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Source Code at CES: Everything’s a streaming war

Image: Jane Seidel/Protocol
Source Code at CES: Everything’s a streaming war

Hey there! It's the last day of CES, which means T-minus 10 days until people start emailing us about CES 2022. Today we're talking streaming services, TV remotes, voice assistants, robot toilets, Samsung phones and lots more. Thanks for being here with us this week! Hope to see you in Vegas next year.

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The Big Story

The smartest smart TVs

Janko Roettgers writes: TV makers come to CES to show off all the weird and wonderful things they're working on, with LG and Samsung in particular always looking to outdo each other. However, the TVs that get the most headlines tend to never turn into actual products. Remember LG's self-bending TV?

Still, CES offers some interesting insights into how that industry is changing, and which companies have the best shot to dominate the market. This year, the battlegrounds are more software than hardware:

  • Roku has established itself as a major force in the TV space. The streaming company revealed in the run-up to CES that Roku TVs outsold all other manufacturers in North America in 2020. For 2021, TCL is taking Roku TVs even further up-market with 8K mini LED screens that should help steal more market share from LG and Samsung.
  • Google TV is one of CES 2021's surprise winners. Google first introduced this content-centric version of Android TV with its own Chromecast device last fall. This year, Google TV will be adopted by a number of TV makers that previously shipped Android TV sets, including Sony and TCL. That's more than just a simple software update: Google TV is heavily focused on Google-powered content recommendations, and gives the company yet another chance to promote its own services, including YouTube TV.
  • LG revamped the webOS TV interface, which is now also leaning more heavily into content. Here's one interesting tidbit that didn't get mentioned during the company's CES keynote: In an attempt to compete more directly with Roku and Google, LG is getting more serious about licensing webOS to other TV makers. In addition to Konka, Blaupunkt North America is now also selling webOS-powered TV sets.
  • Samsung and Comcast weren't quite so lucky. Samsung announced in late 2019 that it wants to license its Tizen OS to TV makers, and Protocol was first to report last year that Comcast is looking to do the same with its X1 platform. However, X1 TVs were nowhere to be found at CES 2021, and Samsung remained the only company to announce Tizen TVs.
  • Also not making any headlines: Amazon. The ecommerce giant used CES 2017 to unveil TV models powered by its Fire TV operating system, but didn't give any updates about new models at this year's show. Protocol reported last year that Google has been pressuring TV manufacturers not to work with Amazon. Judging from the lack of announcements at this year's show, Amazon is still struggling to overcome those obstacles.

If there's anything that unites all those competing smart TV platforms, it's that everyone is all-in on streaming. All in. Some of the TV remote controls shown off at CES have up to seven branded buttons for streaming services! TV makers are also getting more aggressive about marketing their own ad-supported streaming services, with Samsung even getting its own virtual show floor for Samsung Ads, the unit that monetizes its TV Plus streaming service.

In other words: Your next TV may not be transparent and bendable, but at least you'll never run out of things to watch.

Interview

Teaching users to trust tech

Amazon may not have been officially present at CES, but Alexa was everywhere. The voice assistant can now be in your car, your shower, your bedroom, everywhere. And with that, said Anne Toth, the head of Alexa Trust at Amazon, comes a pretty huge responsibility to make people feel good about using Alexa.

  • One of the themes of this year's CES has been tech companies working through how to be more transparent, more open and more trustworthy. Toth said it's a process: "It's like developing a relationship with a person, right? You have to earn the trust, and you have to do things in the beginning that, over time, become less important."
  • She used the "Alexa" wake word as an example: Creating a bit of friction to help people understand how it works can open doors later to doing things more seamlessly, because by then users will be more aware of what's going on.
  • But trust isn't just a thing you get once in order to sell products, she said: "The goal for me is to make sure that we continue to be worthy of the trust they've already placed in us." That comes from not making security mistakes, but also from being clear about what they're doing and why.

Transparency is the key here: Users want to understand what's happening, why their data is being collected and what they get in return. "There's lots of data looking at introducing Alexa into new countries and languages and dialects," Toth said, "where the ability to use that voice data to dramatically improve our responses." When people understand that Amazon is using their data to improve the product, and that they can opt out, she said people tend to feel more comfortable. It's the not knowing that they don't like.

"I think we are in a period of time right now where skepticism is at an all-time high," she said. Worries about what Big Tech knows about users and what companies do with that data are everywhere. And as we saw this week with the dustup over WhatsApp's new privacy policy, she said, you ignore those concerns at your peril: "Privacy is not dead; people really do care, and it's something that everybody should be paying attention to."

A MESSAGE FROM MICRON

Micron

For Raj Hazra, who is senior vice president of corporate strategy and communications at Micron, there has never been a more thrilling time than this golden age of data. In this interview, Hazra describes how "we are now at the doorstep of taking things that we thought were science fiction and making them real, and it's only going to be exponentially faster going forward". Read more from Micron's Raj Hazra.

The Good Stuff

We've talked a lot about the interesting, plausible, practical stuff here the last few days. But the most fun stuff at CES is always the weird, wacky, who-even-thought-of-this stuff. Some of it is ridiculous — actually, all of it is ridiculous. But if you look hard, sometimes the future's in there.

  • How about a $3,000 dog door, which either you or your dog can control? There's more computing in this thing than the moon lander. But the mix of automation and control is really clever. And it's not bad to look at, either.
  • Or maybe a ring that's also a Bluetooth remote for your phone, so you can change songs or chat with Siri without looking at the screen? Yeah it's huge and doesn't do much, but anti-screen time gadgets are going to be a thing.
  • Does your mask need to be smarter? The Airpop Active has you covered: It tracks your breathing and your activity and uses an app to tell you how polluted the air around you really is. Also, it has some sick lighting.
  • Let's get weirder: What if your toilet seat magically opened as soon as you walked up to it and flushed as you walked away? Is that useful for terrifying? (It's definitely a hilarious prank to play on houseguests.) I'm all for home automation, but this feels like overkill. Unlike Kohler's $16,000 ultra-relaxing bathtub, which feels necessary in every way.
  • OK, I think this one's the weirdest: The Moflin, an "AI pet" that really just looks like a huge dust bunny that will sit on your lap and purr. And yet! We know that people really do bond with their tech — just ask anyone who thanks Alexa — and this kind of thing is less crazy than it looks. Or maybe just as crazy as it looks. The fun of CES is you never know for sure.

One More Thing

The new Android hot-shot

It wasn't technically CES news, but it'll almost certainly sell more than anything else launched this week: The Samsung Galaxy S21 is official now. It's big and fast and has 58 cameras, all the things you'd expect from Samsung. But there are two winning features here: the price, which starting at $799 is $200 lower than your average Galaxy S, and the fact that the S Pen stylus now works on phones not called Note. The only big downside as far as I can tell? Bixby's still around.

A MESSAGE FROM MICRON

Micron

For Raj Hazra, who is senior vice president of corporate strategy and communications at Micron, there has never been a more thrilling time than this golden age of data. In this interview, Hazra describes how "we are now at the doorstep of taking things that we thought were science fiction and making them real, and it's only going to be exponentially faster going forward". Read more from Micron's Raj Hazra.

Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce, with help from Anna Kramer and Shakeel Hashim. Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to david@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day; see you tomorrow.

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