CES: Tablet hopefuls vie for attention

It was amazing how quickly Las Vegas emptied out over the weekend as the 160,000 visitors to the CES show headed home and relaxed holiday makers reclaimed the bars, restaurants and casinos of Sin City.

The quiet tail end of the show gave me a chance to wander the halls of CES relatively unmolested – you needed sharp elbows the first few days of the show as journalists and trade professionals stampeded from one stand to another as product announcements were made and new gadgets unveiled.

So with a bit of post-show downtime to reflect,I’ll be writing a few posts outlining my key takeaways from CES 2011. First up…tablets.

Apple envy aplenty

Motorola Xoom
Motorola Xoom

Numerous companies at CES unveiled tablet computers clearly designed to leverage off the demand Apple has created for such devices with its iPad. None of them, with the exception maybe of one or two, appear to have a real chance of being an “iPad killer”. Analysts at CES suggested up to 50 million tablet computers will be sold this year – on top of around 400 million computers. So its a massive market and while Apple is still tipped to take the lion’s share of the tablet segment this year in much the same way as Amazon initially owned the market for – readers with its innovative Kindle device, there’s plenty of business to go around.

Some of the tablets released show promise – the Motorola Xoom won the best in show award at CES, runs on the tablet-centric version of Google Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) and has a smattering of features the iPad doesn’t which should give it a unique selling point until the iPad 2 arrives with front and year facing cameras. Add in 4G mobile network coverage, a dual-c0re processor, a high-definition screen and an HDMI output and you have a well-featured tablet to rival the iPad. It feels and looks beautiful.

The previously announced Blackberry Playbook also put in a showing at CES and it too boasts some reasonable features including a dual cameras, a 1GHz dual-core processor, 4G connectivity where available and the ability to play Adobe Flash videos (which the iPad annoyingly lacks). Early reviews of the Playbook, which RIM executives say will retail for less than US$500 (think entry-level iPad pricing of US$499) suggest performance is good – its grunty enough to handle sophisticated games, video and applications. But ultimately, it is a 7-inch tablet and I think this is the wrong format to get consumers excited. The limited screen real estate and the proprietary operating system it runs on, will give it limited appeal outside the corporate set.

Samsung Galaxy Tab
Samsung Galaxy Tab

Similarly, the Samsung Galaxy Tab, which was on sale ahead of CES, is a slick device, but its 7-inch form factor puts me off. You simply haven’t enough space on a screen that size, especially when you are navigating applications using your fingers. The iPad’s 9.7 inch screen displays an A4 magazine page almost as it should be – anything smaller is a compromise that many will put up with in favour of the lighter weight and greater portability, but will ultimately come to consider it as a poor bridge between phone and laptop.  Samsung is on fire at the moment with its TV range, its Galaxy smartphones and now the Tab – I hope they come out with something around 10 inches – if they do, and update them to the latest version of Android, they’ll clean up in the “other than Apple” space.

Tablet hybrid pile up

Lenovo IdeaPad U1 hybrid
Lenovo IdeaPad U1 hybrid

A number of devices were shown that see laptop convert into tablet or in the case of Acer’s new laptop – features a second touch-screen LCD instead of a keyboard. The idea is that you get plenty of extra screen space and can interact with your computer in the same way as you would a tablet. Dell showed off the Inspiron Duo, which has a screen that swivels around to convert from netbook to tablet. This is fairly conventional, as tablet computers running on Windows have been doing this for years. It is also fairly unimpressive as you are left with a fairly chunky netbook with a tablet interface, running Windows 7 that has not been adapted to the tablet format. Plus, imagine how the battery life will suffer as you attempt to light up two screens instead of one…

These two devices and several other quirky ones shown at CES will have only niche appeal. More successful is the Lenovo IdeaPad U1 hybrid, a laptop that converts into a tablet when the screen portion is completely disconnected. You have a 10.1 inch touch screen that when connected to the laptop runs Windows 7. In tablet mode, Android 2.2 kicks in. Also successful will be the coupling of the likes of the Xoom, Playbook and Galaxy Tab with peripherals such as wireless keyboards, for those who truly want to use the tablet as a laptop replacement. The hybrids do nothing exceptionally well and compromise too much on usability.

Microsoft’s tablet gamble

I was at CES as a guest of Microsoft so I was hoping for great things in the tablet space from them – in particular the debut of Windows 7 for tablet with the apps that have been popular on the Windows Phone 7 platform coming to the tablet format as well. Well, this wasn’t to be. Steve Ballmer in his keynote took a different tack – suggesting Microsoft’s strategy is to make the full experience of Windows available on all platforms. I covered the keynote itself here.

The ARM announcement and progress with system on a chip technology is promising longterm, but leaving Google, Apple and others to own the tablet OS space for the next year or longer is a mistake. People don’t need the Windows experience with its flexibility and power in a tablet format and I’m not sure they want it either. The “app” model has been a game changer in terms of how consumers view software. We can now in seconds, with the tap of a finger, download a piece of software that runs smoothly and delivers rich content to a portable device. That’s an experience that grew out of the App Store and has been phenomenally successful. WP7 is a great operating system for phones – why not just re-engineer it for tablets and make the Windows Marketplace available for tablet applications as well?The ARM deal suggests Windows realises the computing world is changing, but it isn’t quite ready to make the jump to a tablet and smartphone-centric world in the consumer space. It almost calls for a split of Microsoft into two companies – one focused on the enterprise and corporate customers, the other on interatice entertainment, mobile and tablets.

The irony is that Microsoft essentially created the market for tablet computers 10 years ago and adapted a tablet edition of Windows for a whole range of devices. It was always in the prime position to take a step further and develop an operating system designed specifically for the need of the new generation of tablets. Waiting until the release of Windows 8 and soldiering on with Windows 7 on current tablets is a bit of a mistake in my opinion. As CES progressed this became more obvious, with many suggesting to me that Microsoft will indeed follow the Apple-Google approach to tablets, but needs to buy some time to re-jig Windows for the format in a sustainable way (ie: without impacting revenue from the Windows OS).

Other commentators have been chewing over Microsoft’s tablet strategy too…

IT World: Microsoft’s slow, steady tablet strategy a big gamble

ZDNet: The weird world of Windows tablets

Seattle Post: Intel exec blames Microsoft for shortage of Windows tablets

The Guardian: ARM deal will end Microsoft and Intel’s dominance

Peter Griffin attended CES with the assistance of Microsoft

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