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CES: Prom for Gadgets

The big dance for the consumer electronics industry, CES 2012 promises crazy cool gadgets and lots of excitement 

Like high school prom, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has historically been a pretty big deal for electronics manufacturers. It’s the coming out party for the most innovative, and sometimes the most outlandish gadgets and gizmos, sporting the latest technology advancements. This annual gathering draws more than 140,000 attendees and nearly 2700 different exhibiters crisscrossing 1.8 million square feet of the Las Vegas Convention Center. Given its exposure, the stakes are high and the pressure is on to impress.

Though some say CES relevance is waning due to the economy, competing events and big vendors sidestepping it in favor of other, more cost-effective product promotion, we can still expect at least one more year of fun, excitement, drama and gadget overload next week. I’m not attending this year, but I’ll be watching closely from the sidelines, looking for the latest computing advancements, home entertainment innovations and a variety of connected devices that promise to make our lives simpler.

Microsoft: Out with a Bang

(Disclosure: I supported Microsoft PR for eight years until recently, though I won’t be sharing any secrets here, sorry!). In spite of announcing its final year at CES, we can expect Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to give it his all in Microsoft’s final CES keynote, dazzling attendees and online audiences by demonstrating the advanced computing experiences we’ll get with Windows 8 on some pretty cool devices from its hardware partners (crossing fingers he’ll demonstrate a Windows 8-based tablet vs yet another notebook). And, he’ll probably put a big emphasis on Windows Phone 7, too, in a push to gain critical mindshare and compete with Apple and Google, both of which dominate the smartphone market. This is a pivotal year for Microsoft and consumer perception is crucial to the success of Windows-based devices, including Ultrabooks and tablets.

Ultrabooks: Thin, Light and Powerful PCs

Compact and powerful PCs are the way of our computing future, challenging the components under the hood to keep pace. As such, Intel has invested significant cash into what it has trademarked as Ultrabooks, requiring laptop makers to meet a very specific set of specs to realize the Ultrabook vision: thin, light, powerful and speedy, with rapid boot times that might rival what we experience today with our smartphones, which are nearly instant-on. We’ve already seen a few of these devices surface in late 2011, but I’m hearing we’ll see somewhere between 30 and 50 new Ultrabooks showcased at CES next week from the likes of Acer, Dell, HP, etc. Though expensive given the spec requirements, these skinny laptops make a world of difference as consumer mobility increases.

Tablets: Companions to the PC Workhorse

Though CES 2011 was all about tablets (I’ll have to confirm, but I recall counting something like 85+ different tablets unveiled last year!). Many of these tablets, mostly powered by Android, fell flat with consumers who were underwhelmed by performance and value relative to Apple’s iPad. That said, CES 2012 is an opportunity for device makers to re-set the tablet category and give Apple a run for its money, at least until Windows 8 ships. Acer, Lenovo, Toshiba and others are expected to show tablets, focusing on quality over quantity, many of which will likely support the long-awaited next version of Android OS, dubbed Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS)—a much needed OS update to make a real run at the iPad and demonstrate to consumers it has a device worth considering. We’ll see.

Televisions: Smart Entertainment and Rich Experiences

Though I’m not as deep or smart on entertainment devices, I’m watching for the latest in-home theater advancements, namely device-to-device streaming gadgets and connected TVs. In previous years, our friends from LG, Samsung, Sony and others have shown us their entertainment visions with prototypes that either never saw the light of day or so far away from retail ready that our hopes die on the vine while we stood right there in their booths.

It’ll be interesting to see what TV makers do with 3D this year, which was all the rage in 2010 and 2011, but lacked consumer traction. For me personally, 3D is cumbersome and annoying, but if new devices surface that strip away the glasses and improve the experience, I may take another look. While I’m expecting to see glasses-free 3D TV, what I’d really like to see is better connectivity and more services options. We’ll likely see a slew of new internet-connected televisions that allow consumers to access digital content from the Internet right from their TV to supplement regular programming schedules.  I’m crossing my fingers for more strategic and meaningful partnerships to deliver interesting content that I care about with smarter delivery (can’t wait to dump cable!), including streaming content from Hulu, Netflix and Pandora. And as devices get smarter, we should start to see the ability for TVs to talk to our other devices like Windows Phone and Xbox, responding to voice and gestures, like Kinect.

Appliance to Appliance Chit-Chat: The Promise of a Connected Home

One of the more promising visions we’ve been hearing about is the ability for utilitarian devices, such as refrigerators, stoves or washer/dryers, to take on more meaningful roles in the home, enabled by connectivity features and cloud functionality. These features have been available to some degree in appliances recently, but they are super expensive and require fairly sophisticated networking to get their full value. Though still expensive and not yet mainstream, we’re getting closer. That said, I long for the day in which my smartphone can talk to my refrigerator, letting me know that while I’m at the grocery store I’ll need to pick up milk or that I only have one egg when I need two for the dinner that the appliance so thoughtfully recommended the week before while meal planning. Both LG and Samsung lead this device-to-device connectivity with a variety of appliances, and I expect to see them both unveil refreshed products next week.  I still won’t be able to afford one, though.

Device-to-device connectivity continues to evolve in the automotive industry, too, so connected cars are likely to be a big theme at CES 2012. Led by Ford last year, Audi, Chrysler, GM, Kia, and Mercedes-Benz all have a spot on the show floor, demoing new features that deliver digital content to their vehicles, including deeper dashboard and smartphones interface. But I’ll be watching for additional connectivity that supports robust safety systems, richer music services like Pandora, and hands-free, voice-activated texting, which I actually have now with my Windows Phone 7 Bing app, which also talks to my car’s Bluetooth navigation system—pretty cool stuff!

So, in spite of what might happen to CES in the future, I’m still expecting CES 2012 to be THE consumer tech event of the year. No doubt there will be lots of cool gadgets and gizmos that create a stir. In some ways, I wish I could be there this year to see them all firsthand. But since I won’t, I’ll be tracking my favorite tech pubs for all the latest news:

I’ll circle back after the event to highlight some of my favorite devices, but I’d love to hear what you’re hoping to see. Share a comment below.

Fire! Amazon Ships its Latest Kindles Ahead of Schedule

Note: This is my first post to MOMconnected. Please be gentle. What better day to start my MOMconnected blog than a day when the industry is polarized by yet another connected device?

Just as the hands-on reviews are beginning to trickle in today, Amazon announced this morning that it will begin shipping its long-awaited Kindle Fire today, one day ahead of schedule, and said the Kindle Touch will begin shipping tomorrow, six days ahead of schedule.

Courtesy of Amazon

While the Kindle Fire has ignited consumer excitement and demand, largely due to its price point and convenience in accessing Amazon content and services, reviews are mixed. Leading device enthusiasts and reviewers (I’m not one of them, though, and didn’t get an early look) are either loving it or hating it. Here’s a sample of what some of these smart folks are saying:

Praised for its size and portability, the 7-inch Kindle Fire gets accolades from Wilson Rothman at MSNBC, noting that it works well enough to compete with the iPad and cautions that it “spells trouble” for Apple. Wilson acknowledges the tradeoffs in storage capacity, lack of 3G functionality and design nuances, but the real “potency” is the $199 price tag. “The Kindle Fire can handle about 80 percent of what I want to do on an iPad, for 40 percent of the price. And much of what’s missing won’t be missing for long.”

Gizmodo’s Sam Biddle gives it a thumbs up,too, though dings Android pretty good in the process: “If you like what Amazon Prime has going on in the kitchen, the Fire is a terrific seat. It’s not as powerful or capable as an iPad, but it’s also a sliver of the price—and that $200 will let you jack into the Prime catalog (and the rest of your media collection) easily and comfortably. Simply, the Fire is a wonderful IRL compliment to Amazon’s digital abundance. It’s a terrific, compact little friend, and—is this even saying anything?—the best Android tablet to date.”

On the flip side, not everyone is impressed by Amazon’s new tablet.

Courtesy of Amazon

David Pogue at The New York Times thinks the cons out weigh the prosand that the Kindle Fire needs some work. “The Fire deserves to be a disruptive, gigantic force — it’s a cross between a Kindle and an iPad, a more compact Internet and video viewer at a great price. But at the moment, it needs a lot more polish; if you’re used to an iPad or “real” Android tablet, its software gremlins will drive you nuts.”

Wired’s Jon Philips is pretty negative, arguing that the 7-inch screen is too small to get a good experience. “At the end of the day, the Fire must be judged by how well it executes in terms of its Newsstand, Books, Video, Apps and Web features. It does nothing very well, save video playback, running various Android apps, and making the business of Amazon shopping alarmingly fun and  easy. If you already have $200 in your high-tech hardware slush fund, and you’re not willing to splurge one cent more, I suggest you wait longer before pulling the trigger on a tablet.

My Point of View

Naturally, some are comparing the Kindle Fire to Apple’s iPad and trying to juxtaposition it against the long list of failed Android-based tablets. But taken at face value, this is a consumer-focused device aimed at the Amazon loyalists, a vehicle to get to Amazon’s prized content and services. It is not an iPad killer, but when dollars are short and tablet desire is high, consumers may be making decisions with their wallets.

In spite of the polarized reviews surfacing today, the average consumer with pent-up demand for a light and portable consumption device will be delighted that they can get a tablet for under $200 that enables them to search the web, listen to music, watch a movie and read a book from nearly anywhere. Donald Bell at CNET gets it right. He argues that the device isn’t an iPad killer, but great at what it’s intended to do. As Bell says, “The Kindle Fire’s sole objective is to deliver entertainment with zero friction and zero complications. For $199, I’d say that’s enough. If you need more from your tablet, you’ve got plenty of options.”

I predict that holiday sales for the Kindle Fire will take a pretty good bite out of Apple’s iPad, getting folks closer to the tablet experience that users yearn for without breaking the bank. The real test will come once consumers get their hands on them, and more than one million pre-ordered Kindle devices will soon arrive on the front stoop of households everywhere this week.

Donald Bell over at CNET said it best: “This isn’t a tablet for us geeks.”

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