Another year, another CES

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By Calder Phillips-Grafflin

It’s that time of year again; the second week of January means yet another International CES (formerly the Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas. The goal of CES is to be the “world’s largest consumer technology tradeshow,” and it has traditionally offered electronics manufacturers a venue to kick off the year with the release of new products. This year’s CES is different, though. Despite a record number of exhibitors, the event has been overshadowed by Microsoft’s decision to ‘pause’ attending CES.

Microsoft’s keynote has long been an important part of CES, and it isn’t clear how it will be replaced in coming years. If Apple’s abandonment of Macworld is any precedent, it seems unlikely that Microsoft will ever return, preferring the freedom of scheduling their own independent events. In tune with this being Microsoft’s last foreseeable keynote, there weren’t any flashy new products or technologies on display. In contrast, the focus was on the evolution of existing products, namely the Kinect sensor, tablets and Ultrabooks. None of these are new, but various developments this year like new software, faster processors, and more advertising are likely to translate into major market successes this year. In particular, expect to see an explosion of Kinect-enabled applications and games now that there’s a commercial software kit available.

Intel, the other major CES keynote, struck a very different tone. For years Intel has been promising consumers and investors that they could produce a competitive smartphone with little more than one-off demonstrators, but on Tuesday evening at CES, Intel finally showed off a production Atom processor-based phone running Android. Intel’s new Medfield platform promises better performance with power consumption low enough to compete with the more popular ARM chips used in most phones. While the very first phone, made by Lenovo, will probably be available only in China, Intel has partnered with Motorola Mobility to build phones that should be available here in the US later this year.

The real unspoken story of CES 2012 is that this may finally be “the year of the tablet.” On the hardware side, Intel finally seems to have produced processors that combine the requisite power with sufficiently low power consumption. On the software side, Microsoft is preparing to deliver Windows 8 later this year, which will finally bring a version of Windows optimized for tablets. If this combination of hardware and software is successful, then expect to see lots of your fellow students with these tablets in class come the fall.

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