CES wrap: let the battle of the tablets commence
Post-netbook era looking suspiciously like pre-netbook age
CES 2011 Consumers themselves may not yet be willing to commit themselves en masse to the media tablet and set aside the netbook, but manufacturers certainly appear ready to do so.
This year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held in Las Vegas, was the launching point for uncounted Android tablets.
But while Acer launched a new netbook, almost no one else did. The few vendors who were showing the little laptops - Toshiba, HP and Lenovo, for example - were all displaying old models, as was Intel.
The netbook may not be dead, but it's clear that vendors expect punters to show far more interest in tablets during 2011.
To be fair, netbook launches tend to piggy back on the arrival of new processors, in particular Intel's Atom CPU, which was revamped as recently as September 2010 when the dual-core N550 was launched. At CES, Intel wanted to focus on its second-gen Core i processors, aka 'Sandy Bridge', not Atom.
Acer's new Aspire One 522 is notable for using an AMD CPU, the 1GHz, 9W C-50, one of the company's Fusion line, so it has some novelty value.
But the array of upcoming machines and new launches made at previous CES events were absent this time round.
Not that tablets makers will have an easy ride. As the plethora of models on display show, for every Samsung Galaxy Tab, Motorola Xoom, RIM BlackBerry PlayBook, Dell Streak 7 and Asus Eee Pad Slider, there are countless no-name offerings. Of these a fair few are poor, some good, but all run the same operating system with the same UI, sport the same ports, and have the same basic look.
Sure, some have more on-board storage than others, while some have resistive screens and others have capacitive, but these are all by-the-numbers offerings made by Chinese and Taiwanese OEMs, and it's almost impossible to tell them apart.
The better known names have their established brands, but it's telling that even here there's little to choose between them.
History repeats... brrp
Indeed, it's very telling that almost everyone stressed that their tablet provides "the full web experience", code for supports Adobe Flash. Why? Because this is the only feature they can highlight that Apple's popular iPad lacks.
Interestingly, not one of them felt able to also say they were cheaper than the competition, so don't expect them to be.
Differentiation will be a real problem for tablet makers. Apple and RIM can at least highlight their operating systems and tight linkage to online services: iTunes and BlackBerry email, respectively. But most of their rivals showed little imagination here.
A notable exception is Panasonic, which is branding its Viera Tablet to tie the device into its range of HD TVs in order to promote it as a telly accessory as much as a personal computing device.
It's not hard to see how all this will pan out. Five years from now, we'll have Apple and RIM as minority - albeit large ones - players alongside a horde of me-too machines all offering a largely identical spec and running Google's Android.
Swap 'Google' for 'Microsoft', and 'tablet' for 'PC', and you'll have a market that largely matches the personal computer business of the late 1980s: one big software vendor, dozens of commodity hardware vendors and a few firms offering niche alternatives, one of them Apple.
You can substitute 'smartphone' for 'tablet' and you'll get the same result.
Ironically, Microsoft will be a minority player. Some vendors - Toshiba and Asus, for instance - showed Windows-based tablets, but all who did so also announced Android offerings. It's hard to see Windows 7 competing well in the market for media viewing machines, leaving Microsoft with the choice of making Windows 8 more bloated by adding functionality for modern tablets, or basing a new tablet OS on Windows Phone 7.
Microsoft wasn't the only player seemingly unsure of what to do about the rise of the tablet. Sony may have admitted it was working on one, it had no more to say about the subject. Acer and LG didn't say much, either, but they did at least announce tablets in 2010. These will arrive later this year when Android Honeycomb is ready. ®