There’s a Darwinian edge to the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where every January CES gives 150,000+ industry delegates the chance to experience the world’s largest showcase of next-gen (and often pre-launch) devices, gadgets, drones and robots. Through the noise and colour it is easy to see the practical use cases that will change our lives. Also obvious – though maybe no less important – are the things that seem more like solutions looking for problems, cat bowls with face recognition and robots that fold your laundry among them.

With the benefit of a few weeks to reflect, I wanted to share three quick thoughts on what I saw as key themes this year.

5G focus at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, January 2019

Solving customer problems before they knew they had them

The real decision-makers at CES were not the sales teams, the engineers or technologists – in fact, the real decision makers were not even there! The ones driving natural selection in the technology world are of course customers. The challenge in technology innovation though is that customers often do not know what they want before they see the solution. Did people know they wanted voice recognition AI on their mobile phone before it was developed? Probably not. Was the idea of a vehicle with software that could be continuously and autonomously updated a real need before it became possible? I don’t think so. Are the high def televisions you can fold up like beach towels at CES something customers will take to? Time will tell.

The point is the tech companies that are the most successful take things that customers did not know they wanted, develop them and then let the customer be the real judges of the experiences they create.

That dynamic is right at the heart of what we are trying to do at Telstra through our T22 strategy. We are working to transform the company around simple, intuitive products and services that offer a fantastic customer experience. Part of this work is getting the basics right and removing pain points but a lot of it is also about developing solutions customers did not even know they might need. That also underlines the real importance of Telstra being at events like CES and how we use it to inform our thinking around how to bring the best experience to life for our customers.

The power of unexpected outcomes

My second reflection on CES is that you cannot always predict how things will work out. CES had all manner of robots, drones and devices that could perform every conceivable task but with some of them it was easy to think: “Well, that’s never going to take off!”. That might be true but I think it is important to never underestimate the power of unexpected outcomes. In this ,I am reminded of Amazon’s less than successful attempt to enter the smartphone market a few years ago. It did not work out but one piece of technology developed as part of that is something the world now knows as Alexa. It is interesting to think that if Amazon had been successful with that smartphone they might not have pushed ahead in developing the amazing, voice controlled AI capabilities that Alexa now has. There is great power in unexpected outcomes and who knows how the underlying technology in some of the technology on show might eventually change the world.

Networks – bringing it all to life

My third reflection from CES was the absolutely central role networks play. This year 5G comes to life and the list of things it will enable includes just about everything at CES along with technologies like artificial intelligence, smart cities, digital health and countless other life-changing and life-enhancing advances. The great news is Telstra is 5G ready and we already have more than 200 5G towers operational and have developed deep domain expertise, including at our 5G Innovation Centre on the Gold Coast. As a network operator, what is exciting for us in planning and building a 5G-enabled network is that the full range of opportunities it will create in the future will not only be nowhere near clear when the first 5G devices begin to use it later this year, they will evolve with the market, with innovators and entrepreneurs and, most of all, with customer needs and preferences. We know where we have come from, we know where we are now, but we don’t know exactly what 5G technology will enable in the future – that makes the future unpredictable, unknown, but most of all incredibly exciting.

More to come as I head to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress from 25-28 February.

5G focus at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, January 2019