Internet on TV is a highlight at Consumer Electronics Show
LAS VEGAS The Consumer Electronics Show can look like a circus, a flea market or a fraternity rush, but it's best viewed as a venture-capital pitch. But instead of suit-clad investors, the audience is anybody who might throw down a credit card at an electronics store.
The companies introducing their wares at CES may act like they know how well these new gadgets will fare in the market, but often their predictions are no more accurate than the perpetually sunny forecasts of tech start-ups. Witness the failures of such past CES debuts as Microsoft's bulky SPOT Smart Watch; the mutant formats that were DVD-Audio, SACD and DataPlay discs; and Internet appliances such as Sony's short-lived eVilla.
So, what to make of this year's crop of CES debuts and upgrades? Which might be remembered for more than an early arrival in the CES Hall of Shame?
The most promising among them are not the expensive, content-deprived 3-D high-definition sets that form the center of most companies' exhibits (you can't call them "booths" when they could hold the average McMansion). That honor goes to a different TV upgrade: the increasing Internet capability of most sets.
At last year's CES, offering access to YouTube -- for viewers willing to run a network cable to the back of the set -- counted as a major achievement. This year, most vendors are touting a wider range of Internet media services that include video on demand from Amazon.com and Netflix (but not the free Hulu) and Web radio from such sites as Pandora and Slacker.
LG and Panasonic also demonstrated sets that could also act as video phones for the Skype Internet calling service, with the addition of a webcam add-on. And many of these Web-smart sets now include WiFi wireless networking, greatly simplifying the setup routine.
All these advances both lend the idiot box some Internet smarts and make it easier for home viewers to explore video sources beyond subscription-TV services.
The smartphone market has also gotten a major lift from the Internet -- in particular, one company that often seems to run most of it, Google. The Mountain View, Calif., Web giant's free, open-source Android operating system is quickly cementing itself as the software of choice in that market. AT&T Wireless, the last carrier not to offer any Android phones, said it would sell five new devices running Google software.
In comparison, Research in Motion's BlackBerry has lost its buzz and Microsoft's Windows Mobile has become an afterthought, barely getting a mention in the glitch-plagued keynote by chief executive Steve Ballmer that opened the show.
Android also runs some e-book readers, yet another popular category of gadget at CES. Amazon's Kindle series has already won over the wallets of many customers, and now devices such as Sony's Reader Daily Edition and Plastic Logic's sleek but luxury-priced Que are making their own play for the market.
But the e-ink technology they use for their screens continues to hold back the category, thanks to its slow response time and lack of color. It's one of the rare digital components to show no significant improvement over the past two years.
The entire category of e-readers could, of course, get upended at the end of this month, when Apple will allegedly unveil a new sort of slate computer. Apple's practice of sitting out CES hasn't stopped attendees from speculating about what that company will do -- or showing off hardware that ties into its iPods and iPhones.
Microsoft's stock, meanwhile, continues to stagnate at CES. The company had no major new products to show off -- the possibly revolutionary "Natal" interface for its Xbox 360 game console, which will let you control the action just by moving your hands and body, wasn't getting any demonstrations -- and the "slate" no-keyboard tablet computers that it's signed up HP and other manufacturers to build look like a repeat of its doomed "Ultra Mobile PC" concept.
Beyond splashy product launches, CES also hosts thousands of less ambitious pitches: the incremental upgrades in products that vendors hope will coax past buyers to invest in an upgrade. This can be enthralling if you haven't bought any new gadgets in a while, or exasperating if you just did.
Consider a part of Samsung's exhibit that consisted of side-by-side comparisons of flat-panel LCDs. Each TV tableau featured a 2010 Samsung model and its 2009 predecessor; captions explained how last year's model underperformed its successor in such aspects as color, contrast, viewing angle and sharpness.
Cruel? Perhaps. But it's an unavoidable message for customers who want to keep up with an industry built on the idea of constant reinvention: If you think you've just bought the very best there is, wait until next year.
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