2009 Predictions: Hardware

In previous posts, I looked at macro-economics conditions and media related issues in 2009. In this entry, I’m venturing in the hardware space to attempt to divine what new gadgets we may see in the coming year.

Televisions: Connected and Flat

It’s been 15 years since the Internet revolution started to take hold and about 3 since video on the Internet has become a more viable option. With the rise of devices connecting portions of the Internet video space to your television (for example, allowing to buy movies or TV shows from the iTunes store or download video streams from Netflix), we’re seeing more ways to connect the Internet to television without requiring a computer. I suspect this trend will only continue and expect this year to mark a turning point with some of the first ethernet-enabled televisions appearing. This type of connection will be available first from Samsung and LG, who have already built such connectivity into their BluRay players so I would expect them to port those capabilities to TV sets shortly.

The other improvements in the TV space will include the introduction of more OLED screens on the high end, providing a third option in the flat screen space ( LCD and Plasma being the other two.)

The economy will pressure many of the companies in the space to drop their margins on televisions and I wouldn’t be surprised if flat screens start dropping under $500 by year end. This will force some of the last CRTs off the market, leaving Plasma as the cheap choice, LCD as the average one, and OLED as the high end one.

BluRay: Losing to Downloads

2009 ought to have been a good year for BluRay. Having killed its main competitor in the next generation physical disk format (HD-DVD), BluRay appeared to have the field open to itself.

But through both blunders on the part of people in the media and consumer electronics space, BluRay has succeeded at painting itself in a corner: having priced disks at a premium, executives have to justify the advantage. The approach they took was that BluRay was a higher video and audio quality experience than regular DVD. But this has represented a major hurdle for them as most consumers are fairly happy with the quality they are getting from their existing DVDs.

The other issue is that the war for a next generation format was not about a physical medium, as they had expected. Sure, Sony and Toshiba tried hard to make it about that, because royalties on selling rights to such formats can go in the billions of dollars over several years, but truth be told, the market bypassed physical as a medium almost half a decade ago.

With the rise of the iPod, people have grown more comfortable with the idea that they could buy a media asset (a song, a TV show, or a movie) electronically without having to deal with the piece of plastic that carries it. The revolution started with music because those files were smaller but, as bandwith availability increases, the amount of time required to download a TV show or movie is dropping. Along with the availability of streaming video, this has changed the level of expectations when it comes to media consumption in such a way that, increasingly, people want access to their media without having to deal with a physical component to carry it (one could argue that the on-demand shows provided first in hotel rooms in the 90s and on most cable boxes in the last few years fall in the same space.)

So downloads are going to be the thing that undoes BluRay. As a result, I expect Sony to start touting downloadable media more heavily than BluRay in its PS3 marketing. I also expect most BluRay players to offer some way to access internet media either through direct partnerships with the providers (Netflix, for example) or through the creation of an open format content providers could leverage.

Mobile Phones: Smart is in but so is Simple

The recent success of the iPhone has gotten every phone providers to focus on developing more smarts for their phones, essentially turning them into multi-use devices. This trend is hardly new (I’ve owned a smartphone since around 2000, starting with the first Treo) but its acceptance by the general public is.

What I expect to happen in the space this year is a continued drop in prices as new contenders enter the space. Palm will make a play at the space with a new net-centric phone and operating system that will come with a under $100 price-tag to follow the recent success of their Centro offering. This will, in turn, force Windows-mobile and Google Android-based phones to come down to the same price range, with some of them even being offered by carriers for free with 2 years contracts. Apple, on the other hand, will keep its $199 price tag and may offer a software upgrade that would turn on video recording on the iPhone. RIMM, with its Blackberry offering, will continue to be the darling of the business world but most of its efforts in the consumer space will be rebuffed.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, we might see the rise of phones that have a single feature: making phone calls. Those phones will be marketed to two different segments of the market: elderly people, who barely use computers and want something that has as little complexity as possible and the first grade set, with some level of parental control being available on the devices.

Computers: Smaller, Cheaper, and More Wireless

Netbooks started making the news last year. Sporting a web-browser and generally less power than traditional computers, PC makers have discovered that there is a large audience for such devices. This is a problem with chip makers like Intel and AMD who have relied on Moore’s Law to get faster and beefier processors out the door at heavier costs to consumer. The problem they are faced with today is that most processors are good enough for what people want to do (ie. read email, go on the web, and maybe edit a few documents). So I expect netbooks to be the only real growth sector for PC makers. This represents quite a challenge as margins on such devices are low and the business model around them is a volume one.

The market is now fragmenting into 4 segments:

  • Netbooks, which are probably good enough for most people.
  • Powerhouse machines, which are used primarily by computer gamers.
  • Office machines, which will demand more security features (eg. Lenovo)
  • Luxury machines, which are more in line with the fashion space than the electronics one (eg. Apple MacBooks)

I expect a slowdown in the number of machines sold in the computer games market and a flattening in the office market. This leaves netbooks as the growth area and I would put a question mark on the luxury machine market as I’m not sure it could see more growth if the economic climate continues turning sour.

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