That said, it seemed like old times last week, as CES and MacWorld stepped forth and defined the computing world for consumers and content creators alike. It was be-there-or-be-square time at both shows, and squares we were, back home fighting the battle of Bedford Falls and watching Steve Jobs' keynote on its live streamed feed. I won't pretend I watched the whole thing; Jobs' magnetism extends much further than that of most keynoters, but even he can't hold my attention for a two-hour infinite loop of product hype. Of course I was excited to hear that Final Cut Express 2 is on the way, as well as GarageBand and iDVD 4—although giving consumers a 120-minute DVD option with a software encoder is akin to giving 'em enough rope (here's hoping the iDVD implementation of DVD SP's Compressor proves me wrong).
But it was something I misheard that really stuck with me among the details of Jobs' talk. Checking in shortly after the Microsoft Office presentation, I caught Jobs' introduction of iLife 4 and its insistently repeated catch-phrase, "Microsoft Office for the rest of your life."
"So what's he saying?" I asked ever-patient EMedia associate editor Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen. "That Office 2004 will be obsolete in a year, but iLife will last a lifetime?"
Naturally, Eric straightened me out—Office being for the office, and iLife being for life outside the office (i.e., life)—and restored my faith that Jobs hadn't lost his mind. Of course technology marches on. To suggest that a product whose key components are in their fourth full rev in three years could successfully stagnate would be ridiculous. The ephemerality of technology—even Apple technology—is one of the things that makes it so exciting.
Heard properly, Jobs' emphasis on "technology for the rest of your life" is nothing new—he was among the first to espouse the once-radical idea of computers in the home and has always been that notion's loudest and clearest trumpeter. "Computers in the home" is neither radical nor terribly interesting these days. But in recent years it's been fascinating to see how the consumer tail end of computing has wagged the dog of the professional world, which was supposed to get the technology first, drive its adoption, and watch with smug detachment as it trickled down to the masses.
In the CD and DVD worlds, consumer adoption has laid the economic foundation for sophisticated applications, but only in a blind bushwhacking sense. CD-Audio made way for CD-ROM, music downloading broke CD-R into the big time, and Hollywood movies established DVD as a video delivery standard that content creators of all stripes could count on as a reliable conduit for their creations.
But these are hardly the kinds of cause-and-effect pairings that make trade shows hop. It's pretty obvious where the hip and hop are today: At CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, which has established itself as the premier show for digital content creators and post-producers, the key constituents of the digital studio domain. It comes down to something much simpler than what gets announced there as opposed to, say, DV Expo or NAB: What's the Next Big Thing? You'll find the answer at CES. Which gives us the answer to another question: Who's driving this bus?
The latest developments revealed at CES 2004 got me thinking seriously about a question that I've dismissed for some time: Is MPEG on the way out? Not a chance. As long as DVD players perch atop more TVs than any other video playback device, and said players play only MPEG-2-based video, MPEG ain't going nowhere. And I've held fast to that belief even knowing that the latest video standards—particularly Windows Media 9—promise tighter compression and better quality. But with the key DVD authoring announcements of the show (most notably, from Philips and Sonic) concerning both hi-def video and Windows Media 9 for consumer DVD playback devices, my head is spinning. And when the spinning stops, what I expect to find is a 180-degree about-face.
How will hi-def, new-codec DVD push past stodgy old MPEG-2 into the living room, creating a trickle-up effect that will establish it in the higher-end, business-oriented applications that have just been waiting for the opportunity to invest in hi-def with confidence? Well, part of the answer is the successful second wind of the homeward-bound Media Center PC as a legitimate convergence device—merging new-codec content creation specifically as it marries office and living room more generally. This suggests that technology trends are not only illustrating lifestyle trends (that North Americans actually want PCs in their living rooms), but that these lifestyle shifts are driving creation and playback technologies with an eerie specificity.
As long as the use of technology in "the rest of our lives" exerts such an influence over the the content creation tools we use at "work," CES week will be "trade show season," and all prognostications will hinge on what happens at the LVCC in those heady days. Which probably means they should start holding the conference on February 2, haul the groundhog out to Vegas, and jump for joy as he squints into the desert sun and predicts an endless summer.