CES: The Magic Is Back
After two relatively ho-hum years, CES is crackling again. This year was not overshadowed by any particular device -- there were plenty of exhibitors making star turns. There were lots of tablets and Androids, 3-D TVs and 3-D games. There were also a slew of e-books on display, and a particularly interesting technology that could revolutionize that market.
I was at CES last week, and the magic was clearly back in this show. In the past couple of years, CES has been dominated by one device -- making it more like a one-product waste of time. Two years ago, everyone was talking about the iPhone, making many of us wonder if we were at the wrong event. Last year, it was the Palm Pre, which turned out to be a bit of a flash in the pan. This year, it seemed at first that the Google/HTC Nexus One would steal the show, but there didn't appear to be any lasting buzz on that device by the end of the first day. Attention had shifted elsewhere.
I think this showcases a massive return to fascinating consumer electronics devices after a long dry spell. Eyes are still trained on Apple's upcoming iSlate, but it receded into the shadows at an otherwise very interesting show.
My product of the week is Mirasol, an amazing new small display from Qualcomm that could massively change the emerging market for tablets and e-books.
ARM Owned the Show
What really stood out at CES this year was how prevalent the Android operating system was and how awash the show was with products using ARM, rather than x86 processors. Intel showcased its hot new Nehalem processor and new chipset, but CES is more of a consumer electronics show and, even for Intel, the netbook-like products were pulling more buzz.
From automotive to personal electronics, to smart-tablets and smartphones, ARM was the product of the hour and Freescale, Marvell and Qualcomm were all reveling in the attention. They had a rather impressive presence at the show collectively and all of them are positioned well for the increasingly cloud-based future that many of us are anticipating.
Android: Hot Today, Gone Tomorrow
Android was the platform of choice for the vast majority of these devices and, overall, folks were arguing that Google wasn't really going after Microsoft or Apple. It was bypassing both companies on the road to a future funded largely by advertising dollars. That was an easier argument to carry, because Google didn't have a presence at the show.
However, a number of us got together to look ahead and wondered how marketing for these new devices would be funded. Google doesn't fund co-marketing agreements like Microsoft does, and this is a market defined largely by Apple, which traditionally outspends Microsoft in this space. Spending less seems to be a formula for future failure, and I still wonder how a company that makes the vast majority of its money from advertising can justify being so bad at it.
This was showcased by how quickly interest dropped for the Nexus One. Clearly different from the iPhone, this stunning phone became old news hours after its introduction.
HTC Kicks Butt
HTC had the widest line of killer phones of any vendor. Not only did it have the top Android-based phones in the Motorola Droid and Nexus One, but it had the top Windows Mobile phone in the HD2.
It launched a new phone at the show called the "HTC Smart," which uses the Qualcomm Brew platform as an OS, and it spoke of a price point well below existing smartphones in an effort to expand the market for them sharply. HTC seems to be positioning itself well as the king of smartphones and continues to be an impressive company to watch.
Lenovo surprised everyone with a line of AMD-based products designed to hit more aggressive price points and to have better graphics performance. These offerings sported stronger graphics and some interesting new designs in a strategy to broaden its market presence.
However, the truly amazing products were an Arm-based smartbook and a hybrid product that could convert from an x86 netbook to an ARM tablet, much like the saucer section disconnected from the Starship Enterprise in "Star Trek Next Generation." Of the PC OEMs, it attracted a good deal of the buzz at the show.
HP Blindsides Apple
At the Microsoft keynote, an HP-branded slate product was showcased which looked a great deal like what many think the Apple tablet will look like.
However, unlike the Apple tablet, which is rumored to be running the limited iPhone OS, HP's tablet runs Windows 7. Granted, both devices are more imagination than reality at the moment, but HP's product could actually launch before Apple's.
Microsoft also showcased an ARM-based smartbook prototype, not to be left out.
Dell Gets Sneaky
Dell flashed a little gorgeous tablet and attracted a lot of Apple-like speculation. This was really sneaky, because it wouldn't let anyone play with the device or talk about what was inside it. However, it was clearly stunning to look at, and it raised substantial speculation about what was coming.
It also announced it would be selling its new Android-based smartphone through AT&T, and the agreement was positioned as everything Apple's wasn't (in terms of giving AT&T more control). I'll bet this contract comes up at the negotiating table along with a few more -- AT&T was very aggressive with Android-based phones -- when the iPhone agreement comes up for renewal mid-year.
Ford Does CES
There is a car section at CES that is expensive to walk through. The automobiles are fully tricked out, and the best was a hot Lexus in flat black with the mirrors replaced by cameras, an exotic interior treatment, and an aero kit that kind of made it look like the cool Batmobile.
However, and I say this with some American pride, Ford was a major contributor to the show this year, and it is also the one car company that didn't get bailed out and is profitable again.
It is using technology as a competitive advantage, and it was big on how much safer Fords are with Sync, because folks aren't messing with their iPods as much and theoretically crashing less often. Based on the stats they showed, probably a lot less.
Showstoppers: Show Within a Show
Showstoppers was packed full of cool stuff to mess with, and I really burned the midnight oil looking at it. Nvidia had several of its prototype tablets at the show, and the video and game performance from them was just stunning.
There was also a cool little robot called the Mint from Evolution Robotics that used a Swiffer pad to clean tile and hardwood floors. That seemed like a brilliant idea.
Overall, this was a great CES. Folks were excited, there were tons of products that were actually fun to play with this year, and even the TV guys were making a big splash with 3-D. I thought the 3-D games Nvidia showcased were more impressive, though, and will likely become common more quickly than the TV shows and movies.
I think the market is coming back -- and that, my friends, is very exciting.
Product of the Week: Qualcomm Mirasol Display
There were tons of e-books on display at CES but these products, while great for books and coming with fantastic battery power, generally don't do multimedia.
There were also tons of tablets -- but these products, for the most part, don't do books well (an exception is the Tegra-based Notion Ink product I mentioned a couple of weeks ago).
This amazing Mirasol Display, which uses micro-mirrors, promises to provide the benefits of e-paper and the color breadth and multimedia capability of LCD displays simultaneously.
This could truly transform the industry and result in the perfect new e-book/tablet device at some future point -- and the company is ramping production, so that future point is near.
It is not often that we find a product that could turn an emerging market on its ear. The iPod was such a product, and this display on the right tablet platform could do equally amazing things, making it an easy choice for my product of the week.
Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.