CES 2010: What did we learn this week?

Betanews CES 2010 accompanying article bannerWithout a doubt, Android has emerged from CES 2010 as the software platform story of the year. In a strange way, the sudden surge of activity for the platform prior to CES, and even prior to Google's Nexus One announcement the day before CES, is what substantiated the presence of Android in the public discussion this year. Up until now, Linux on the smartphone has been perceived as an "alternative" to the branded systems -- last year, Android seemed to be the culmination of something going on in the "open" space, out there somewhere, categorized under "Other."
Android is not "other" any more. It is here, and very much at the center of things.

So as we look back on our flashpoints from last Tuesday -- the topics we set out to watch throughout the show -- what we find are fewer surprises...but the few we got were big ones.

  • Android takes center stage. Along with stage left, stage right, and a bit of the orchestra pit. A great many of the devices which captured people's attention this year happened to be Android-based, among them Motorola's intriguing experiment, the Backflip. When testers liked what they saw, they wondered more about the platforms underneath the surface; and when they saw other intriguing devices out there like Spring Design's Alex e-reader which also had Android...people are gonna know, to cite Arlo Guthrie again, that there's a movement. Android was the common thread that successfully linked a number of intriguing new devices this year; and because it made such a strong showing, it enhanced and even accelerated the discovery of other new devices. That's what a platform is supposed to do, and Android fit the bill perfectly. Even if Google had not made its Nexus One announcement outside the show, the strength of the new Droid brand, and the buzz around its implementers Motorola and HTC, was enough to leap-frog Android over several others among consumers.
  • Does Palm have a follow-up act? A completely new chapter, no. But a sequel or two, yes, and that sequel involved the two words that followers of webOS most sweetly wanted to hear: Verizon Wireless. For some customers, Palm could have omitted the letter "F" from the Pre Plus' revised keyboard, and they still would be happy. The Sprint exclusivity is what has steadily sunk the original Pre since its premiere at CES 2009; with that no longer a roadblock, what's left? Perhaps the lack of Wi-Fi on the Pixi? That's been taken care of on the Pixi Plus as well. For developers, up to now there's been a feeling (even if largely psychological) that Android was being more open. Palm not only addressed that problem, but did so in the spotlight of CES, which was the best possible place. In all, Palm did what it needed to do to stay in the game, especially now that it's not only being compared against the iPhone.
  • The next stage of netbook evolution. Here is where the show was completely stolen, because it should have been Intel that locked up this subject, threw away the key, and walked away with it. Even though Intel did premiere its next-generation Atom platform at the show, its subdued emphasis on Atom compared to its 32 nm Core processor unveiling this week suggests that Intel may be taking seriously some of those warnings that every netbook sale earned is a PC sale cannibalized. That gave Qualcomm the opening: The Snapdragon platform is easily the biggest hit of the show (Palm Pre was the hit for 2009), and Qualcomm played its hand perfectly. By demonstrating Snapdragon as a smartphone platform, it gave the chip new legitimacy in an established market. Had Qualcomm positioned Snapdragon mainly among netbooks first, it might have still been met with skepticism. And had Qualcomm positioned it solely as the anchor of the "smartbook" platform concept, as ARM may have wished, any association it would have mustered with smartphones might have been seen as disingenuous. Instead, Qualcomm thrust Snapdragon on the world stage and said, make of it what you will. And from an historical perspective, if not yet a breaking news vantage point, we'll look back at the day Qualcomm signed with Global Foundries as a turning point in the industry. Intel turned down the volume on netbooks, and Qualcomm seized the moment.
  • Wherefore Windows Mobile? Perhaps the biggest buzz since iPhone for a product not to be featured at the show, was for Windows Mobile 7. But it was not the good kind of buzz at all: The lack of an evolutionary step to keep WM7 on a par with Android, webOS, and even Symbian meant that manufacturers who should have led with intriguing designs (HTC's HD2, for example) couldn't. Microsoft not only dropped the ball, it punted it right into its opponents' hands; and now, anything the company does manage to show at Mobile World Congress, even if it cooks pizza and changes diapers, will be seen as late. And following up right after the company's biggest success in years, Windows 7, this week's no-show moved the needle for Microsoft back into negative territory.
  • Can BlackBerry keep up? Not every manufacturer in the world exhibits at CES, and Research In Motion is one of the holdouts. This year, that's clearly to its detriment, as Android and Palm wiped the floor with smartphones at CES. Apple has demonstrated that you don't need to be a CES vendor to make a statement (Google hasn't demonstrated that effectively enough quite yet). But to pull off an "Apple," you need to be able to cultivate the guessing game, like Apple did this year with its presumably forthcoming tablet device. RIM had the opportunity to seed the public discussion with news of a Web browser replacement -- something built by Torch Mobile, which RIM did acquire, after all -- that catapult BlackBerry beyond par in mobile connectivity. It missed that chance, so the browser quality for platforms like Android was the talk of the show instead. RIM desperately needs a follow-up announcement sometime this quarter.
  • Will PCs infiltrate HDTVs? The answer to this now is a very probable "yes," but not in the way we might have thought last week, thanks to some positive platform movement from Intel and another baffling move from Microsoft. Atom processors could very easily drive new classes of home networking equipment, as we saw in CEO Paul Otellini's Thursday keynote. Think about very-high-capacity routers that handle not only Internet traffic but wireless throughput to and from video and hi-fi equipment, up to four HDTV streams simultaneously per household. (And here, Qualcomm's Snapdragon will likely also be competitive.) Here was every reason to believe that Windows Media Center could be the software platform of choice for PC-endowed displays. So the company's plan to instead spend several minutes demonstrating MediaRoom, its operating environment for set-top boxes -- the things cable companies keep insisting we need instead of PCs -- was completely bewildering. It was good news for the cable industry and for Comcast supporters, but not for the general class of consumers who don't want another box -- consumers who are siding with display makers such as LG and Mitsubishi, that are telling them they don't need another box.

Next: Winners and losers...

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