If there was one overarching theme from the Consumer Electronics Show here last week, it was that absolutely every device in our lives is becoming a computer connected to the Internet.
The sleek little Palm Pre phone promises to make it easy to call your friends by looking up their numbers on Facebook.
A new version of the Ford F150 pickup truck will let contractors check service manuals by browsing the Web from an in-dash computer.
New televisions from LG, Samsung and others will let viewers watch movies from Netflixand other Internet sites.
In two years, 90 percent of all Sony products will connect to the Internet, Howard Stringer, the chief executive of Sony, predicted.
These developments can be seen as more of the electronics industry’s constant quest for something new to tantalize gadget lovers.
But there is a darker side, too, for the companies that make the devices. If the most exciting thing about your phone or truck or TV is the Web sites you go to and the software applications you download, then the device itself is less important.
That is what happened to the computer industry, with its relentless price pressure and indistinguishable products. It is hardly an attractive business model, even for consumer electronics companies already accustomed to low profit margins.
“We are commoditizing new technology,” said William Wang, the chief executive of Vizio, which has become the country’s third-largest seller of televisions after Samsung and Sony. Now that flat-screen high-definition televisions have become commonplace, he said, “the technology shifts are not that dramatic.”
Other, more established brands beg to differ, of course. Their screens are thinner and their pictures are brighter, they advertise. So consumers will inevitably be drawn to them, they argue. And they are working on what they hope will be another technology on view at the show, one that makes mere high-definition sets seem passé: Three-dimensional televisions.
But the more established brands know the battleground is shifting. Increasingly what will differentiate one TV from another is the software it runs and the Internet services it connects to.
Even Nokia , which sells more cellphones than its three nearest competitors, says that much of its future success will come from selling services, ranging from music to maps, that operate on the phones.
Another approach is to try to embed computer chips with Internet connections, all of which keep getting cheaper and smaller, into ever more unusual devices. Sony introduced an Internet-connected alarm clock that will wake you up with your favorite music videos and traffic forecasts for your commute.
Asustek , the giant Taiwanese electronics company, has developed a touch-screen computer that hangs on a wall. It also has built a PC into a keyboard that lets users surf the Net on their TVs . In the future, according to Jonney Shih, the chairman of Asustek, everything in your house, even your bedroom mirror, will be a computer display.
So even as electronics makers struggle with the extremely sluggish economy and the relentless competition, they can look forward to finding ever more shapes and sizes in which to embed their gadgets.
Here are some edited excerpts from interviews with top executives who attended the electronics show. More of these interviews, along with other articles about the electronics show, can be found at nytimes.com/ personaltech.
Services via Devices
“For a long time, our business was defined as cellphones. Hardware is not enough. We need to have a wider array of services and content. This is a major change for us.”
Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, chief executive of Nokia
“In the next five years, we are not only going to provide hardware, but content through our devices, in an easy, more convenient way. TV is no longer just TV. TV is interactive TV these days. You will use the same TV and the same remote control, but have completely different functionality.”
Jong Woo Park, the president of Samsung’s digital media business
“You ought to expect that to be more and more unified — three screens: TV, phone, PC — one cloud-based experience. Live, essentially projecting through consistently, and appropriately, to the three screens.”
Steve Ballmer, chief executive of Microsoft
The Evolving Television
“Think of Internet on the TV like the Web browser. One view is that the Web, a browser like Firefox, Chrome or I.E., will be right on the television in the next couple years. Another view is, no, a PC-based Web is just too complex. The second one is the phase that we’re in now.”
Reed Hastings, chief executive of Netflix
“Three-D television. That’s really a major, major revolution coming into consumer electronics. That’s one area where we are placing our bets”.
Woo Hyun Paik, chief technical officer and a president of LG Electronics
“Over five years, the big concept that changes for a consumer is, ‘Gosh, do I have to track whether I have my content on my PC, on my phone, on my TV and how do I move it around?’ ”
Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft’s entertainment and devices business
New Computer Shapes
“A fraction of what we sell, a much bigger percentage of it, will be lower-priced client form factor. It may have all the functionality of a PC, but maybe it’s smaller. Maybe it is just an LCD display with PC functionality in the back, that is sitting on a desk or hanging on a wall.”
Dirk Meyer, the chief executive of Advanced Micro Devices
“To make the whole digital home possible, in the eventual state, every wall becomes a display. The mirror should become a screen. You already watch the mirror.”
Jonney Shih, the chairman of Asustek
Coping With Recession
“Customers are spending less, but they are still buying. They are putting off vacations, so they can buy TVs and stay at home. Last year, customers bought $900 and $1,000 laptops. This year they are buying $500, $600, $700 laptops. They are not buying cars, so they’ve got to buy something.”
Gilbert Fiorentino, chief executive of CompUSA and TigerDirect