I just returned from the country’s largest trade show, the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. There were more than 150,000 attendees trying to navigate their way through the narrow aisles that weave among the 3,000 exhibits occupying an area equal to 30 football fields.
Companies come to CES to display their new products, meet with suppliers and customers, and look at what their competitors are doing. The exhibitors come with high hopes, knowing that many of the products will fail, but not theirs, of course. CES provides a testing ground, but a costly one at that, where even small exhibit spaces cost $20,000 or more.
The track record in recent years has not been very good for predicting what will succeed, based on their CES reception. Three years ago, netbooks were the hit of CES, two years ago it was 3-D TV, and last year it was tablets trying to compete with the iPad.
What's the significant product at this year’s CES? It’s probably ultrabooks, a new category of thin and light notebooks defined by Intel to compete with the Apple MacBook Air. Tablet makers also brought out refreshed products in their second attempt to try to make headway against the iPad.
The ultrabooks from Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard and Dell have much improved ID, use premium materials and offer some clever new design twists. Lenovo showed its $1,200 IdeaPad YOGA Notebook that works as both a notebook and touch tablet and folds into several different configurations.
HP showed a sleek new notebook, the Envy 14 Spectre, which uses glass in the lid’s construction, much like the back of an iPhone. The black glass on the outside contrasts nicely with the silver glass on the inside, creating a futuristic-looking product.
Samsung tablets, occupying a distant second spot behind the iPad, received a makeover, mostly in becoming thinner and lighter. Samsung introduced many new models with a wide range of displays, from 5 inches to 10 inches. It’s the “throw it out there and see what sticks” approach.
One product that did seem to make an impact is the Samsung Note being sold through AT&T. It’s a cross between a phone and tablet, with a stunning 5-inch OLED display. Its larger size, with stylus and touch, turns it into an effective note-taker.
As in the past, Apple was not at the show in person, but was there virtually, always on the minds of exhibitors and visitors. At the iLounge pavilion were scores of companies showing accessories for the iPhone and iPad: company cases, add-on keyboards, stands, covers, brackets, chargers, and i-this and i-that.
What else was new? Thinner and larger TVs, some using OLED for a more vibrant image, and TV sets in which the display runs almost to the edge. The television that generated the most interest was LG's 55-inch flat-panel TV with an incredible OLED display and a very thin enclosure.
Many TVs were shown that can connect to the Internet and have their own cloud and app store. In fact, the most overused word at CES this year was cloud. Even a scanner company, The Neat Co., can scan your documents and send them to its own cloud.
Here’s a smattering of some interesting products I came across.
The xPrintServer from Lantronix is a tiny box that enables an Apple iOS device (iPhone or iPad) to wirelessly print to any printer on the network. The xPrintServer currently supports thousands of networked printer models from HP, Brother, Epson, Canon, Dell, Lexmark and Xerox. Typically a networked printer is one that sits on your Wi-Fi network, using its built-in Wi-Fi, or is connected to a computer that’s on the network ($150, lantronix.com).
One Laptop per Child, which developed a simple low-cost children’s computer several years ago, introduced the XO-3 tablet with a price target of $100. It’s a simple, rugged device with a removable silicone cover and a hand crank to charge the battery (laptop.org).
Qualcomm showed its first commercial e-readers utilizing its mirasol display technology. The lookalike products, the Kyobo and Bambook Sunflower, are being sold in Korea and China. Both devices feature a 5.7-inch, front-lit 1,024x768-pixel mirasol display and Qualcomm’s 1.0 GHz Snapdragon processor.
Sony introduced its Bloggie Live, a full HD pocket camcorder with built-in Wi-Fi that provides live online video streaming (sony.com, $249).
GameChanger showed an electronic game accessory that offers a new way to play games using an iPad. The iPad sets on the GameChanger to create an interactive playing surface. Player pieces set on the playfield activate 48 pressure pads that interact with the iPad (boardgamechanger.com, $80).
Novatel’s new MiFi card, called the 4G LTE Verizon Jetpack, adds an OLED display to provide more information and make it easier to use. Also added is support for global roaming.
One of the nicest iPhone cases among the hundreds I saw was the Proof case developed by a tiny company in Los Angeles. It has a beautiful soft-touch frosted finish that has air pockets to cushion it from a drop ($30, proofcases.com).
Parrot, a French company known for its in-car Bluetooth speakers, showed a new remote control flying drone. The Parrot's AR.Drone 2.0 is a remote controlled platform with four rotors and an HD video camera. The company displayed impressive videos taken from a 100-foot elevation above housetops in Paris ($300, parrot.com).
Finally, Belkin, a company known more for making cables and mundane accessories, introduced WeMo, a line of modular home automation products that permits household electronics to be controlled from anywhere using a mobile app on a smartphone or tablet. They also showed a large assortment of accessories for the popular Samsung Galaxy Tab smartphones and tablets.
In spite of Apple’s absence and now Microsoft’s decision to no longer attend, CES will be around for at least a few more years. It will continue to be the town square for the world’s consumer electronic product companies, manufacturers, buyers, analysts and the tech media. When it does end, it will likely be a result of too many people and Las Vegas’ inability to deal with the huge traffic jams and long waiting lines for cabs and buses.
Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer" published by Financial Times Press and available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other booksellers. He has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others; holds 30 patents; and is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Baker can be heard on KOGO AM the first Sunday of each month. Send comments to email@example.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor. Baker's blog is blog.philipgbaker.com, and his website is philipgbaker.com.
McCracken to speak at CommNexus event
If you want more of the inside scoop on CES, attend the CommNexus Headliner event Tuesday from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Knobbe Martens, 12790 El Camino Real. Noted technology journalist Harry McCracken will be discussing the Consumer Electronics Show and what we can expect in 2012.
McCracken is one of this country's most respected and honored technology journalists. He's the founder and editor of Technologizer, a popular blog that attracts more than 1.5 million page views from about 425,000 unique visitors each month. He also writes a weekly column for Time magazine and is the former editor-in-chief of PCWorld magazine. He was named to the Top 40 list of media industry movers and shakers and appears on CBS News, ABC World News Tonight, NPR's Science Friday, and Fox News' Gadgets and Games. Space is limited so come early or contact Michele Yoshioka at firstname.lastname@example.org for a ticket.