The wide wireless world at CES
You could once be safe in calling the Consumer Electronics Show "the TV show." Now it might be more accurate to call it "the wireless show."
Instead of manufacturers competing to see who could build the biggest or the flattest set, the race here is more likely to involve connectivity. And the most popular way to connect to the Internet and all the photos, music and videos available there is without wires - either over a home wireless network or on the go, via a mobile-broadband service.
The smartphones and tablets that have been drawing crowds and conversations here represent the most obvious sign of the shift. Both take advantage of steady advances in screen, processor and storage technologies, but they would be far less useful without faster mobile-broadband access and wider coverage.
Last year's CES featured the debut of one upgraded, "4G" service, a then-embryonic network from Sprint running on a technology called WiMax. This year, the other three nationwide carriers have their own 4G offerings to tout, and all four have lined up smartphones and tablets - most running Google's Android operating system - to match.
(Note that while Sprint's and Verizon's 4G networks run on new wireless standards - Verizon's is based on a far more widely supported technology called LTE - AT&T and T-Mobile have begun using that abbreviation for an upgraded "HSPA+" versionof their 3G service that they advertised only with phrases like "fastest 3G" or "4G speeds.")
Faster access means that phones are no longer limited to streaming audio and downloading pictures; high-quality, real-time video becomes a reality over the Web. At a demo during a Sprint reception Thursday night, a BlackBerry PlayBook tablet using the carrier's 4G service smoothly played back a high-definition stream - right until the demo gods intervened and stopped playback completely.
But mobile devices are only a small part of the wireless picture at CES. High-definition TVs, which a year ago were doing very well if they could access a handful of Internet video sites over a wired network connection, are moving to standard WiFi networking and will soon feature app stores with dozens or hundreds of Web content sources.
As WiFi gets cheaper and cheaper, it makes its way into more and more products. Would you like an alarm clock replacement that plays Web radio instead of the same old AM and FM but also fetches the latest weather forecast, displays the latest Twitter updates and shows your friends' Facebook news? That's a sub-$100 product.
The same goes for digital cameras, which have suffered from a lack of a camera-equipped smartphone's location awareness and easy photo-sharing features. Put a WiFi chip in a camera, and it can upload to Facebook on the go. One upcoming model from Samsung can even use a nearby Samsung Android phone to determine its location and allow remote control via the phone's screen.
But this year's CES, more than others, has demonstrated the limits of wireless under extreme cases. A crowd that probably exceeds last year's 126,000 - and probably features more wireless devices per capita than the 2010 population of the show - has left networks and services groaning and crumbling under the strain.
The evidence has been in many attendees' pockets and laptop bags: an iPhone that gets stuck at the "connecting . . . " stage of checking e-mail or fetching a Web page, a wireless modem that drops a connection right in the middle of an important upload, or just degraded battery life from a phone constantly attempting to lock into a signal in a noisy environment.
(I don't mean to beat up on AT&T, but the bulk of the complaints I've heard have centered on its network. Those include my own: a review iPhone 4 has consistently shown four or five bars of a 3G signal and then been unable to do anything with it.)
Even a little Bluetooth armband I've been testing - it's supposed to track my steps and send that information to an iPhone or Android phone that saves and analyzes the data - has failed to work all week.
These aren't problems that carriers could fix with intrusive restrictions on mobile-broadband use; there are simply too many people in the same space. So I'm sure that all these problems will magically vanish once the crowds go home.
The future of wireless might indeed be bright as long as you don't try to use it at CES. But I wouldn't start throwing out network cables just yet.