01.09.13

Consumer Tech Is Doomed!

According to the tech geeks at this week’s Las Vegas convention, 3D printers will put Apple and Intel out of business. Will you soon be printing out your own new MacBook? By Winston Ross.

LAS VEGAS, Nevada—“Plans: Cnet party then casino war then marrying a random booth chick at the Elvis chapel,” is how Chris Kantrowitz responded on Tuesday when I asked what he had in store for the evening.

I had no idea what a casino war or a random booth chick is, and I wasn’t on the guest list for the Cnet party. But a friend of a friend I trust in the tech world had digitally introduced me to Kantrowitz and vouched for him, and Google confirms he’s got some street cred, and the only person I know of the 150,000 crammed into Sin City this week for the Consumer Electronics Show has already gone to bed. So sure, I email back, “That is an excellent plan.”

“You’ll find me at the bar,” Kantrowitz replies as I hoof it down to the Hard Rock Hotel. “I look just like Chris Rock.”

He looks nothing like Chris Rock, but he knows I know that. With his shaggy brown hair and white-flecked beard, the 38-year-old tech guru looks more like a cross between the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl and English comedian Russell Brand which is to say he looks a little out of place at a conference full of external keyboard salesmen in suits.

“Say you are Kennith Ross from cbs when you go to check in at the door,” is the last email Kantrowitz shoots me as I wander into the Hard Rock. That plan works, I crash the CNET party, and there’s a full, open bar. The cash register reveals what appears to be the night’s tally, so far: $33,817.

Three doubles of Patrón, please, on the rocks.

“CES is really the beginning of the end,” Kantrowitz begins, nursing his free tequila, after we’ve bonded over the fact that I live in his college town — Eugene, Ore.—and he owned a great bar there called Max’s Tavern for a couple of years, because he bailed out a buddy who was going to lose the place if he couldn’t quickly come up with $25,000 in back taxes.

The “beginning of the end” thing is the kind of contrarian, “I’m too cool for CES even though I’m at CES” statement I’ve been hearing since before I landed in Vegas. Writing in Slate, Farhad Manjoo called CES “The Most Worthless Week in Tech” on Monday, explaining that he’s skipping this year’s convention because it’s an “overcrowded, overstuffed, chaotic, and profoundly pointless vaporware parade.” The CES script is for every major tech company to “put on by-the-book press conferences that begin with lots of demos of stuff we already know about—count on Intel, for instance, to always show you how fast its new chips are (hint: faster than last year’s chips). Next, with all the fanfare of the Second Coming, tech giants offer a few incremental improvements to old products. (Look, Microsoft improved the Surface computer!) Finally, they show off things like the HP Slate—gadgets in very early stages of development hat have been rushed to the show and barely work as prototypes, with little chance of actually getting to market anytime soon.”

I figure Kantrowitz is about to give me a rendition of the same diatribe—some of which is absolutely true, some of which is absolute bullshit. Yes, much of what you see at CES is stuff that we already knew about or an incremental improvement on last year’s model, but I already had three ready comebacks to this cynical take (with one caveat: this is my first convention, the sheen hasn’t worn off yet, and while I love gadgets, I don’t cover tech, so I’m a little more susceptible to “gee whiz” than a Gizmodo journo might be.)

One: what do you want, for every presenter to reinvent the wheel every year? What other play does Intel have other than to make a chip faster? What else can Microsoft do but try to elbow its way into the tablet market and try to siphon off a smidge of Apple’s market share? Samsung makes televisions, so of course they’re going to come to CES with a bigger, more awesome television than they had last year. It bores me to tears, but I don’t blame CES for that. It’s just the way the world works.

Two: there are actually some awesome products, inventions, apps and ideas at this show, and even a CES virgin like me was able to sleuth some of them out. If you’re tired of incremental improvements or shit you already knew about, skip over to “Eureka Park,” the convention’s startup hive. There’s some awesome stuff there.

And three: even if you did know about every single gadget the 3,000 presenters brought with them to Vegas, have you played with them all? Have you strapped on a pair of augmented reality goggles or hopped in a self-driving car or scooted around the hotel on a skateboard that you don’t have to kick and push?

OK, but all of that is beside Kantrowitz’s point, he fires back at me. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of neat gadgets at CES; it’s that the big guys—the major manufacturers, the Samsungs, the Sonys—they’re all “fucked,” ultimately.

“You want glasses? Print them. You want a suit? Print it.”

Right about now, you’re thinking “who is this bearded loudmouth declaring the impending demise of some of the biggest tech companies in the world?” So I’ll tell you, because it’s the next day and I have finally gotten the chance to background him. Once he sold Max’s Tavern back to the tax delinquent, Kantrowitz moved to L.A. and co-founded an online gaming technology called 3D Groove, then the concert design and production company Frank the Plumber—which counted as clients The Strokes, Akon, Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé, Katy Perry and Madonna. And after that, he started Gobbler, a cloud-based media service that aims to be a better DropBox. I have no idea whether all those ventures were or weren’t complete wastes of time, but he knows more about this stuff than I do (which isn’t saying much). Plus, the Patrón is free, and tasty.

“Buddy,” Kantrowitz says, which is what he often says before trying to make whatever point he’s about to make, “consumer electronics is for old farts.”

By that, he means, no one in their 20s is buying 110-inch televisions. Isn’t that because no one in their 20s can afford a 110-inch television, I shoot back? Well yeah, Kantrowitz admits, but even when they can afford 110-inch televisions, they’re not going to buy them. By the time the millennial generation starts making enough money to buy 110-inch televisions, technology will have progressed so far that they’ll have no interest in owning a 110-inch television, is Kantrowitz’s thesis. There’ll be too much other shit to buy, or make.

Mostly, I am about to learn, he is talking about 3D printers.

“I don’t own a television,” he says. “But I do own a MakerBot.”

A MakerBot is a 3D printer, a contraption I must confess I didn’t even believe was a real thing until about six months ago, a fact my girlfriend never ceases to remind me of because when she first told me about them, I thought she was kidding, and spent probably a full day going “Yeahhhh, OK. A 3D printer, sure. How stupid do you think I am?”

That stupid. But Kantrowitz knew about them, and he’s been salivating about getting one for what seems like eons now, and now he has one, and he bought a spool of material for $40 and he made a toy for his 4-year-old daughter with it just before he skipped off to Vegas.

This, Kantrowitz is convinced, is the future of technology, not high-definition televisions—at least, not a high-definition television that you’ll drop $5,000 or $1,000 for at Best Buy. People will one day just make a television with their 3D printer, buddy. The technology will one day be that good. Instead of buying a MacBook Pro, they’ll just make one. And then hordes of people all over the world will lose their jobs at chipmakers like Intel, which will in turn liberate them to realize their true dream of being an artist or a musician, which they’ll be able to survive doing because they’ll save so much money making stuff with 3D printers rather than buying it after paying the soon-to-be-extinct middleman’s exorbitant markup.

“You want glasses? Print them,” he says. “You want a suit? Print it.”

Sound crazy?

“Buddy, they’re already printing organs,” he says. (And it’s true. They are.) In the future, “we become a world of ideas.”

But not everybody can live off their ideas, I point out. Some people are lame, and they have no interest in trying to be creative. They just want a safe desk job and a decent salary and a cookie-cutter house in the suburbs.

Those people will be fine, Kantrowitz says. You can’t print life insurance, so there’ll still be plenty of lame people out there selling life insurance. But what 3D printers does is frees people to chase their dream, whatever that may be.

“We go back to being what we used to be: craftsmen, farmers, artists.”

It all sounds nice, doesn’t it? But maybe that’s just the tequila talking.