I’ve been thinking about the best way to answer that one, inevitable CES question: “What’s the big, new thing this year?”

My answer is (and will be): “Nothing. And we should all be very excited about that.” I’m not a trend-basher; I think things like huge, capacitive-touch TVs and washing machines that text us when loads are ready are fascinating developments that deserve our attention, not cynicism. Some of what I saw was incredible, even ground breaking. But nothing this year was bleeding-edge-new and seen everywhere.

If the innovation on display at last year’s CES coalesced into an identifiable theme, it was the connected experience—the destruction of silos between devices, people, brands and content. As my colleague Brandon Willard wrote then:

“The biggest thing this year was actually an idea: that the boundaries that once existed for consumers are evaporating, and as far as consumers are concerned, they can’t crumble quickly enough.”

Companies were exploring the true potential of the internet of things. They were beginning to question the walled garden. They were finally realizing what consumers already knew—brands have no choice but to give consumers more choice. The cloud hit the shelves, and our chosen content was accessible from the myriad devices in our lives. The new smartphones on display promised to make posting a Facebook status as easy as making a call. It felt like the beginning of something that was powerfully customer-centric.

CES 2012 was an extension of this understanding, and companies continued to innovate toward the connected experience. Instead of abandoning what they promised consumers in 2011, companies showed products this year that delivered on this promise. Instead of chasing what they thought would be yet another “next big thing” this year; they focused on delivering better connected experiences. Because a promise of this kind requires an obsessive commitment to the customer, not a line of shiny new products to convince people they want.

Microsoft’s keynote reflected this commitment. It impressed me for what it didn’t contain. Nothing altogether surprising, no new products that represented complete departures or 180’s. Instead, Steve Ballmer and the other presenters emphasized the way Microsoft products are connecting consumers to the things they care about. The Windows Phone was described as “the first phone that put people first,” a phone for “celebrating all the relationships in your life.” Windows 8 was shown to work with touch, as well as mouse and keyboard, across a huge array of devices. It was a nice ending to the 20-year history of Microsoft’s massive presence at CES.

The products on display this year emphasized user experience over pure utility, and intuitiveness is being built-in to more and more consumer electronics. We owe a lot of this to the rise of professional user experience design, and the continued success of Apple, who didn’t have an official physical presence at CES, but was nonetheless present on the floor in the hands of thousands of attendees. Given a choice between everything-but-the-kitchen-sink complexity, and simplified, satisfying product experiences, CE companies are starting to choose the latter—because that’s what consumers are demanding. The social integrations that some considered clunky last year were streamlined this year. Things like social television-watching are no longer just cool ideas or hasty product additions; they are now being woven-in to device design in ways that make absolute sense to consumers.

My colleague Shawn Gaide sums up the opportunity brands are now unlocking:

“What I think people forget about is how quickly device integration is happening, and more importantly, how quickly consumers are picking up on that trend in actual practice. If you’re a marketer, you just got at least one (if not two or three) more mediums to reach people with simultaneously. That will drive a new wave of implicit and explicit conversations with potential customers.”

CES 2012 proved that the show can be more than a product launch pad for the next big thing. It can be a showcase for a richer, more mature kind of innovation—the forward momentum that is generated by keeping promises made to customers.

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