CES: The Librarian’s Takeaway

February 28, 2011

While ALA Midwinter 2011 was starting in beautiful San Diego, I was on a plane to a different, but equally sunny destination—Las Vegas, Nevada—to attend the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show . . . me, and 160,000 others.

CES is the largest consumer electronics show in the world, with journalists, retail buyers, and manufacturers all coming together in the middle of the Nevada desert to do business and report on the gadgets of the coming year.

The reason that I’ve gone to CES for the last couple of years is something that I’ve said in a few presentations now: Experiences become expectations. The experiences that our patrons have with these gadgets and gizmos set their expectations for their interaction with information. The reason that librarians have been struggling for over a decade now to create Google-like interfaces for our information repositories is that our patrons experienced Google’s ease of use and came to expect it from the other sources of information in their lives. We need to be watching the leading edge of the bell curve of technology so that by the time these things become embedded in our patrons’ lives, it doesn’t take us a decade to find a way to provide library services that they recognize.

Coming from the world of libraries and library conferences, it’s difficult to express the size and scope of CES to anyone who hasn’t been there. As an illustration the combined size of Sony, LG, and Samsung is larger than the entire exhibit hall at an ALA Midwinter Meeting. The entire CES exhibit hall is over 2 million square feet. In addition to the sheer size of the place, the scope is bewildering. Consumer electronics these days covers everything from a pet robot dinosaur to Ford cars, washers and dryers, and video cameras.

The gadget emergence that I think might have the most effect on libraries is the rise of the tablet as a consumer-favored computing device. The iPad has been a runaway success (14.5 million sold in just about 9 months) and every manufacturer who can is about to launch their own tablet. The vast majority of these tablets will be running Android, the mobile operating system from Google. The upcoming 3.0 version of Android, code-named Gingerbread Honeycomb, is designed specifically for tablets, and tablets from Motorola, LG, and the new Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 will all be running Gingerbread Honeycomb when they launch in the next few months.

These upcoming tablets look very promising, but it remains to be seen if they can compete in the marketplace with the iPad. Apple is expected to launch the second generation of the iPad at roughly the same time that these first-generation Android tablets are released, and thus far none of the Android tablets have been able to compete with Apple on price. The Motorola Xoom, one of the tablets I had a chance to handle at CES, is going to launch at $799 for the 3G version without a contract with Verizon, and $600 for the Wi-Fi–only version. The Wi-Fi version is the same price as the equivalent 32GB iPad, but it doesn’t appear that Motorola is interested in offering a lower-priced entry-level model (the most affordable iPad model is the $499 16GB Wi-Fi).

My vote for the coolest gadget at CES, though, definitely goes to the Makerbot Industries booth, home of the Makerbot 3D printer. I’ve written about 3D printing elsewhere, but I think that this technology has such interesting potential that it’s something libraries should be watching. For just a bit over $1,000, you can buy a Makerbot of your very own, load it up with plastic, and print anything. This technology is becoming more flexible, able to handle more diverse materials, finer details, and more. You can even buy a system for your Makerbot that removes the existing printed piece and readies the printer for the next, giving you what is effectively a mass-production line.

Another trend that will begin to affect libraries in the next 2–3 years is the rise of what are being called “superphones,” the step beyond a smartphone. The first of these, the Atrix, was announced at CES by Motorola. It’s an Android-based mobile phone, but it has enough power under the hood to be a low-powered computer. It is being marketed with a dock that attaches to a keyboard and mouse, and allows for using it much as you would a traditional desktop, albeit one that you can put in your pocket when you’re done using it. They are also selling a laptop dock that is just a large battery, screen, and keyboard; the phone itself docks and does all of the processing.

The last thing that I think should be considered by libraries is the whole concept of an ecosystem of technology that communicates, updates, and interacts with itself. There were a number of large companies at CES showing off a sort of 1960s World’s Fair version of this (“Your icebox will know when your milk is about to go off and ring your phone to tell you!”) that may or may not be successful in the marketplace. But the general idea of an “internet of things” where objects that are not traditionally understood to be aware and connected is one that is definitely on its way. If we can learn from these early experiments, the better positioned we will be to offer amazingly useful experiences to our patrons.


Hope Springs Eternal

The garden of children's literature is always in bloom


Susan Stroyan

Candidate for ALA President