CES Keynote: Promise at the Margins

HP slate PCThere was a day when Steve Ballmer’s keynote to the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show would have been truly exciting.  Now, it is just more stuff.  Do we really need the PC to take over the driving experience?  The range of computing devices is truly impressive, and the success of Windows 7 is well deserved, but what are people doing on those devices and this great OS?  Something they could just have easily done on the telephone two decades ago?  We still have phones.  The enabling technology is in place, and at no small cost, but what is being enabled?

It’s true consumer electronics help drive the economy and every speaker at CES is going to say 2009 was a very rugged year economically but not as bad as could have been expected and, 2010 projects to be much, much better.  But we’re still talking superficials.  Can the real good to come out of all these devices be only at the margins?  Are the sales taxes and the philanthropic giving of a Bill and Melinda Gates and other large minded enterpreneurs be the real social value of the consumer electronics?

Not at all.  The benefits may still be on the margins, but they are not just financial.  My candidates for prime beneficiaries are students and scholars, which, in the longer run, are the same people.  Scholars for the unprecedented opportunities that are being forged by open access to intellectual resources that have been locked away in libraries and museums.  Students for the same,but even more for the speed and power with which basic learning can now be facilitated,and advanced learning can be undertaken.  Time magazine recently ran an article on teenager Magnus Carlsen, the world’s youngest No. 1 chess master, of the first generation of chess master’s to have been trained by computers.  Carlsen doesn’t even know if he owns a physical chess board.  The opportunities to engage traditional knowledge in new ways, and transform it, are what is so exciting about educational technology.

The new surge, illustrated by Ballmer’s demonstration of the new HP slate product (though it was announced in advance of specs or price point information–just for the sake of beating Apple’s announcement of a similar device, one suspects) is for knowledge and knowldge workers to move onto the portable, small screen.  Not the phone, necessarily, though much of this is already occuring.  The phone may be too small to act as anything as a way-station to the larger footprint device.  Size does matter in the human-machine interface.  The tablet-sized footprint seems about right, and record sales of the Kindle, Sony eReader, and Nook prove it.  Amazon reports that for the first time in history, more ebooks were sold on Christmas day, 2009, than physical books, and that the Kindle was their most gifted single item this holiday season.

What these small devices need are more power–and that is not far away with the new slate devices running grown-up operating systems like Windows 7 rather than the lame iPhone OS or the very limited Kindle functionality.  They also need  realistic price points that will get them into the hands of a large number of young consumers.  If the consumer electronics industry can achieve this over the next three years, the impact on research and education will be enormous, if we are wise enough to engage with it and take advantage of its potential.