CES 2011: Five Essential Trends

What a difference a year makes. Last year’s CES was remarkable mostly for its complete lack of remarkableness. I have trouble remembering a single product I saw and everyone seemed depressed. The mood at CES 2011 was akin to the vibe in a locker room on game day or backstage at a big performance: Excited, energized and maybe a bit edgy.

I wondered if it was just me who noticed this, so I asked the best judge of the mood in Vegas: a local cab driver.

“The mood is totally different this year. People are upbeat,” my driver told me. He said that he could tell there were a lot more attendees at this year’s CES, and they just seemed happier.

The feeling on the convention floor was the same: electric. Mobile analyst Sascha Segan noted that virtually none of the major products unveiled at this year’s CES had pricing info. I told him that’s actually a good thing. It means vendors are showing us stuff early, taking the risk of unveiling unfinished products, marketing plans and ideas. I love that.

Overall the show was, well, overwhelming, but in a good way. Alongside the finished and polished products were prototype and experiments. Sony devoted an entire area to the future of 3D – most of it did not need glasses and looked very cool. There were wacky designs like the Lady Gaga Polaroid product line and a general sense of fun on the show floor. There we’re also trends.


With 75 tablets introduced at CES 2011, I was right to label this year’s show tabletpalooza. There were lots of Android tablets and the most popular size was 10.1 inches. I have to admit I do not like these somewhat long and thin devices compared to the Apple iPad’s 4:3 aspect ratio, but I’m sure I could grow used to it. The tablets look alike and feel alike. They all have multiple cameras, HD or near HD screens, some have slightly rubberized backs, and others more polish. Virtually all are black.

We named the Motorola Xoom the best tablet of the show. It’s the first to show off Android 3.0 (also known as Honeycomb). Unfortunately, the on-the-floor demo was simply a video of the interface. On the other hand, you could walk over to the RIM booth and try the Blackberry Playbook’s zippy QNX interface for yourself. As I’ve said before, I like what I’ve seen of the Playbook, even the 7-inch screen size feels right—and I’m not typically a fan of that form factor.

That said, I get why everyone is so excited about the Xoom. Most manufacturers I talk to that are building Android tablets (which is like everyone) won’t ship until Google releases Honeycomb. That should happen in the spring. Even from the video I can see that the interface has been completely redone for the larger tablet screen. Xoom deserves the nod as the best tablet of the show because of the stunning hardware and incredible promise of Android 3.0, and it’s the tablet I’m most anxious to see later this year.

2.Super Phones

I did not expect to see so many new phones at CES (seriously, what will anyone have left for Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next month?). The emergence of the Super Phone was not entirely surprising, but I do like the branding. It’s better than calling these really powerful cell phones “Tiny Computers.”

Super Phones, which all look virtually identical, are characterized by their Tegra 2 CPUs, high-resolutino screens, 4G connectivity, and plethora of output ports, including HDMI out so you can play Angry Birds on your HDTV—at full 1080p resolution, no less.

Amidst these handhelds was the fascinating Motorola Atrix. Remember the Redfly, a small, red, super-thin dummy laptop that hooked up to your phone to give it a large screen and keyboard (and nothing else)? Well this is that, but done in a way that makes a lot more sense. You get a very sexy and slim, roughly 13-inch phone charger and super phone dock that also sports its own LED screen, full-sized keyboard, and Webtop App, which acts as sort of a super-light, wrap-around OS. The phone is still powering everything, but you can run a handful of apps, including the Firefox web browser, on the specialized desktop interface, while having large-screen access to every single feature of your tiny comp…er…Atrix Super Phone. You can even run virtualized desktop client apps through it. In other words, you may never need a real desktop or laptop for your office again. People fell in love with this product at the show; I spent some time with it and agree it shows tremendous promise.

3.The Internet of Things

I came across this phrase in two separate instances: first from Nvidia as it introduced the Tegra-based LG Optimus 2X phone and then when I met with an appliance manufacturer. It’s an accurate description of what’s happening to everything in our lives: Computers, Internet and Browsers in Everything. Each and every piece of technology and consumer electronics is getting hooked to the Internet and doing something with the connectivity. Products can talk to the Web, talk to each other, and reach out and tell you what’s going on. Or they simply pull necessary info from the Internet and present it to you where and when you need it most.

Cars from Ford and Toyota are accessing the Internet through your smartphone to deliver real-time traffic, local search information, Internet radio and more. Bluetooth connects your phone and voice recognition drives the apps. This isn’t so new, but I noticed in the Toyota implementation how the in-car screen had right and left buttons to navigate to additional screens. The buttons aren’t functional for now, but Toyota told me more is coming.

Appliance manufacturers are, as I expected, delivering Internet-ready appliances. These will eventually be able to, for example, download custom washing cycles like apps, send you e-mail alerts when the laundry is done, and even accept commands over the Internet.

However, the sunny picture painted by LG of our lives transformed by smart appliances and the smart grid is not necessarily shared by all manufacturers. When I sat down with Whirlpool to talk about its smart products, one company exec told me that some of what LG promised, like intelligent refrigerators, really isn’t ready yet. For a real in-refrigerator food management, for example, you need built-in RFID and in-fridge cameras. Plus there’s concern about the protocols. Right now, there’s no industry standard for smart appliances and the smart grid and unless you buy all your appliances from one manufacturer, your home could be half smart and half dumb.

One of the other benefits of smart appliances and the smart grid is vastly improved power management. Smart appliances should offer adaptive behavior to increase the health of the electrical grid. To do so, they need to work with smart power meters. Right now the utility industry is writing the smart grid protocols. Whirlpool worries that what works for the smart grid does not necessarily work for appliances. On the other hand, Whirlpool isn’t telling people to wait to buy Internet-ready, smart appliances. Its products will eventually sell with built-in Wi-Fi and talk to an access point or ZigBee meter.

4.High Tech Innovation

It’s both odd and heartening to see an idea as technical and rich as Intel’s Sandy Bridge become one of the big stories of the Consumer Electronics Show. Intel talked it up quite a bit, but it was the excitement I heard from my own analysts and the vendors that told me the real story.

Laptop analyst Cisco Cheng reported “huge performance gains,” and manufacturers like MSI (which makes systems and mother boards) reported a 30-40 percent increase in performance. The laptops on display at CES running the single die CPU/GPU platform looked really good and signaled the breakthrough of an important threshold in performance, graphics prowess and battery life performance.

Most people I talked to did not give Steve Ballmer high marks for his CES keynote, but I applaud Microsoft’s Windows on an ARM chip initiative. This is smart, necessary, and makes me eager for the next version of Windows.

5.iPad This

Apple’s absence didn’t mean its presence wasn’t felt on the floor of CES. It’s remarkable all the things you can do with an iPad. I saw it docked in everything from music devices like a full-sized keyboard (read piano) to the “head” of an autonomous telepresence robot.

Most major accessories I saw were either for the iPad or the iPhone. The best part, by the way, about using an iPad in your product is that you can actually build and develop less. In the case of iRobot’s AVA robot, the company lets the developers figure out which apps they want to build in the iPad for the robot’s somewhat fixed feature set to use. Yes, the iPad and iPhone are do-anything devices that allow manufacturers to do less.

Obviously, I saw many other products and technologies that do not easily slip into one or another trend, but their sheer number represents one more important trend: We’re coming back.

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