Typically, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which just wrapped in Las Vegas, is a place for announcements with more light than heat. But amidst the bizarre and unnecessary gadgets that will soon be forgotten, big companies rolled out a handful of technologies that could be truly transformative.
What’s noticeable about these game-changers is that, despite CES’s doggedly gadgety nature, most of them weren’t gadgets. For example: While flat screen TVs may have reached the zenith of their development (paywall), the services piping content to them, mainly Netflix, are for the first time innovating in ways that are impossible for cable operators and with physical media like disks. Similarly, “connected cars” were a big part of the buzz at CES, but the software for them is likely to be a much bigger industry. Meanwhile, a company called Nuance pointed the way to a future in which all of our devices accept voice commands.
On the gadget front, the picture was more mixed. While there are lots of Google-Glass-like displays that sit directly in front of our eyes, most are probably not yet ready for everyday wear. But they could find plenty of applications in special circumstances, like law enforcement. Smartwatches, on the other hand, have progressed to the point where some of us might actually want to buy them—if only as conversation pieces or ways to keep our phones in our pockets.
In a way, this serves only to prove that the most interesting things in technology are often those that embody its promise rather than the forms it takes once it’s been squeezed into a device we can buy. But while one of the chief makers of such devices, Apple, was as always conspicuously absent from CES, the year ahead will probably be full of Apple’s own takes on many of the gizmos that its competitors unveiled at this week’s show.—Christopher Mims
Five things on Quartz we especially liked
How to reply to “Wow, it’s cold. So much for global warming!” Eric Holthaus walks you through how this week’s record cold temperatures in the US are probably, in fact, the result of global warming, thanks to a feedback mechanism called Arctic amplification.
From the mouthpiece of apartheid to a darling of the tech world. John McDuling traces the rise of Naspers, South Africa’s biggest company, and how a bold early investment helped it transform from publisher of the National Party’s house paper into one of the world’s most successful tech investors.
The small-town Irish bureaucrat responsible for a billion people’s privacy. Billy Hawkes is 62 and works out of a little office next to a convenience store. Leo Mirani relates how, thanks to a mix of history, economics and regulatory quirks, he is gaining a growing influence over your data privacy—and not everyone is pleased.
Two big shifts in the world’s energy balance. Steve LeVine identifies two impending changes with far-reaching consequences: A China-Russia natural-gas deal could soften Russia’s relationship to the West, and higher-than-predicted US oil output could push global oil prices down for years or decades.
How to overcome food anxiety. We live an era of unprecedented food plenty, yet we’re ever more paranoid about eating the wrong kinds of food. Lauren Brown talks to doctors and nutritionists and comes away with some simple advice for how to stop worrying and just eat what your body needs.
Five things elsewhere that made us smarter
Where the word “racism” came from. From a racist, as it happens: Gene Demby at NPR’s Code Switch tells the story of Richard Henry Pratt, a 19th-century missionary who decried segregation and sought to eliminate racial differences—chiefly by eliminating Native American culture.
The people who burgled the FBI. Twelve years before Edward Snowden was born, anti-war activists broke into an FBI office, stole documents showing how the agency spied on political groups, and sent them to the media. They were never caught. Four decades later, writes Mark Mazzetti at the New York Times, their story is finally being told.
Forget about preserving your child’s “natural immunity.” Amy Parker’s parents were health freaks who brought her up without vaccines. As she writes in Slate, she caught “measles, mumps, rubella, a type of viral meningitis, scarlatina, whooping cough, yearly tonsillitis, and chickenpox” and more besides.
What Angela Ahrendts could do for Apple. When the Burberry CEO was named to run Apple’s retail arm, it came as a surprise: What could a fashion exec teach the company that invented the iconic Apple store? Jeff Chu in Fast Company explains: It’s nothing to do with wearable technology and a lot to do with China.
Mexico’s agricultural plight, as explained by beer. The North American Free Trade Agreement devastated Mexican agriculture. But thanks to a statistical sleight-of-hand involving beer exports, it looks like it’s running an agricultural trade surplus, explains Timothy Wise in GlobalPost.
Our best wishes for a relaxing but thoughtful-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, old FBI documents, and dubious trade data to on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.