The Concept Electronics Show

Dieter Bohn, writing for The Verge from CES 2020, “Concept Cars and Concept Foldables Betray a Lack of Confidence”:

We knew that we’d see a lot of folding screens this year at CES, but what we didn’t fully expect is just how few of them would come with proposed ship dates.

Bohn is being generous here. We all fully expected it. This is what CES, at least during the big keynote presentations the night before the show officially starts, has become: a parade of concepts, not products.


Dell’s Concept Ori and Intel’s Horseshoe Bend concepts are just concepts, tech demos that prove that, yes, these companies are working on devices like this. But Intel wouldn’t let anybody fold its folding laptop, which seems problematic. TCL also made a folding screen prototype, but as with the above it didn’t say that what it was showing was even representative of a future product. […]

So why all the concept foldables instead of real products? I can think of a bunch of reasons, but they all boil down to one thing: a lack of confidence.

A bunch of cars were also unveiled at CES on Monday, and all of the ones that got any attention are concepts too. Even Sony had one, which looked fine but to my eyes didn’t look imbued with even an ounce of Sony design language — it could have just as easily been a new Honda or Toyota.1 Mercedes showed off the most concept-y of concepts — an Avatar-inspired fantasy car developed in conjunction with James Cameron.

Bohn’s main point here is spot-on — there’s something wrong with a show where none of the most exciting announcements are for actual products coming to market soon. But I disagree that it’s about “confidence”. It’s that all of these companies are bad at designing actual products. It is highly instructive that the one company best known for shipping genuinely exciting, groundbreaking products never shows concept designs.2 Concept designs (and worse, concept videos) are a sign of dysfunction and incompetence at a company. It’s playing make-believe while fooling yourself and your audience into thinking you’re doing something real. Concepts allow designers to ignore real-world constraints: engineering, pricing, manufacturing, legal regulations, sometimes even physics. But dealing with real-world constraints is the hard work of true design. Concepts don’t stem from a lack of confidence. They stem from a dereliction of the actual duties of design.

I’ve railed against concept designs many times over the years, but two items I originally linked to over a decade ago are instructive. First, this bit from Lev Grossman’s profile of Steve Jobs and Apple for Time magazine in October 2005, “How Apple Does It”:

Ask Apple CEO Steve Jobs about it, and he’ll tell you an instructive little story. Call it the Parable of the Concept Car. “Here’s what you find at a lot of companies,” he says, kicking back in a conference room at Apple’s gleaming white Silicon Valley headquarters, which looks something like a cross between an Ivy League university and an iPod. “You know how you see a show car, and it’s really cool, and then four years later you see the production car, and it sucks? And you go, What happened? They had it! They had it in the palm of their hands! They grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory!

“What happened was, the designers came up with this really great idea. Then they take it to the engineers, and the engineers go, ‘Nah, we can’t do that. That’s impossible.’ And so it gets a lot worse. Then they take it to the manufacturing people, and they go, ‘We can’t build that!’ And it gets a lot worse.”

When Jobs took up his present position at Apple in 1997, that’s the situation he found. He and Jonathan Ive, head of design, came up with the original iMac, a candy-colored computer merged with a cathode-ray tube that, at the time, looked like nothing anybody had seen outside of a Jetsons cartoon. “Sure enough,” Jobs recalls, “when we took it to the engineers, they said, ‘Oh.’ And they came up with 38 reasons. And I said, ‘No, no, we’re doing this.’ And they said, ‘Well, why?’ And I said, ‘Because I’m the CEO, and I think it can be done.’ And so they kind of begrudgingly did it. But then it was a big hit.”

Either it can be made, or it can’t. If it can, show it when it’s real. The iMac wasn’t designed at the conceptual stage as a fantasy — it was something Jobs, Ive, and their team thought Apple could really make. Designing at the limits of possibility is one thing; designing unbounded by reality is another.

Second, Kontra’s splendid 2008 essay from his (alas) now-defunct Counternotions, “Why Apple Doesn’t Do ‘Concept Products’”:

As a contrast, let’s take the outfit that has been voted as the “most innovative” company by BusinessWeek and Fortune many times, Apple. Hasn’t Apple produced in the late ’80s perhaps the canonical concept vision in technology, the Knowledge Navigator?

Yes. And that was the last such concept piece coming out of Cupertino, certainly since Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1997. Why hasn’t Apple, the most innovative and visionary company in computing, produced a single concept product or vision in over a decade? Because, to paraphrase Jobs, real artists ship.

What a pile of pie-in-the-sky horseshit the Knowledge Navigator video was — and in most ways would remain so even if it were released today. And that was 1987, when the Macintosh was in its toddler years. The Mac had a lot of hard problems ahead of it, and Apple’s leadership was off making science fiction films. Am I arguing that the Knowledge Navigator concept directly led to the coagulated product stagnation that almost killed Apple eight years later? No. I’m arguing that the Knowledge Navigator was a warning — a dead canary in the coal mine — that Apple’s leadership wasn’t focused on the present, and probably not even focused on reality. Early ’90s Apple spent a lot of time touting future operating systems — first Taligent, then Copland and Gershwin3 — that never came close to shipping, while letting the crown jewel of the company, the Macintosh, starve technically.

Back to Kontra:

Why would a commercial entity like Apple produce a concept product? Apple is likely generating more concept products and visions than any other technology company for internal use. When Apple wanted to get into retail stores, for example, Jobs had Ron Johnson build a fully-functioning, real-size prototype and tore it down at the last minute to rebuild a new one. Why didn’t Apple release the “concept store” to the then-deeply-skeptical press in order to “demonstrate visionary leadership”? In a similar situation Microsoft likely would have.

Exactly. What’s harmful is presenting concept designs to the public as though they are products. And even if a publicly presented concept is something a company truly does intend to eventually ship in some form, why show it early? To give competitors a head start copying it? So that if the product actually does ship eventually, people will view it as old news?

Kontra’s entire essay is well-worth reading in full. And his closing rings as true today as it did in 2008:

Apple would gain nothing from telegraphing its intentions and capabilities by releasing public conceptual products. The company is being more than prudent by not displaying their unconstrained fantasies to competitors, media, investors or customers.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, this inexorably leads us to Kontra’s law:

A commercial company’s ability to innovate is inversely proportional to its proclivity to publicly release conceptual products.

  1. If you had told me in my youth that Sony would be unveiling an electric car in 2020, I’d have expected a design that dropped jaws and blew minds. Not something that looks like every other sedan on the road. Also, it’s a sign of Sony’s divisional organization structure that they publicly showed a car that they almost certainly have no intention of ever making, but did not show a preview of the thing tens of millions of people can’t wait to buy: the PS5. Sony’s Playstation division knows what it’s doing. ↩︎

  2. The AirPower debacle was, arguably, an inadvertent concept design announcement. Looked great, lots of appeal — but it turned out Apple couldn’t actually make it. ↩︎︎

  3. How lost was 1994 Apple? They weren’t just pre-hyping one OS that would never actually ship — Copland — they were already pre-hyping its successor, Gershwin. Bananas. ↩︎︎