What was hot, cold and in between at CES

TechOnline India - January 12, 2010

Here's our take on what was hot and what was not at CES. If you attended, or have strong opinions based on what you have been reading, we invite you to chime in with your own picks and pans.

LAS VEGAS — The Consumer Electronics Show can be a great window on things to come.

CES played host to more than 2,500 exhibitors, 250 panels with 800 speakers and more private suites than you could shake a stick at. We didn't see it all, but we saw a lot.

Here's our take on what was hot and what was not. If you went to CES or have strong opinions based on what you have been reading, we invite you to chime in with your own picks and pans from the event.


USB 3.0 is hot, Wireless USB is not

Two notebook computers, two PC motherboards, four controller chips, at least one hard drive and a handful of miscellaneous products debuted at CES using USB 3.0. All told, 17 products have been certified for the interconnect that aims to carry data at maximum rates around 4 Gbits/sec.

The interface looks like it's well on its way to a successful transition from the 480 Mbit/sec version 2.0. That's not the case for the Wireless USB spec based on ultrawideband. USB Implementers Forum had nothing to say at CES, nor did Samsung, which championed it last year. We put Wireless USB squarely in the ice cold category.


Warming up: Secure online media stores

It's not hot yet, but it might be in time for CES 2011. The Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem consortium now has 48 members, including five studios. It aims to enable a world of secure online stores for movies and music beyond Apple's iTunes shop.

DECE announced at CES agreement on file formats that will be released by June, adoption of five existing digital rights management technologies and approval of an authentication service provider. That's a long way from a service, but people close to DECE say progress is good.

"It's a complex beast and there are a lot of people at the table, but there's a sense of urgency," said consultant Brad Hunt.

Meanwhile news reports emerged about Key Chest, a digital rights locker Disney has in the works, apparently as an alternative to DECE.


Lukewarm: HDTV as video phone

Will that big LCD TV in the living room become a video phone where grandma and the kids can chat over a Skype video connection? That's what virtually every TV maker at CES was showing with their high-end models linked to the Internet via Wi-Fi/USB dongles.

Given the hype over videophones ever since their launch at the World's Fair in the 1960's, we'll take a wait-and-see on this one. An LG Electronics demo bombed, lacking a good broadband connection. Even Panasonic, which hosted the Skype CEO at its press conference, also showed a dedicated video conferencing box for TVs. Cisco will try out a similar system in field trials with France Telecom and Verizon this year.


Android: A little overheated

Many projects are adopting a free version of the Linux operating system that has the backing of software giant and media darling Google. We liked Broadcom CEO Scott McGregor's take on Android:

"It definitely has captured the imagination of a lot of people, but we are still in the first inning of the game for Android," McGregor said in an interview at Broadcom CES booth. "It could sweep the world or be a footnote--right now it has a lot of buzz."

Broadcom showed Android running on a GPS processor. Mips Technologies showed two prototype set-top boxes using Android running on its core, as well as some fancy user interface software for managing media running on top of Android. The Google Nexus One phone made an appearance at CES along with a number of other Android phones, picture frames, tablet PCs and other devices.

In the end, the smartphone market is being pulled in many directions.


3-D TV: Plenty overheated

You couldn't get within 100 miles of Las Vegas without hearing about 3-D TV. First generation products will be challenged to live up to the hype, given the technical hurdles remaining and the June-or-earlier shipping targets. Many say the need for glasses will limit this from becoming a major new media—as some hope—across all TVs, cameras and camcorders.

Rarely has the consumer industry, including Hollywood studios, been so closely aligned on a technology, so there's a lot of money and focus here. And there's a real "wow!" factor for users when they don the glasses and see how good the displays look. Clearly 3-D is big, the question is how big.


Smartbooks: Warming in the oven

For more than a year, six ARM-based processor vendors have been trying to jump-start a category of ultra-mobile devices with more battery life and Web-savvy than today's notebooks. At CES, Lenovo brought that vision to life with its Skylight notebook.

Skylight is noticeably thinner, lighter than a netbook, and is expected to have longer battery life—ten hours cranking on the Net. Sounds great, but Lenovo will have to deliver a robust, feature-rich device and educate end users not to expect all the trappings of a Windows netbook. And it can't establish a category all by itself, so other OEMs must jump in with similar products before this sector is firmly in the hot zone.

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E-books: Get out before you freeze

Plastic Logic's Rich Archuleta and the Que e-book.

The electronic book is a cool concept. There are just two problems: it's a secondary device for just about anyone who uses it and there are about twice as many e-book vendors as the market will ever need.

The e-book segment was already getting competitive with Amazon and Barnes & Noble offering their own systems, and Sony offering a credible alternative. Now there's the Skiff, two Samsung e-books and many, many devices from Taiwan Inc. Plastic Logic hopes to carve out a unique market sector replacing paper for business users with its Que announced at CES,, but it's not clear others can't do the same.

On the horizon, we foresee an even bigger problem: As PC tablets get smaller and better, they will be able to host e-book readers as applications. Throw in the much-rumored Apple iSlate, a combo e-book/tablet/netbook expected in late January, and this standalone e-book is looking like the Edsel of mobile computing.


Tablets: waiting for Jobs

Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer showed a Hewlett-Packard slate computer in his CES keynote that raised the temperature in Vegas by an estimated 0.001 degrees. That's because the industry is holding its collective breathe to see what the other Steve—the one from Cupertino—shows off in late January.

We are not convinced tablet computers are the next big thing. After all, Bill Gates has pushed the tablet PC concept for years, but to date these systems are only marginally interesting devices for avid note takers and insurance claims adjusters.

Startup Entourage showed the "Edge," which marries an e-book and tablet, but we'd prefer an integrated device. If there's a hot tablet out there, we'd like to see it.


Wireless video: warming up, far from hot

LG's Full-HD Wireless TV, pitched as "wireless freedom".

Once again, how to deliver wireless HD video between digital consumer devices at home remained an elusive target at this year's CES as more new variations of wireless video technologies hit the market, including ProVision Communications, Qualcomm and Quantenna with versions of the current 802.11n spec with multiple antennas targeting similar uses.

Nonetheless, with the second-generation chip sets rolling out from two leading competing wireless video camps -- one from SiBeam-led WirelessHD (60-GHz approach) and another from Amimon-led Wireless Home Digital Interface (using 5-GHz unlicensed band), a few big-name TV vendors made their choices public: Vizio with SiBeam's WirelessHD chip set for its LCD TVs; and LG with Amimon's WHDI chip using Amimon's wireless video modem technology.

Taeg Il Cho, vice president and director of digital TV research lab at LG Electronics, told EE Times that LG selected 5-GHz wireless video because the company wanted an "inter-room solution" through walls with no requirement for line-of-sight.

It's a big win for Amimon, because LG will offer Amimon's WHDI-based wireless video option not just in a single, high-end model but in a majority of LG's new flat-panel TVs launched this year.

But the flip side is that it's still "an option." By coming up with this "wireless-ready concept," LG can now afford to give consumers a choice to plug a wireless module in the back of their TVs.

Other leading CE vendors were mum on their wireless video technology decisions. Toshiba's highly coveted Cell TV, however, is "more likely" to use 60-GHz HD solution from SiBeam, according to Atsushi Murasawa, president and CEO of Toshiba America Consumer Products.


There is an app for that: heating up

Leading CE manufacturers are determined to emulate Apple's success with its Apps Store. Samsung and Sony are rolling out their own stores selling applications that will work across their product lines, including cell phones, TVs, Blu-ray players, computers and other personal digital devices.

Samsung TV customers can search and download Samsung apps via the TV sets integrated with Wi-Fi. The concept is basically an evolution of the company's Internet@TV scheme. The Samsung app feature will ship on the vast majority of Samsung TVs with screens 40 inches and above.

Meanwhile, Sony is launching what it calls "evolving TVs" that can download and run third-party applications. Using its new Sony Online Service (SOS), which is based on the existing server infrastructure, billing and login systems of its PlayStation Network, Sony will let its customers download apps, video and music.

The concept is evolving around two trends: proliferation of widgets on the Internet and a growing number of features and functions that are now enabled by apps. Sony's Dash personal Internet viewer, although not initially connected to SOS, is driven by more than 1,000 free Internet apps, including news, calendars, weather, sports, social networking and e-mail.

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