Jan 3, 2020

Axios Login

Ina Fried

Once again, Axios packs up and heads to Vegas for CES.

In today's Login, we offer a preview of what to expect both in terms of substance and rhetoric. And we do it all in 1,390 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: CES isn't what you think it is

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

CES, the annual January trade show in Las Vegas, is many things: a great place to catch up with leaders from throughout the tech industry, a decent chance to spot broad trends and an opportunity to hear stump speeches from big-name CEOs trying to get their companies seen as tech leaders.

What it's not, though, is a place for the most important tech announcements of the year. Companies like Apple, Google and Samsung prefer to launch key products in a less noisy environment, at their own private events.

Yes, but: Of course there will be plenty of product news at the show.

The big picture: One key role for CES these days is as a showcase for companies and leaders who aren't known for being at the forefront of technology — but want to be.

  • This year's speakers include presidential daughter/aide Ivanka Trump, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Daimler Chairman Ola Källenius and Delta CEO Ed Bastian.

Between the lines: CES is traditionally devoted to the worship of novel tech. It will be fascinating to see how the show copes with today's changed environment, in which the public is increasingly interested not just in seeing new gadgets, but in how new products affect security, privacy and human rights.

  • Expect a lot of talk along these lines about the positive impact tech companies can have.

What's new: There will be a few new conference tracks added this year addressing topics such as gaming, voice, drones and tourism. The list speaks to how diverse (and perhaps how bloated) the conference has gotten. 

  • Axios will have you covered, with Joann Muller, Kia Kokalitcheva, Sara Fischer and me on the ground in Vegas and sharing our thoughts in Login and at Axios.com starting on Sunday.
  • And our own Mike Allen will be talking about brands, politics and the media.

Go deeper:

2. Who will be making news in Vegas

While we don't yet know the full details of everything that will be unveiled at CES this year, we have a pretty good idea of who will be making the announcements and the types of products to expect.

Why it matters: Vegas during CES is a noisy place. It pays to know which direction to point your ears.

Traditional consumer electronics firms: Expect the Samsungs, Sonys and LGs of the world to dazzle us with giant TVs few people can afford, including wall-size displays, sets that can roll and fold and screens sporting 8K resolution.

  • Samsung's HS Kim is taking the Monday night pre-show keynote spot once occupied by Bill Gates, and he gave a preview here — though if you're looking for more details and fewer buzzwords, try CNET's story.

Appliances: Sometimes some of the most interesting new devices at CES are high-end takes on home appliances. A few years back, it was multiplex washing machines. This year, it could be AI-equipped fridges.

PC makers: Expect all the big computer makers to unveil new models. Dell isn't even waiting until Vegas. On Thursday it announced a new 5G-equipped laptop and improved software for connecting its PCs with iOS devices.

Automotive: CES has been a prime venue for automakers for some time, with all the big names eager to show just how tech-forward their new models will be. We'll also be hearing about super-light vehicles, with Uber set to make some announcements, as well as Segway-Ninebot.

Component makers: The leading chipmakers, including Qualcomm, Nvidia, Intel and more, will all have a significant presence.

  • Qualcomm is focusing on cars, Nvidia on gaming and autonomous machines (both cars and robots), and Intel has a press conference set for Monday with CEO Bob Swan.

Social media: The big social companies are mostly absent or marginal at CES. Snapchat, TikTok and other major social media companies aren't expected to have major presences like they do at conferences like VidCon and Cannes.

  • Facebook executives are speaking at various events, but the company isn't expected to make any major announcements. Twitter is hosting a panel on Wednesday morning, and Reddit will be exhibiting.

Government speakers: Most federal officials canceled their appearances last year due to the government shutdown, but several administration leaders are expected in Vegas this year.

  • In addition to Ivanka Trump and Chao, the FDA's Amy Abernethy is leading a session and U.S. CTO Michael Kratsios is expected to appear as part of Chao's keynote. FCC chairman Ajit Pai and FTC chairman Joe Simons are also slated for a fireside chat.

Apple: As usual, Apple won't have its own spot on the show floor, but its presence will be felt, both in terms of accessories and in the influence its designs and products hold over many competitors' offerings.

  • Also, expect to see more smart TVs with the Apple TV app built in, and vendors of smart-home products will introduce new devices supporting HomeKit. Plus, Apple's Jane Horvath will be part of a panel of tech industry privacy chiefs.
3. Apple bets big on Tinseltown talent

Richard Plepler, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon. Photos: Gary Gershoff/FilmMagic, Steve Granitz/WireImage, Taylor Hill/Getty Images

Apple's new streaming service is only beginning to take shape, but what's quite clear is the company's willingness to spend big for top Hollywood talent, as Sara reports.

Why it matters: Analysts have for years predicted that Apple, with lots of free cash flow, would one day buy a content company like Netflix or HBO to fulfill its streaming ambitions. But Apple's recent investments in individual producers, actors and directors suggest the Silicon Valley titan is heading in a different direction.

Driving the news: Former HBO boss Richard Plepler has secured a five-year exclusive deal with Apple to produce feature films, documentaries and original series for Apple TV+, his spokesperson confirmed to Axios on Thursday.

Between the lines: The deal, which was first reported by the New York Times, brings authority to Apple's fledgling content efforts and gives Plepler a powerful platform to wield his influence as a top producer and talent magnet.

  • "This is a watershed moment for Apple — aligning with Plepler and team make it abundantly clear just how serious AppleTV+'s ambitions are," says veteran media analyst Rich Greenfield, a partner at LightShed Partners.

Be smart: Unlike some of its streaming competitors, Apple TV+ is being built almost exclusively for original content. Its smaller, more focused catalog is starting to look attractive to Hollywood A-listers, who worry about their work getting lost in the shuffle of mega-libraries at Netflix, Amazon, or HBO Max.

The big picture: Plepler's partnership with Apple signals a new era for Hollywood brass, in which they're becoming attractive content creation and distribution partners for tech companies with deep pockets.

  • Companies like Amazon and Netflix have notably opted to spend hundreds of millions of dollars luring top talent from traditional studios to produce content for their streaming services, instead of buying the content companies outright.

Yes, but: It's very early, but Apple's big investments have yet to turn into major commercial successes.

  • The first major television show for Apple TV+, "The Morning Show," received mixed reviews, despite its all-star cast, which included Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell.
  • Reviews of the service overall suggest that Apple's investments in other programming from Oprah, as well as "Sesame Street" and "Peanuts" spinoffs, haven't helped the company establish a clear vision for the service yet.

What's next: It's still to be seen whether Apple's other big-time investments in Hollywood honchos will pay off.

Go deeper:

4. More Google and Amazon workers speak out

New incidents are highlighting deepening tensions between tech giants and worker activists as employees and former workers at Amazon, Google and other companies publicly decry corporate moves.

Why it matters: These companies are struggling to reconcile idealistic images and rosy reputations with the more hard-nosed tactics big companies frequently adopt to discourage protests and labor organizing.

Driving the news:

  • A group of Amazon workers urging improved climate policies says some of their members were threatened with being fired for speaking out, per Vox.
  • A former top international relations employee at Google, now a U.S. Senate candidate in Maine, blasted the company in a Medium essay and Washington Post interview. Other current and former Googlers told CNBC that last year marked a turning point in the closing of the company's once tolerant corporate culture.
  • At least five workers at Google filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board last month saying they were fired for what should have been protected activism. Google maintains the firings were based on violations of company policy.
5. Take Note

On Tap

  • It's the first weekend of 2020.
  • That said, CES events begin on Sunday, so it's an abbreviated weekend for many in tech. See you at SFO and/or in Vegas.

Trading Places

  • Enterprise data management firm Informatica on Thursday named Amit Walia as CEO, replacing Anil Chakravarthy, who will "pursue other professional opportunities." Walla had been president of products and marketing.


6. After you Login

At Login, we love travel-related hacks. Here's one for when your plane doesn't have its own phone or tablet holder.

Ina Fried