CES 2020: Monday 6 January

Headlines from the Las Vegas tech playground

Today’s Daily Insight provides a summary of the big news from press events at CES 2020, held on the day before the show’s official opening.

In this short video, our analysts on the ground — Ben Wood, Geoff Blaber and Leo Gebbie — share their highlights from the day.

Below we offer more detailed analysis from the CCS Insight team on topics of interest from the show so far.

5G builds momentum

Although it may not be the lead topic of CES, 5G is an umbrella theme that companies are embracing to varying degrees of relevance and substance, be it directly, indirectly or tenuously in an effort to benefit from the 5G slipstream.

Qualcomm was unsurprisingly the most vocal about 5G on press day at CES, reiterating its message from its Snapdragon Tech Summit about momentum in the market: more than 45 operators have now deployed 5G commercially, more than 340 are investing in the technology and Qualcomm expects 200 million 5G smartphones to ship in 2020, which compares with CCS Insight’s forecast of 230 million units.

Indeed, Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon stated that his company’s forecast now looks conservative, as brands such as Xiaomi have pledged to launch more than 10 models in 2020 and devices are falling swiftly down the price curve, further underlined by TCL’s announcement of its sub-$500 TCL 10 5G phone at its press conference.

New evidence of growth in 5G is Qualcomm’s statement that demand for its Snapdragon 765 and 765G platforms is two and half times higher than that for the previous-generation platform. As we’ve repeatedly highlighted over the past two years, price won’t be a barrier to 5G adoption. Economics, competition and mass-market chipset launches will take care of that.

This echoes the sentiment from Samsung that it has shipped 6.7 million 5G-enabled devices to date (see CES 2020: Sunday 5 January). This is the year when 5G starts to scale; the evidence is clear at CES and will be everywhere at MWC in Barcelona.

Flexible display technology emerges

Press day at CES saw the arrival of several devices with flexible displays. TCL once again talked about its plans to offer foldable products beyond just smartphones. It has already developed more than 30 different design concepts spanning phones, tablets, wearables and more. At its press conference, the company announced that it will ship its first foldable smartphone by the end of 2020, but made it clear that it’s in no rush to deliver a product before it’s completely satisfied that it has the formula right in terms of usability and robustness. That said, TCL did allow hands-on time with an initial prototype — a design that’s unlikely to ship commercially but demonstrates the art of the possible.

Chinese company Royole was first to showcase a folding device in November 2018, when it unveiled it FlexPai device (see First to Fold). This clunky product was arguably the first commercially available so-called foldable, but also a clear example of the shortcomings of the technology. The company has since shown off numerous prototypes including fashion items such as clothing and handbags featuring flexible screens.

At the event, Royole announced that it’s working with headphone maker Cleer Audio to produce a smart speaker with a wraparound flexible display.

In our curtain-raiser to CES, we tipped flexible displays to be a feature of the show, expecting “flexible display technology to make the leap from smartphones to a wide array of other consumer electronics devices and to shape device design over the next decade. Don’t be surprised to see a wide range of prototype devices with screens on every surface, for example smart speakers with displays wrapped around them.” With the benefit of hindsight, this proved to be an astute expectation.

Over the coming days, we expect to see many more prototype products with flexible screens at the event, although it’s unlikely that many fully commercial devices will be announced. Nevertheless, we have little doubt that new smartphones using this technology will appear at MWC 2020. Samsung is also widely expected to introduce its second folding smartphone at its Galaxy Unpacked 2020 event on 11 February. We maintain our view that flexible display technology will become a common feature in a diverse range of consumer electronics products over the next decade.

Amazon eyes smart home and partnerships with car and TV makers

In the build-up to CES, Amazon revealed that the number of Alexa-enabled devices in use has grown over the past 12 months from 100 million to “hundreds of millions”. It also said that there are now more than 100,000 smart home products compatible with Alexa from 9,500 individual brands and that the number of Alexa Skills available now tops 100,000. According to the company, tens of millions of Amazon devices were bought during the recent holiday period.

These figures underline the incredible momentum Amazon has with its Alexa franchise. With a multitude of consumer electronics companies expected to unveil an avalanche of Alexa-enabled products at CES, there appears to be little sign of this progress slowing down anytime soon.

Amazon’s Fire TV business is also doing well, with the company indicating that it now boasts 40 million monthly active users. At the show, it announced partnerships with car-makers BMW and Fiat Chrysler for Fire TV. This appears to be a long-term strategy of making Fire TV services available in vehicles, particularly for passengers, but is also a play for content consumption in the much-heralded vision of self-driving cars, even if this could take years to emerge. The move is further evidence of Amazon’s desire to extend its services to every part of people’s lives.

Amazon also continued to widen its partnerships with TV makers including LG, Samsung and TCL for Alexa and Fire TV.

The battle lines are clearly drawn between Amazon and Google and this has been a familiar theme at the show for the past few years. Google’s strength arguably lies in the dominant position it has built from the massive number of smartphones powered by its Android operating system and other assets such as search and maps. In contrast, Amazon’s progress with Alexa, Fire TV, online retail and cloud services is the foundation on which it plans to build growth.

Wearables announcements offer optimism for Google’s Wear OS

Following on from the announcement of the Suunto 7 smartwatch at CES Unveiled, Fossil revealed a new Diesel-branded Wear OS smartwatch at CES. The Diesel On Fadelite takes the innards of previous Diesel smartwatches — like the Diesel On Axial, launched at IFA 2019 — and packs them into a slightly smaller and new design. It carries over the Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 3100 chipset, 1GB of memory, as well as GPS and heart-rate tracking capabilities.

Although the Fadelite is unlikely to set the wearables world alight, its release, along with that of the Suunto 7, suggests that there could be reason for optimism about the future of Wear OS, which had stagnated for some time. Google’s acquisition of Fitbit in November was a clear statement of intent on the wearables front (see Instant Insight: Google Acquires Fitbit). Although we have yet to see any announcements from the company to back this up, the unveiling of new Wear OS devices from smartwatch-makers suggests that Google is working behind the scenes to improve its platform. If Google successfully revamps Wear OS it could hugely re-energize the non-Apple segment of the smartwatch market.

Samsung launches premium Galaxy Chromebook

Samsung’s announcement of a premium Galaxy Chromebook priced at $999 is a notable move for a device category that has been largely confined to the cost-conscious domain of the classroom. To date, Chromebooks (Google Pixelbook aside) have largely been low-cost, plastic devices designed to deliver a computing experience at a more accessible price.

This marks a change in approach for Google and Samsung and we believe it’s the start of a more concerted push by Google to move Chrome OS beyond the education niche. This raises the question of who would buy the device. The Galaxy Chromebook is beautifully designed, exceptionally slim, with a high build quality and high-end parts such as a 10th generation Intel Core processor.

However, at $999 this is a premium device that joins a huge array of products running Windows or macOS. Chrome OS has a lot to offer in terms of simplicity and optimization for an always-connected, cloud-centric world. With this in mind, Chrome OS seems to be a natural fit for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon platform.

But with such a steep price tag, we believe the device will need a bolder feature set that includes 4G or 5G connectivity and multiday battery life to really move the needle.

Several companies showcase smart glasses

Before the show, we predicted some progress with smart glasses at the event and this expectation came to fruition during the press events.

Bosch briefly discussed augmented reality smart glasses in its press conference, highlighting its Light Drive system for smart glasses, which it claims is a third slimmer than rival products. Although the technology itself isn’t new, miniaturization of components for smart glasses has been a challenge for some time and remains a major barrier to overcome before this type of device will be able to reach the mass market.

Vuzix, which makes augmented reality devices for use by consumers and enterprises, unveiled its new Smart Swim goggles, which provide swimmers with real-time feedback during their activity, as well as smart ski goggles made in conjunction with ski brand RideOn. It also announced new M400 smart glasses targeted at enterprises.

Chinese company Nreal reiterated its intention to launch its Light augmented reality glasses later in 2020 and teased details of a new method of smartphone operation using its device. The announcement, along with Samsung’s inclusion of smart glasses in its presentation about future technology, are signs that momentum for smart glasses based on augmented reality technology is building. However, these are early steps in what we expect to be a long journey.

Panasonic announced new, compact virtual reality eyeglasses that will be on show at CES. The device promises ultrahigh-definition visuals, borrowing technology from other products such as TVs. Few technical details are known about the device, but we hope to learn more about it in the coming days.

VRgineers also debuted an 8K ultrawide virtual reality headset with 180-degree field of view, aimed at enterprise users.

Qualcomm debuts Snapdragon Ride for autonomous vehicles

Qualcomm isn’t new to the automotive space. It has forged a position in more than 100 million vehicles thanks to its strength in infotainment, telematics and connectivity, and generates over $600 million annually from this market. It also has wins in infotainment and digital cockpit design with 19 of the 25 global automotive brands. This gives Qualcomm a strong foothold to use its existing relationships and expertise to expand into higher-value advanced driver-assistance systems and ultimately, autonomous driving computing. General Motors is a likely candidate for the first commercial customer as it’s an existing partner in digital cockpit, telematics and advanced driver-assistance systems. This is crucial given significant competition from Nvidia, Intel’s Mobileye and a host of others.

However, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Ride platform has been years in the making and stems from the company’s deep understanding of artificial intelligence, sensor fusion, mobile computing and connectivity. Commercial autonomous vehicles aren’t expected on roads until 2023, making this is a long-term effort. But the scalable approach is a smart move, designed to start with Level 1 for advanced driver-assistance systems, offering 30 tera operations per second, and scale to Levels 4 and 5 for autonomous driving, offering 700 tera operations per second at just 130W. Power efficiency without limiting performance is unsurprisingly Qualcomm’s big advantage here and more importantly, recognizes the opportunity today rather than just the promise of the next driverless decade.