I have felt pretty downbeat about hardware for a few years now. Most people at the show lamented the fact that smartphones now all look the same, and I certainly have some strong thoughts on this topic.
The hard reality of electronics today is that if you can make a device, it will get copied quickly. This has been obvious in phones for years and in PCs for decades. The halls of CES are filled with hundreds of vendors selling look-alike products. This is particularly true of the accessories booths in the back of the LVH and the South Hall. Anything made of plastic (e.g. iPhone cases) can be found from dozens of vendors in hundreds of colors and designs. It is almost impossible to stand out or differentiate in this field.
This process is clearly expanding to every corner of hardware. I lost count of the number of vendors selling Bluetooth speakers, I was up to 36 when I stopped counting.
The root cause of this commodtiziation was on full display in one booth I came across in the South Hall. A company based in Southern China had a small booth, and all they were displaying was circuit boards. They had about a dozen, naked boards laid out. Naked in the sense that they were not wrapped in plastic, although the company did have a couple empty cases on hand to give some context. You can see them in the photo.
This company is a design house that sells generic solutions for board layouts for home networking devices. The boards on display were basically a range of audio and video streaming devices. This is where the plastic boxes help explain. At the top left of the photo, you can see a black case that looks just like an Apple TV.
So take your pick. You want to compete with Roku and Sonos, here is the company that can build your devices for you, in any of several combinations. I dug around a bit in the booth, and they had solutions not only for audio and video, but burglar alarms, video monitors and ‘smart’ light bulbs.
The implication should be pretty clear: whatever you want to build, there is probably someone in Shenzhen who already has a circuit board laid out for you, who can help you design your shiny plastic cases and most likely help you get it shipped.