The annual Consumer Electronics Show opened its doors in Las Vegas today, and the accompanying deluge of gadget coverage is already waist deep.
For gadget lovers, it’s an exciting time of year. But for Canadian gadget lovers, it can also be a frustrating time of year, because many of the products and services announced at CES won’t be available in Canada for weeks or months, if ever.
For example, alongside its new 4K super-high definition television sets, Sony announced plans to launch a 4K video distribution service in the U.S. this summer. No Canadian availability was announced.
Or take Netgear, which announced a new Google TV appliance, the NeoTV PRIME, "available now in the United States." No Canadian availability was announced.
Then there’s Texas Instruments, which showed off a portable pico projector that looks like a Rubik’s Cube. Apparently, the device is aimed at parents who want to help their kids fall asleep by projecting videos on a bedroom wall. It’s currently available in China, and they say it’s coming to the U.S. in the next few months. Again, no word on Canadian availability.
It’s a familiar pattern. A shiny new piece of technology is announced. It launches in the U.S.
Then, Canadians wait. And wait. And wait.
One problem is digital rights
There are several different reasons why Canadians are second (or third, or fourth) in line for the latest gadgets. For streaming media services like Pandora, or Spotify, or Hulu (and the hardware that supports those services), the wait often has to do with rights. In 2011, Pandora’s founder blamed Canadian rights societies for preventing streaming music services from entering the Canadian market, calling proposed rates "simply uneconomic."
Another hold-up can be legislation (or lack thereof). For example, right now in the U.S., there’s a huge amount of buzz around equity crowdfunding – Kickstarter-type services that would allow direct, small-stakes investment by individuals in small companies. The U.S. is well on its way towards finalizing legislation that would allow these services to exist. Here in Canada, we lag behind.
But perhaps the biggest factor that keeps new foreign tech products and services out of Canada is our size. According to John Reid, the CEO of the high-tech business association CATA Alliance, in the eyes of tech companies, Canada is a small market.
"[I]f you create something in New York, or California," he explains, "you’ve immediately got a very significant market. Or if you create something in some of the new markets in China and elsewhere, geographically, you can touch a lot of customers quickly. Whereas in Canada... it’s very hard to touch a lot of customers quickly."
Canada as a "testbed"
But there may be hope. We may be able to use our relatively small population as a way to actually get new tech product first. The idea here is to encourage domestic and foreign tech companies to treat Canada as a testbed – a place to try out new ideas, or soft-launch products before a wider release.
In fact, just last week, we saw a rare example of this, when Facebook announced a new feature that allows people to use their smartphone app to make free VoIP calls. They’re calling it a "test," and contrary to the usual U.S.-first launch of new features, it began in Canada. Facebook wouldn’t tell me exactly why they chose to test this new feature in Canada first, but it’s not hard to imagine why. Canadian smartphone adoption is high, and our relatively small population makes a test like this low-stakes.
Spun the right way, being a small market could work to our advantage. It’s part of a future that Chris O’Neill, the head of Google Canada, outlined more than two years ago: "My vision for Canada is that we reverse that trend altogether, meaning Canada becomes a hotbed for innovation and we actually test things here first."
Money, markets and people
I asked CATA’s John Reid if there’s anything Canada could do to make itself more attractive as a technology testbed. He told me that if we’re going to encourage tech companies to launch their products and services here first, we need to focus on three things: Money, markets and people.
"If we create better conditions – and I think the government is – for immigration of talent. If we create better conditions that people can secure capital. If we can create marketplaces that adopt technology or buy technology at a faster pace. You have to work at those three things. And if you do that, it changes how you’re viewed by the international investment community."
So, longer term, there’s promise. But what about right now? What if there’s a gadget that’s announced at CES this week and you need to have it as soon as humanly possible? First, it’s important to remember that Canadians don’t always have to wait for the cool new stuff. Some of the shiny new consumer electronics announced this week will be available simultaneously in Canada and around the world.
But if you really need to have the latest and greatest, and it’s not available in Canada, many new products end up on eBay and Craigslist before they end up on Canadian store shelves. For U.S.-only online services, the workarounds are plentiful. Or, if you’re like me, you can use buying a new U.S.-only gadget as an excuse to take a cross-border road trip.
Failing that, you can always just close your eyes, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that patience is a virtue.