Tablets, 4G Technology, and E-readers at CES

I had the opportunity to attend CES 2010 and have just returned from three jam-packed days in Sin City. I can’t possibly compete with the depth of the other coverage that the show has generated, but here’s a brief overview of what caught my eye.

First of all, although not at all relevant for marketers, the new CityCenter property on the Strip is stunning. It’s massive, gorgeously designed, and offers great nightlife and dining — including Bar Masa, where I had some of the best sushi of my life.

The show kicked off, as usual, with the opening keynote on Wednesday night, featuring Steve Ballmer. And what a bang it wound up being. The venue lost power minutes before the show was due to start, creating a long delay as all of the electronics had to come back online. Live bloggers called it the Black Stage of Death, giving new meaning to the ominous BSOD acronym (originally meaning Blue Screen of Death, a nasty crash by earlier editions of Windows OS).

Rumors continue to circulate regarding a possible Apple tablet device, and various flavors of tablet-style PCs made a big splash at CES this year. It started with rumors that Ballmer would unveil the much-hyped Courier slate during his keynote, but he actually announced the launch of a somewhat less-exciting HP tablet. Dell was running around with a secretive slate device as well, although few details seemed to be available even as the show wound down. One of the most interesting form factors was the Lenovo hybrid device. The display separates from the main body of the laptop to become a tablet device running a Linux-powered operating system called Skylight.

This is perhaps one of the most interesting takeaways from this year’s show: there wasn’t much cool new stuff on the mobile phone front (aside from a slew of sexy, though not-entirely surprising, Android devices). Rather, the innovation came from the fact that 4G is finally becoming a reality in the form of new devices that fit somewhere between laptop and phone. It’s clear that “mobile,” from a marketing perspective, will need to begin including devices like these new tablets as well as e-readers.

You could hardly take a step at CES 2010 without stumbling across a new device aimed to take the Kindle down a notch. CNN has a great roundup, and here’s the Engadget recap. Perhaps most interesting is the Pixel Qi screen, which supports two viewing modes: 1) a backlit color screen that looks like your standard laptop screen, and 2) with the backlight off, it becomes an e-reader-like screen. Similarly, Mirasol showed off a reader-like device that was capable of playing color video. These types of screen experiences may foreshadow where Apple will head with its tablet device.

Home entertainment was, as usual, also a huge focus of the show. 3D TVs were everywhere, and they look great — this technology has come a long way, but it still requires the use of specialized glasses, which may limit consumer appeal. Sports and other specialty programming will likely be a significant driver here, and the content players seem to recognize this: ESPN and Discovery Networks recently announced their forthcoming launches of 3D programming.

Ballmer talked a bit about Microsoft’s vision of the future of TV during his keynote. It was nothing tremendously surprising, but the pieces continue to fall in place and become easier and easier to set up and use. Microsoft announced a deal with AT&T that will enable consumers to use an Xbox 360 as the set top box to access its U-verse IPTV service and was demonstrating Mediaroom running on the Xbox 360.

The march toward converged Web and TV continued as well. All TV manufacturers were demonstrating Web-connected TVs, and Yahoo’s TV widget platform continues to evolve nicely. I spoke to a Yahoo rep who could not disclose sales numbers, but said they are currently targeting something on the order of 3-5 million active TV widget users by this summer. DivX announced a new embedded platform as well, and already has a deal in place with LG for a DivX-enabled Blu-ray player due to hit the market later this year. Presumably, it won’t be long until other original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) get on board, and begin to embed directly in TVs. The DivX software looks great, can access video content from Web providers like CNET and Revision3, and has an interface that’s completely navigable using existing TV remotes.

Meanwhile, other players demonstrated their approaches to Web video on TV. Boxee generated a lot of buzz with the launch of its first dedicated hardware, called the Boxee Box. And Intel showed off a small device that enables you to wirelessly send video from a laptop to a big-screen TV, theoretically making it easier to hook up your PC to TV.

Lastly, connected cars made a big splash. Microsoft and Ford demonstrated the latest evolution of Sync, called MyFord Touch.

It was a great show overall, and maybe the most encouraging bit of news was that attendance was reportedly up significantly over 2009 — perhaps another small indicator of economic recovery.

Here’s to a great 2010.

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