Imitation is no match for innovation

Written by Wil Harris

January 16, 2006 | 11:11

Tags: #ipod #nano #vista #zen

Companies: #apple #creative #microsoft

CES is over, and thank goodness for that. It's not just the gruelling twelve-hour flights; it's not just the hour-long queues for anything or anywhere; it's not just the absurdity of Las Vegas transportation during the convention season; no, it's the complete banality of half the kit that's at the show once you get there. It's not all Quad-SLI: some of it really sucks.

As a fairly liberal kind of guy, I'm all for choice. Choice is great - it means that, given an open market, products should emerge catering for all kinds of sectors of society. The problem I have is that choice can also lead to pointlessness.

Here's a quick example: there were any number of iPod Nano clones on display at the show, each with the same price-point as the Apple and with worse industrial and interface design. Really, do you need the choice of a million sub-par Nano competitors? Why wouldn't you just buy the Nano?

"Choice can also lead to pointlessness."

It's the utter stupidity of the 'me-too' ethic that drives much of the computer industry. A company sees the success of the Nano and thinks, "Right. I'll create a small and light MP3 player, put a wierd interface on the front, and I'll charge a premium for it to give it the impression that it's a Nano competitor." But wait... Hasn't the company just created a product that copies the Nano without bettering it in any way, but at the same price point and without the brand cachet? Where is the appeal?

One of the worst offenders has to be Creative Labs. It's insistent that it can take down the iPod, but it doesn't show any signs of coming close yet. I was surprised that its iPod Video clone won the Best of CES award. It's got a worse interface, the same size screen, as well as being double the thickness of the iPod Video and without offering a 60GB model to compete with Apple. Sure, there's a little more battery life in there - but that's only down to the bulky size. Coming in at the same price as the iPod video, what's the point? (And don't say the lack of iTunes. It's the best media player out there, suckers.)

Apple was showing the world how it was done over at Macworld the following week. Apple unveiled a new desktop and a new notebook, both sporting Intel Core Duo processors. Intel has really been on the ball when it comes to Apple, dedicating over a thousand engineers to the MacTel project. A lot of people were questioning why Apple went to Intel rather than AMD for its x86 processors, and the answer is simple - Core Duo. For all AMD's desktop leadership, it hasn't been able to make a dual core mobile chip yet, and this mobile space is where Intel continues to have the drop on them.

The other thing that Apple shares with Intel is vision. Apple has a long-term vision of where it sees computing going, and it invests and works hard to make sure that initiatives and ideas are continually gestated then brought to market. Products are pushed out to support the vision, and it endeavours to make sure that the multiple facets of its computing vision all work together. Intel's vision is also pretty clear to see: it invites the press out to San Francisco twice a year to its Developer Forum so that it can give us the latest updates on where it sees things moving to.

At CES, Intel was delivering its vision of the future of home entertainment - Viiv. Many of Viiv's detractors have criticised it for being little more than a brand name; a name for a collection of Intel processors paired with Intel motherboards and Windows Media Center. What they fail to realise is the work that has clearly gone on to get the content industry to get on board with digital media. Traditionally slow to get with any change of programme, the content industry is now starting to see the digital home as more of an opportunity than a threat. Intel's vision is one of ease of use through a badging programme that labels and ratifies products based on open standards from the Digital Living Network Alliance. For all it's criticism for being a big bad monopoliser, Intel actually does more for standards than pretty much any other tech company on the planet.

One rather gets the impression that its competitor, AMD, really lacks any kind of long-term plan or vision. It is clear that AMD makes damn fast desktop processors and that, when it comes to gaming, AMD is the only way to go right now. But there's no impression that it's looking at anything other than this. Intel appears to be working to change the future: one rather feels that AMD is hoping it stays still so it can continue to sell high-speed processors. AMD unveiled its (and I use the term loosely) vision of a digital home at CES, and it was utterly underwhelming. An 'AMD Live' PC sits at the centre of the home, streaming and serving content to open standards devices elsewhere.
The main difference between Live and Viiv, AMD told me, was that whereas Intel wants PCs all over the home, AMD thinks you should just have one central one then use other, third party devices to get content off it. Is that really the key differentiator? Considering that Intel is also badging set-top boxes and thin-client Linux devices, isn't AMD's plan just a subset of the wider Intel one? Of course, AMD isn't actually delivering anything towards that 'vision' for another 6 months, by which point Viiv will already be on Rev 2. It rather looks like AMD is desperately trying to look like it hasn't lost the plot when it comes to the future of consumer computing - "Ooh, digital home! Us too!"

"A lot of people were questioning why Apple went to Intel rather than AMD for its x86 processors, and the answer is simple - Core Duo."

I'd like to talk about Windows Vista here, as demonstrated by Bill Gates at this keynote at the show. I would like to go on about how similar Windows Vista is to Apple OSX, but if I do, I'll get blasted by the rest of the guys for being such a blatant Apple fanboy, having already spent half this column talking about iPods. But let me put it this way, succinctly: Vista delivers the same functionality as Tiger. But 12 months later. And less sexily.

The same applies to websites and media, too. There were over six thousand members of the press at CES, and I saw a decent proportion of them walking in and out of the always-overcrowded press room on-site. It's hilarious to check out people's badges then go and check out their website after they've walked on. Honestly, how many gadget weblogs does the world need? As I said, I'm all for choice, but are you honestly going to top Engadget, which put out the most outrageously comprehensive coverage of the event? I don't think so, somehow. So why exist?

Which isn't to say there wasn't some good stuff at the show, because there clearly was. Aopen took a bold stand, confirming to us that it was putting all its weight behind the new small form factor platforms that 2006 is going to bring. Dolby was demonstrating 14-channel audio and a gorgeous high definition codec. Nvidia came out of the blocks with a four-way graphics subsystem.

Perhaps one of the coolest bits of innovation was at the other Vegas show. The one next to CES with er, the girls. Lurid Video was demonstrating a high definition movie streaming from a Media Center PC to a Xbox 360, and playing on a chunky plasma screen. The complete lack of HD content available in the mainstream right now means that 'adult content' is actually a prime demonstration of the Xbox 360 technology right now. Apparently, a couple of Microsoft guys dropped by the booth and said, "Hey, we're not here officially... but that's totally how that feature was supposed to work." Admiration indeed.

So now I'm back, I'm wondering what other innovations and visions the year will bring. I have my own set of visions for how bit-tech will evolve throughout 2006, if all goes to plan. I'm sure you guys have your own visions of how your PCs and home computing setups are going to change over the next twelve months, too. Do you think my opinions of the happenings at CES suck? Are you desperate to get your hands on some of those high-def movies? Why not come and share your visions of 2006 with us, over in the bit-tech forums.
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