CES 2012: The Golden Age of Consumer Electronics

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When the phone rang, Jack was driving home from work on a busy Los Angeles highway.

Jack heard the voice of his boss through the car speaker system. ”Please come to my office as fast as you can. I have group of potential customers and we urgently need your advice in person. I know that you are on the road probably going home, but this is important!”

Jack made the first available U-turn and pulled over briefly to send a text message to some colleagues in New York. Back at the office, he grabbed his iPad to check an internal Facebook-like company network. Sure enough, he found the background material on the customer that he had asked his New York co-workers to send. He used the tablet to “skype” one of his colleagues and ask some follow-up questions. After a brief conversation, Jack was ready for the meeting.

Such a scenario is becoming less imaginary each day. Thanks to advances in consumer electronics and social media, we are starting to see some of the extraordinary capabilities of the latest personal devices integrated into our ordinary business day.

Once upon a time, technology innovation came from military applications and then migrated to the business enterprise and consumers. A good example of this is the Internet itself, developed by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA). Developments in the research community, such as e-mail, spread to corporations and eventually to consumers.

More recently, innovation had been led by businesses and only later adopted by both consumers and the military. The personal computer itself, for example, was originally mass produced for businesses, largely to run word processing and spreadsheet applications.

Today, we have a full reversal of the DARPA paradigm. Major innovations— smartphones, tablets, location-aware services, videogames, social networking, and text messaging, to name just a few—come from the consumer market, initially intended for entertainment and personal enjoyment instead of productivity.

Mobile devices and applications are updated fast and often. Free from the organizational restrictions that often imposed in the workplace, manufacturers and service providers quickly improve their mobile gadgets and software applications.

In turn, savvy consumers quickly come to see how these technologies can improve their work environment. As these connections are made employees are equally quick to wonder why they cannot use the same devices, software systems, and capabilities to accomplish their professional responsibilities.

In 2012, I expect we will see more companies leveraging social media with mobile devices to connect people at work across organizational and geographical boundaries. Some organizations are already using these capabilities to a varying degree of success, connecting people to work and connecting the company to its vendors and customers.

Location-aware service is one technology that has yet to be fully realized in business enterprise applications. On a consumer level, this technology allows people to locate their friends or to find needed services, such as a nearby restaurant recommendation or movie theater. In an enterprise, such services could, for example, enable employees to locate colleagues or an available office or meeting room.

There are, to be sure, some potential drawbacks to implementing social media and mobile gadgets in the professional environment even though the potential benefits can greatly enhance a company’s capabilities. IT departments are not entirely wrong in worrying about the holes in their firewalls created by smartphones, tablet computers, and applications.

And indeed, there’s a downside to enabling people to stay connected with each other from anywhere, anytime, 24/7—the corresponding obligation for employees to be available anytime, anywhere, even if on vacation. The boundaries between our private and work lives might, if we’re not careful, disappear entirely as we integrate these technological conveniences into our daily routines. In the coming years, it will be interesting to see how we develop new social conventions and new ways of defining the boundaries of our work and private lives.

Our society is changing at a rapid pace as we develop new technologies to communicate, interact, and share information in both our personal and professional lives. Consumer electronics, this time, is leading the charge by sparking this age of constant connection.

Nahum Gershon is a member of the Administrative Committee of the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society and is an IEEE Senior Member.

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