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Top consumer tech trends identified

Expect intelligence, location sensors, and apps to pop up in the most unlikely of places, says a US consumer electronics expert.

Steve Koenig, director of industry analysis for the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), which runs the annual International CES (consumer electronics show) exhibition in Las Vegas, based his predictions on market research, last January's CES displays, and the advance bookings for CES 2012.

He identified four trends in consumer electronics which he said will be foremost in the coming years: Pocketability vs portability; The intelligence of things; Miniaturisation and sensorisation; and a fourth which he called “From amplification to applification.”

“We used to talk a lot about the void in the screen spectrum between 5 inches - PDAs and satnavs - and about 12 inches,” he said, noting that the advent of smartphones and tablets meant that this has now been at least partially filled.

He added: “We used to try to make mobile phones as small as possible. Now we try to make them as large as possible - or pocketable, for browsing, apps and so on.”

Keep taking the tablets

He quoted CEA research which showed that, among early adopters at least, the top uses for tablets were email and browsing the Web. “Many early tablet owners say a tablet could be their primary computer in the future,” he said.

As to which tablet platform would win, he said that at this year's CES, at least 80 and perhaps as many as 100 different tablets were on show. Many were based on Google's Android system, but because most of these were based on the phone version of Android, unlike say Motorola's Xoom, the resulting user experience was not optimal.

The big surprise for him was the almost complete absence of Microsoft-based tablets, which he said simply has to change. “There were some on Windows 7, but I would expect some sort of port of the Surface-type experience,” he said.

Devices are also becoming increasingly smart and connected, he said. He cited the example of cameras with GPS for geo-tagging photos, and even a pair of GPS-equipped ski goggles which give the wearer a head-up display of speed, location and altitude.

Two big areas for Internet connectivity are cars and TVs - the former for safety as well as for entertainment via the likes of Internet radio, and the latter not just for browsing but also because TV is an ideal medium for services such as Skype.

Vehicles for innovation

Koenig added that CES has become a major focus for car manufacturers, as they speed up their development cycles, adding more and more intelligence and sensors - and of course electric powertrains - to their vehicles. For instance, he said, in car entertainment systems “it used to be the aftermarket that was the real innovator. We are starting to see that dynamic flipped on its head.”

Smart developers and users are also finding new and unexpected uses for existing technologies, he said, whether it be using Microsoft's Kinect games controller as a Minority Report-style command and control device, or turning the smartphone into “the Swiss Army Knife of consumer electronics”, with apps to remotely check the charging status of your electric car, control your home audio system and burglar alarm, and so on.

On the latter notes, he added that more and more devices will become app-enabled, but warned that the app economy will be unlike the old packaged software economy in several ways. An important one was that in a CEA survey only one in five people said they were willing to pay for apps.

“Free apps are becoming a Trojan horse for mobile commerce and in-app purchasing,” he said. “It's all about getting you to buy online.

Koenig concluded by noting that while estimates produced by the CEA in association with market research company GfK suggest that the consumer electronics market world-wide should grow by nine percent this year to approach $1 billion, relatively little of that growth will be in Western Europe and North America.

Instead the biggest growth - albeit from a tiny installed base, and mostly in mobile phones - is likely to be in Africa. However, the Middle East, mainland China and the rest of Asia-Pacific were also predicted to grow faster than the average.

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