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CES 2019: 14 questions tech's biggest show needs to answer

Commentary: As the tech world descends on Las Vegas next week, these are the issues that dominate the landscape.

CES

CES 2019 effectively starts Sunday, Jan. 6 and runs through Friday, Jan. 11. And this year's show comes at a point when the tech industry is more of the center of conversation than ever before: The stock prices of Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon are under pressure as profits are under pressure, and the threat of regulation seems more possible than ever before.

With those issues swirling in the background, the industry is looking to refocus a more familiar -- and friendlier -- narrative: Cool, innovative gee-whiz products that have the potential to make your life more convenient. This year will be my 16th consecutive jaunt to Las Vegas to see the latest and greatest that the consumer electronics industry has to offer, and I'm extremely confident in predicting that we'll see plenty of the following:

  • Faster, better, bigger and smaller versions of all of last year's products
  • AI and "machine learning" integrated into more services
  • Robots everywhere
  • Everything will be cloud-connected
  • Everything will be "smart" enabled

Those, of course, are the table stakes -- the same trends that have been on display for the past three, five or even 10 years of the world's biggest electronics show. To that end, these are the biggest questions we have going into the show -- the answers to which will set the tone for the rest of 2019.

Now playing: Watch this: CES 2019: What tech to expect
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1. How will 5G change the tech landscape?

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Qualcomm showed off a 5G phone prototype in Hawaii last month.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

There is little doubt that 5G -- the next-generation wireless standard that promises hyperfast speeds with almost no latency -- is the key game-changing technology for 2019. But just how many 5G-compatible devices will we see in the new year, and how disruptive will it really be? 

While most companies will hold back their phone announcements for the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona in late February, expect to see Chinese handset makers like Huawei use the Vegas spotlight to make a splash. Meanwhile, chipmakers like Qualcomm, Nvidia and Intel will likely tout their 5G bona fides, while carriers like Verizon and AT&T will talk up 5G plans at keynotes and panel discussions throughout the week.

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2. Can Intel ready a defense against Qualcomm, AMD and ARM?

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Intel sent 250 of its Shooting Star drones over the Bellagio to celebrate CES 2018.

Intel

Intel is in a weird place: The company continues to reap billions on its CPU business, even as the global PC market remains largely stagnant. Meanwhile, the company says that its 10-nanometer chips -- codenamed Sunny Cove, and making use of "3D chip stacking" -- are finally, finally, on deck for 2019. 

But while Intel gets its ducks in a row, it feels as if the competition is leapfrogging it: Qualcomm and Apple are beginning to offer 7nm chips in PCs and iPhones, respectively, and even Amazon is developing its own ARM-based server chips. With Qualcomm and AMD planning to strut their stuff at CES this year, Intel needs to prove to the tech world how it intends to lead in 2019 and beyond -- and just putting on a good drone show won't cut it. And the company will need to do it without longtime CEO Brian Krzanich, who resigned under a cloud a few months ago. 

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3. Is the health tech revolution at hand?

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The Neomano glove, seen here at CES 2018, was designed to help those with spinal cord injuries perform everyday tasks using their hands.

Josh Miller/CNET

Health and fitness products have been on the rise at CES in the past few years, but we're expecting a virtual deluge of new products in the space at 2019's show. While giants like Apple and Fitbit garnered many of the health-tech headlines over the past year, tracking EKG and heart arrhythmia may be just the beginning. 

Look for smaller startups to share the spotlight in Las Vegas with larger companies, touting everything from wearable blood pressure monitors to sleep masks that fight jet lag to smartwatches powered by body heat. And remember that the holy grail for health tech -- at least in the US market -- is having a product that's FDA-cleared.

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4. What will Google be showing off?

Last year, Google had a big, showy installation in the parking lot of the Las Vegas Convention Center that was a basically a Disneyland-style popup homage to the search giant's technical acumen. This year, the company has carved out an even bigger chunk of the parking lot in a more high-trafficked location. Google doesn't have a formal press conference, but don't be surprised if the company sneaks in a few high-profile announcements anyway.

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5. What about Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and the other tech giants?

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Microsoft no longer has a giant booth like this one from CES 2012, but it still has a presence at the show.

Sarah Tew/CNET

None of the other tech giants will have physical presences as large as Google's -- but that doesn't mean they're not at CES. Various tentacles of the Amazon empire appear to have small exhibits throughout the show, and Microsoft and Facebook have significant meeting spaces lined up around town, too. Apple and Netflix, meanwhile, have no official space reserved at the show -- but it's a safe bet that both companies will have people on the ground for meetings. 

And at the very least, all of these companies will have "meta announcements" from an army of hardware partners at the show, talking up expanded compatibility or new integrations with services such as Alexa (Amazon), Windows/Azure/Skype (Microsoft), Instagram/WhatsApp/Oculus (Facebook), Siri/HomeKit (Apple) and Netflix's eponymous video streaming service.

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6. Can any of the 2019 video services take down Netflix?

Speaking of Netflix: The streaming video giant emerged from 2018 largely unscathed by the controversies dragging down its FAANG cousins. But 2019 looks to be its most challenging year ever, with competition emerging from every corner. Disney (soon to include the bulk of Fox), Warner (owned by AT&T) and Apple all have rival streaming services on tap for the new year that will be fighting for consumer attention and dollars. In addition to as-yet-unseen new content like Star Wars TV shows, it also means that these frenemies will likely be clawing back popular back catalog content like Friends (which Warner owns) and The Office (a Comcast property), making Netflix's own exclusive shows and movies more important than ever. 

Whether we see CES announcements in which these Netflix rivals start locking down space on smart TV systems from Samsung and Roku, or just the beginning of backroom negotiations for such unveilings later in 2019, expect the pieces on the streaming war chessboard to be made ready for battle.

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7. Security and privacy: Does the industry have a plan, or is it just giving up?

US-internet-Facebook

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress in April.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

From Facebook's Cambridge Analytica fiasco to the Marriott breach said to affect as many as half a billion people, 2018 was a brutal year in terms of digital privacy and security. CES isn't a security conference per se, but the show is awash with devices that rely on ubiquitous connectivity, always-on microphones and face-recognizing cameras -- to name just a few -- to work their magic. 

The industry is great at making these devices and services must-have products in tens of millions of homes -- but is it actually doing anything to protect this trove of data it's amassing? While users seem to shrug their shoulders in resignation with each subsequent violation, it's hard to believe that there's not a better way forward beyond "here's a free year of credit monitoring," especially in a post-GDPR world. But does any company, small or large, actually have a plan of action to make things better on the security front in 2019?

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8. Will we see any VR challenges to Oculus Quest?

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CNET's Ian Sherr played with an Oculus Quest prototype the week it was first announced.

James Martin/CNET

Announced back in September and expected to ship in spring of 2019, the Oculus Quest is a standalone fully wireless VR headset that boasts a full six degrees of freedom (no external sensors needed) and includes hand controllers -- all for $400. The Quest isn't expected to be at CES, but it's already the baseline that any competition needs to exceed in 2019. 

Will anything we see in Vegas be a better standard bearer for the beleaguered VR space? We'll be paying special attention to HTC's press conference at CES to see if that company's Vive line has anything worthwhile on deck -- though that's likely to be a PC-connected VR rig.

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9. Where does OLED and MicroLED TV display technology go from here?

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Samsung's "The Wall" MicroLED TV, first shown at CES 2018.

Sarah Tew/CNET

LG's OLED has long been the king of TV technology in terms of pure image quality, but MicroLED -- which Samsung previewed at last year's CES -- is the most intriguing challenger to the throne we've seen in some time. However, without more affordable pricing and a definitive response to the possibilities of burn-in -- its only real drawback -- OLED feels like it may have peaked from a technology perspective. (OK, the roll-up version is cool, but we've already seen that.) 

And MicroLED won't be a real contender in the home until or unless Samsung (or another manufacturer) can figure out how to miniaturize it to screen sizes that will work in an average living room. Barring such advances, expect more of the same, along with incremental improvements in the standard LCD/LED TV technology that still makes up the vast bulk of TV sales. Oh, and look for more quantum dot and short-throw projector display tech at the show, too.

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10. Does anyone care about 8K TV?

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Samsung's Q900 8K TV began shipping in 2018.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Another definite at CES will be 8K TVs -- everywhere. With a resolution of 7,680x4,320 pixels, these next-gen TVs have four times the detail of 4K TVs. But with stratospheric prices and no native 8K content on the horizon (maybe 5G can fix that?), the challenge for 8K TV seems to be less about technology and more about marketing.

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11. Can Alexa and Google Assistant live together in harmony?

Sonos One

The Sonos One has Alexa built-in, but its Google Assistant support has been repeatedly delayed.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Amazon's Alexa is still top dog in the smart home world, but Google Assistant is coming on strong -- even as contenders like Apple's Siri (HomeKit), Samsung's SmartThings, Microsoft's Cortana and a host of others compete to carve out their own space in the voice-controlled future. With Amazon and Google aiming to lock each other out, it will be interesting to see which 2019 products can remain "neutral" -- offering compatibility with two or more of the platforms, and letting the user decide -- and which may bow to exclusivity demands from these whole-home operating systems.

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12. Can Las Vegas steal Detroit's auto mojo?

2020 Mercedes-Benz EQC

The 2020 Mercedes-Benz EQC is expected to make its US debut at CES.

Teymur Madjderey/Mercedes-Benz

In recent years, bragging rights for the center of the car technology universe has been a tug of war between CES in Las Vegas and the NAIAS -- the North American International Auto Show -- in Detroit, which starts just a couple of days after CES ends. 2019 will be no different: Often, automakers split the difference, using the Nevada show to highlight general technology announcements, while saving Michigan for splashy new model or concept car debuts. 

But there are always exceptions to the rule: Look for Mercedes to debut its CLA-Class sedan in Vegas and show off its EQC electric SUV in the US for the first time, too. We may also see the unveiling of the Nissan Leaf E-Plus electric vehicle as well. Audi is expected to show off its new in-car entertainment system, while Honda will be skewing more towards robotics. Toyota, Hyundai and Byton, meanwhile, all have press conferences scheduled at CES, and we expect automotive-related announcements from Qualcomm, Nvidia and other vendors, too.

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13. Is there a Plan B if tariffs and trade wars continue?

Now playing: Watch this: Predicting tech trends in 2019
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CES is an international affair, with about one-third of the more than 180,000 attendees visiting from outside the US. But the modern consumer electronics industry was built on the assumption that its China-based supply chain was a lock-in -- Chinese contract manufacturers producing an endless stream of cheap gadgets produced for global audiences, all enabled by a frictionless global trade system. As the Trump trade wars drag into 2019, that's looking like less and less of a sure thing. And with China's economy apparently slowing, as evidenced by Apple's recent shock earnings warning, the country no longer seems like an avenue for expanding consumer markets, either. 

None of this will be mentioned at press conferences, of course, but all of the backroom meetings, letters of intent and handshake deals that happen between vendors and clients at this year's CES will occur under the murky cloud of uncertainty that currently hangs over Washington-Beijing trade relations. 

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14. How many small wonders does it take to replace one big revolutionary innovation?

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This robot duck from Aflac -- designed for pediatric cancer patients -- was one of the under-the-radar hits of CES 2018.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The Consumer Technology Association -- the trade group that stages CES -- likes to tout the long list of game-changing technologies that were first introduced (or at least showcased) at CES: the VCR, the CD, the DVR and the Xbox, just to name a few. But in recent years, CES has become less about giant companies highlighting big product launches and more about smaller vendors taking advantage of the global spotlight. 

Look to scrappy companies at startup-heavy Eureka Park and vendors at Tech West at the Sands Expo Center to infuse the 2019 CES with an energy that may well be lacking at the megabooths of the Las Vegas Convention Center, where bigger names are more likely to punt product launches to their own events later this year. (Yes, Samsung Galaxy S10, we're talking about you.)

This story was originally published on January 1, 2019.

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