CES: Five Big Consumer Electronics Trends Hiding Behind the Gadgets

NEWS ANALYSIS: Five big trends are shaping the consumer electronics market in 2014, but they will get lost among all the HDTVs, smartphones, tablets and other gadgets on the show floor.

The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) starts next week. I won't be there this year, but about 150,000 consumer electronics geeks will attend to scout around for the next big thing.

The chances of actually finding the next big thing are remote in an arena driven by huge vendors (Samsung, et. al.) with huge marketing budgets.

Furthermore, the show tends to highlight a lot of me-too products such as TV manufacturers touting how large and skinny their latest HDTV models are or medical device makers bragging about how their latest wearable units are so much more precise and measure more attributes.

But hunting for the next big thing at CES, like hunting in general, is more about the journey than the catch. There were five big consumer trends in 2013 that will not be at the forefront of CES, but which collectively have a greater impact than rooms full of 4K monitors.

1. Original Video Content Binge. It is great that the big TV vendors have driven down prices and increased screen size. I thought there might be an end to the large screen race. But LG's plans to show off a 105-inch curved TV (can Samsung be far behind?) prove that the race for big-screen bragging rights is only heading in a different direction. But what is the content you will be watching on those big screens? Both Netflix with "House of Cards" and "Orange Is the New Black" as well as Amazon with "Alpha House" and "Betas" showed the true innovation in consumer television by combining their distribution with great scripting and top production values. I know CES is essentially a hardware show. But software in the form of original programming from nontraditional sources is the current big consumer TV story.

2. Unfettered phones. While smartphones are taking over the mobile world and there will be piles of those devices introduced at CES, the real story is the welcome demise of the phone/carrier cartel. It was a marriage that had to end. Consumers dislike contracts that appear to extend to infinity, and the carriers complained about losing money on the subsidized phones. You really can't build much of a business plan around unhappy customers and money-losing programs. Those contracts still exist, but the established carriers and startup telecom companies are falling over themselves to offer no-contract plans. As I said, CES is primarily about hardware. But the end of phone contracts will do more to restructure the smartphone business than cramming 4GB into a device.

3. The Tech Guard Dog That Didn't Bark. In the past, Apple—despite having no formal presence at CES—was always the vendor that owned the hottest consumer electronics products that were the talk of the show. Apple introduced the iPhone, iPad and MacBook Air at its own events, and competing vendors went to CES attempting to do the catch-up dance. This year is different. Apple has introduced some interesting, but not next-big-thing-level products. This year, the stage will belong to the device makers that actually attend CES, and it will be interesting to see what they introduce.

4. The Tech Hound That Did Bark. Google is now setting the pace on the consumer side. The company tends to appear at CES as a partner. (It is expected to announce a tie-up with Audi this year.) But Google Glass (which is interesting but too nerdy for many) and the rapid rise of the Chromebook are currently driving the consumer technology spectrum from forward thinking technology to emerging Microsoft laptop competitor.

5. Tech Hounds That Need to Bark. Intel (whose CEO Brian Krzanich will deliver the first keynote speech) will promote its two-in-one devices. Microsoft, which once was a huge presence at CES, is now reportedly only going to do suite meetings. Both companies were notable in 2013 for failing to delivering a coherent consumer strategy. If they want to reclaim their once-dominant consumer positions, it is time for them both to get their acts together.

So there you are. While I won't be at CES, I'll be watching how these five trends are reflected in the CES announcements and keynotes.

Eric Lundquist is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Lundquist, who was editor in chief at eWEEK (previously PC WEEK) from 1996-2008, authored this article for eWEEK to share his thoughts on technology, products and services. No investment advice is offered in this article. All duties are disclaimed. Lundquist works separately for a private investment firm, which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this article and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.