The Consumer Electronics Show is the Super Bowl of the technology industry. As much as industry analysts and the tech press whine about CES being too big and being a relic of a bygone era, there's no better place for tech companies to make a big splash that will be remembered throughout the year, and in some cases for years to come.
It's also the place where tech companies can jockey for a better position in the market by generating more attention for their product line than a competitor's. Conversely, companies that don't make a good showing at CES can risk creating an impression that they are falling behind and risk having their products get lost in the crowd.
As such, every CES has its winners and losers. Here is this year's scoreboard.
Motorola Mobility the new Motorola spinoff that went live as a separate entity on the New York Stock Exchange on Monday of CES week. This new company focuses entirely on consumer devices and their first CES couldn't have been scripted any better. In partnership with Google and Verizon they officially announced the new flagship Android tablet, the Motorola Xoom. They announced one of the first high-powered smartphones running on Verizon's LTE 4G network, the Droid Bionic. And, to top it all off, they unveiled the breakthrough product of CES 2011, the Motorola Atrix, a smartphone that doubles as a legitimate PC replacement with both desktop and laptop docks.
In the past, Verizon Wireless has saved most of its big product announcements for some of the telcom-specific trade shows or its own private announcements. This year, the company came to CES with both guns blazing. On the heels of the successful US launch last month of its 4G LTE network — which is, arguably, now the world's most advanced 4G Internet experience — Verizon had LTE live in Las Vegas and ready to show off the world's largest annual crowd of technology enthusiasts. The network performed like a champ. And, on the official opening day of CES, Verizon held press conference announcing 10 LTE devices — smartphones, tablets, and hotspots — that will launch during the first half of the year. It was an impressive roster of devices from leading vendors such as Samsung, Motorola, HTC, and LG. The Motorola Xoom tablet and the HTC Thunderbolt were especially impressive. I spent 25 minutes using the Thunderbolt and was blown away by the speeds generated by the combination of its high-end hardware paired with Verizon LTE.
The company that was seemingly everywhere at CES 2011 was NVIDIA. Specifically, the dual core NVIDIA Tegra2 was the processor du jour, showing up in many of the new smartphones, tablets, and even car-tech announcements. At CES, NVIDIA announced that it is partnering with ARM to launch its own high-performance CPU cores the size of a dime. This is the long-rumored "Project Denver" that NVIDIA has been working on and it will likely position the company as a leading powerhouse in the next generation computing, since ARM processors power nearly all of the smartphones and tablets coming to market and are now scaling up to run PCs and servers as well. NVIDIA looks like it could become the Intel of the next great wave of computing.
This is beginning to sound like a broken record, but I'm still waiting to hear any hint of Microsoft's vision of where it sees the computing world headed in the decade ahead and how Microsoft plans to take us there. We didn't get it at CES 2011 even though Microsoft once again had the biggest stage — the opening keynote the night before the official opening of CES. Microsoft squandered its opportunity to set the agenda of the tech industry. Instead, it simply trotted out its standard stump speech on "Windows everywhere" and replayed many of the same demos from its 2010 product launches. Then, once the show opened, many of Microsoft's traditional PC partners spent CES spotlighting their tablets instead of new netbooks or laptops running Windows 7. Microsoft's newly-launched Windows Phone 7 devices got completely overshadowed as partners HTC, Samsung, and LG put their new Android smartphones front-and-center. And, at a show dominated by the launch of new tablets, we heard nothing from Microsoft about its tablet plans. Even Microsoft's long-time partner Intel criticized Microsoft's missing tablet strategy.
Sony's CES story is not unlike Microsoft's. Where's the leadership? Where's the vision? Sony has traditionally been the biggest name in the consumer electronics industry. It should dominate CES. But, when's the last time you heard about a breakthrough product from Sony? When's the last time you heard about a market-leading product from Sony? Its competitors have been running circles around it, and it was no different at CES 2011. Sony put on some glitzy presentations, but lacked the product leadership. Much of that was due to the fact that Sony focused most of its energy on the wrong thing — 3D TV. While Sony had perhaps the most impressive 3D television at CES, that's a dubious distinction akin to having the nicest house in a neighborhood scheduled for demolition. Contrast that to what Samsung did at CES. It delivered thin, high-quality, reasonably priced (non-3D) TVs — the ones people actually want to buy. But, TVs weren't Samsung's only story. They unveiled exciting new smartphones, tablets, and PCs, including one of the most innovative new products at CES, the Sliding PC 7, a hybrid laptop/tablet.
One of the major trends at CES 2011 was the acceleration of the world to mobile computing. With the unveiling of dual core smartphones, over 80 new tablets, smartphones that also serve as PCs (the Motorola Atrix), and an emerging new category of hybrid tablet/laptops, it's clear that technology companies are rising to meet the demands of users, who are spending more and more of their computing time using mobile devices instead of traditional PCs. If you look closely at this army of new devices — which were the headliners of CES — almost none of them are running Intel processors. Practically the whole fleet of these devices are running ARM processors in general and the dual core NVIDIA Tegra2 specifically. Intel has known that this trend was coming. I remember Intel presenting a slide at the 2008 Intel Developer Conference showing how sales of mobile devices were going to rapidly overtake traditional PCs in the years ahead. Intel attempted to meet this trend with its Menlow and Moorestown processors for "Mobile Internet Devices" (MIDs), a category that it tried to create with its hardware and software partners. However, Intel's chips couldn't match the low-power efficiency of ARM chips and rise of smartphones crowded MIDs out of the market. Instead of going back to the drawing board and making a more power-efficient class of mobile chips, Intel continues to fall behind. While NVIDIA chips were powering nearly all of the tablets and high-end smartphones at CES, Intel played up its "Sandy Bridge" chips for multimedia PCs. This focus on high-end chips feels like a tacit admission that Intel has no answer in mobile.
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.