My 3 Lessons from CES: How Tech Makes Great Products Happen

This year’s CES (bigger than ever, and more interesting than usual) failed to offer one show-stopping piece of technology, but did offer many lessons about how technology leads to innovation – not always the way we expect.

At IMC we’re always trying to find better ways to make great products happen, and CES 2015 left me with 3 big lessons about the sometimes-crooked path that turns innovation into great new products.

How Did Cars Get Smart So Fast?

10 years ago almost no auto companies exhibited at CES.  This year 10 major car makers were there.  What happened?

A lot has been written about the “connected car” and all the ways that cars can now serve up the internet and its mass of data in new ways.  But just turning your car into another smartphone does not really change the car.

Using technology to make your car drive better and more safely does.  The innovation that has given cars their own smartness and turned auto manufacturers into real tech companies (and not just transmitters of tech) turns out to be automated driving.

Google’s self-driving cars generate amazing results for Google Maps but they never struck me as the kind of vehicle anyone would actually want to give up the wheel for.  Feeling a Tesla accelerate under your own foot pressure is a far more exciting way to enjoy new technology.

But the technology that made self-driving cars possible also made it possible to offer cars with a number of other unexpected features: cars that can park themselves; cars that can modify cruise control based on the speed of other cars around you; cars that tell you if you’ve unexpectedly changed lanes; and cars that can recognize if you’ve had a heart attack and safely remove your vehicle to the side of the road and stop it.  At the moment, it looks like the tools that enhance the driving experience are tools we would actually pay for; and tools that actually transform cars into time-saving (and life-saving) technology devices themselves.

The lesson: turning innovation into marketable products takes a combination of smart engineers and real-world marketers.  Mainstream manufacturers (outside of Silicon Valley) may turn out to be the next wave of great tech companies.

Do you Really Need the Internet on Your Wrist? 

This was the CES year of wrist-based technology – and not just for fitness.  There were watches/wristbands that:

  • Measure your sleep
  • Wake you up
  • Measure your exercise
  • Count your calories
  • Calm you down
  • Tells you when you’re getting a call or text
  • Take a picture

And that doesn’t even include the Apple Watch (since Apple doesn’t come to CES).

Why is the wrist getting so much attention?

Part of the answer may be because a wristband is not a phone.  I suspect that many of these wristband-oriented companies are trying to figure out how to keep their innovations from being swallowed up by smartphones that are quickly gaining capacity to do new things (like counting your steps).  But that doesn’t mean they’ll succeed.  As far back as Dick Tracy, innovators have predicted that we’ll want to use our wrists in new ways – and few have yet succeeded.

Lesson:  Sometimes “innovation” is simply a place where a new technology wants to show off – and not the place where it will end up.  Your wrists can relax.

Go Big or Go Niche?

This is the hardest question facing new technologies today.  Apple goes big, and going big gets the biggest, fastest payoff.  So most innovators want to go big.  But most product innovation first succeeds in a niche.

Nest went big, and won big (when Google bought it for $3.2 billion), assuming that people want to manage their home thermostats from their phones.  But, as Microsoft’s James Whittaker pointed out at CES, did you ever hear people complaining about how much time it took to manage their thermostats via their thermostats? As Whittaker and others pointed out at CES, maybe the most valuable solution won’t be the ones that address the biggest categories but the ones that address our biggest pains – like whether our propane tank is full or not, or how to manage the appropriate level of chemicals in our hot tub.

I saw this tension everywhere at CES, a tension between addressing a smaller market with an extremely specific need or a larger market with a less pressing need. Is it better to target the entire fitness market or the triathlete?  Better to target people who are diet-conscious or adult diabetics?

The answer isn’t always clear, but CES reminded me of the importance of always asking the question.

My final lesson? The closer an innovation comes to meeting somebody’s pressing real-life need, the more likely somebody (and not just another company) is to buy it.

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