The annual International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that's now underway in Las Vegas is not only the world's biggest trade show, but a snapshot of how the fast-moving world of technology innovation is impacting sectors. Witness automotive, such as Ford's just-announced mobile partnerships to enhance the brand's in-car connectivity platform as part of a bigger CES push by car manufacturers this year.
CES is also a soapbox for competitors to one-up one another as they spit out product announcements and flaunt new alliances. This year, the rivalry is particularly fierce in the web TV/digital streaming arena.
"As new Internet TV players look to invade the living room, some cable and satellite operators are stepping up their embrace of Web technology to jazz up aging interfaces and head off subscriber defections, the Wall Street Journal reports from the show.
CES attendees include DirecTV and Dish Network on the satellite side, Verizon (FiOS) and AT&T (U-verse) touting Telco TV, and U.S. multi-system operators including Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications are at CES to recast themselves as web TV purveyors and shake off the dreaded "cable operator" moniker. No wonder the U.S. National Cable & Telecommunications Association is reportedly considering dropping "cable" and rebranding to the U.S. Internet and Television Association (but, oddly, keeping the NCTA acronym).
AT&T's U-verse platform is introducing "Screen Pack," a $5 per month addition to existing subscriptions which enables customers to stream some 1,500 on-demand movies. AT&T plans to add more content in the future in an effort to thwart the flood of video streaming competitors in the space.
AT&T is also in Las Vegas to showcase its mobile moves. Its Mobility division added a $50 cellphone to its line, the new Pantech Discover. The Discover will include AT&T's DriveMode app, which sends an automatic personalized reply to any texts received while driving (not unlike an automatic "not available" voice mail message). The DriveMode app is part of an initiative by the company to discourage driving and texting, which also includes an app to let parent's track their teens' driving habits.
Verizon, meanwhile, is using CES as a launching pad for "Redbox Instant by Verizon," a new joint venture between Redbox and the mobile operator that is currently in beta testing. The service combines unlimited streaming of mostly movies with an added gimmick: Redbox will include coupons good for Redbox DVD rentals as part of a combined $8 monthly package. Streaming only will cost just $6 per month. LG Electronics has already agreed to carry the service, and other manufacturers are expected to come on board.
Echostar's Sling media division is adding second screen and media sycing features to innovate and iterate its Slingbox, while its lawyers are taking swipes at Belkin and Monsoon to protect its patents.
Roku, largely known for its little box that connects TVs with web-based content, is pairing up with Time Warner Cable, allowing that cable service's subscribers to stream up to 300 channels via Roku. For some subscribers, Roku will essentially replace their cable box. In addition to adding new content channels for existing subscribers, Roku also announced that the company's "Streaming Stick" device, which duplicates its set-top box capabilities, is being bundled in with as many as 14 manufacturers' television products.
Sony is showing off new products (4K TVs, OLED, a new phone) at CES, while Variety hears its execs are quietly talking up a multichannel television service that could potentially rival cable. Clearly, the struggling Japanese conglomerate could use a big boost to keep it competitive.
On the hardware front, HP is demonstrating what it's describing as a streaming powerhouse called Pocket Playlist. It may look like just another digital storage device, but Pocket Playlist can take all the digital content it stores (movies, music and photos) and stream it to as many as five devices through its built-in WiFi connection. With a subscription to HP's PlayLater, Pocket Playlist becomes a portable DVR for streaming video — no Internet connection needed. Seagate's new Wireless Plus offers storage as well as a Wi-Fi radio.
Consumer electronics retailers are also in the digital distribution business these days. Walmart is upgrading its disc-to-digital in-store service. Previously, customers had to bring their DVDs to Walmart stores to have them converted to "UltraViolet" digital copies. Now, however, consumers will be able to make digital copies at home with their own computers, via a Vudu application. Digital content can then be streamed from any UV-compatible application.
Just as Apple and Microsoft are hovering over CES without exhibiting, many of the digital content moves are aimed directly at broadband video giant Netflix. The video platform just announced an exclusive deal with Warner Bros. Television Group that gives it streaming rights to certain dramas. This was on the heels of Netflix's big exclusive deal last month with Disney.
At the same time, HBO and Universal extended an exclusive partnership, no doubt in part to blunt any advances by Netflix. According to Forbes, HBO is "becoming the closest thing Netflix has to a direct competitor." All this jostling by brands for digital dominance will no doubt change by CES 2014.