology – when you look back at CES demos from 2001, CRT displays were still being used. Last year at CES, Panasonic showed off a 152″ 2160p 3D plasma and a CRT would stand out like a relic from ancient times.

I could go on and on about the amount of technology that has appeared over the last ten years and become woven in to our lives – smartphones, tablets, GPS, touch screens, motion control gaming, location based services using GPS and so much more. It all serves to remind me how quickly things have changed but how we don’t see it happening because of the pace of change and our familiarity with technology.

For once though, I’m going to try to put some of my technology down over the holiday period and enjoy the simple things in life. I’ll be back tomorrow though with a few thoughts on what I think some of the key trends are going to be….but then I need to go cold turkey before I hit Vegas for CES!