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CES old news: Mobile-is-where-it’s-at message marks opening of densely crowded show

LAS VEGAS NV - JANUARY 07:  Actress Alice Eve (L) Qualcomm Inc. Chairman CEO Dr. Paul E. Jacobs appear

LAS VEGAS, NV - JANUARY 07: Actress Alice Eve (L) and Qualcomm Inc., Chairman and CEO Dr. Paul E. Jacobs appear on stage during a keynote address at the 2013 International CES at The Venetian on January 7, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. CES, the world's largest annual consumer technology trade show, runs from January 8-11 and is expected to feature 3,100 exhibitors showing off their latest products and services to about 150,000 attendees. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

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Updated: January 9, 2013 4:08PM



I’m ... still not entirely sure what I saw on Monday night.

CES 2013 kicked off with a keynote that (pre-keynote) was described by thousands of commentators as “Not presented by Microsoft’s CEO.” Which seemed completely on the nose. Qualcomm is not Microsoft, and Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs is neither Bill Gates nor Steve Ballmer.

“This is not necessarily a bad thing,” I write, before my word processor’s “You’re Really Better Than That, Andy” plug-in flags it for an edit. Well, fine, then.

CES’ first keynote has historically belonged to Microsoft. This year, Microsoft is taking a pass from the whole show, joining Apple, who last had an official presence there in 1992. This move illustrates the change in the nature of CES so clearly that I’ll go ahead and use it, whether this change is indeed for real or if it’s just my own personal way-off-base conclusion ... a sad after-effect after the decades I’ve spent pickling my brains in phosphoric acid.

CES has become flat-out too big for a major product launch or even to get out a message of a company’s clear strategy for the future. Too many companies are all barking for the press and the public’s limited attention during the same week. Yes, you and your team spent 20 months, 100 million dollars, and compromised every personal relationship you had, but it was all worth it: you’ve succeeded in creating a new product that could legitimately transform not only the next generation of technology, but Society’s relationship with technology in general.

But nobody really hears about it. On your big launch day, one of the lesser Kardashians appeared in some manufacturer’s booth to praise their new line of “OLED HDTVs”, a technical term which the PR team needed to spell out for her phonetically on a little blue card.

Such is life at CES.

I usually stay home this week. If I could trick somebody into covering all of my travel expenses, I’d be out there like a shot. As is, it’s hard for a lone journalist on the East Coast to get his or her full money’s worth. If I travel to a launch event hosted by Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, or directly by any other company, I’ll come away with plenty of hands-on time, most of my questions directly answered by a senior executive or an engineer with direct responsibility, and either a firm date on which I expect to receive review hardware or actual hardware. These kinds of interviews and opportunities are possible at CES, but only at the expense of other interviews and opportunities. If you’re going to cover CES, you have to use a zone strategy; man-to-man will never work.

And at CES, most of the really interesting announcements are aspirational as opposed to “practical” or even “rational.” Microsoft’s keynotes were legendary in this respect. The music would swell, the CEO would adopt a sheepish smile, and then he’d unveil something slick and interesting. Something you wouldn’t expect Microsoft to produce. Something that, most often, they’d never actually release. A fridge magnet with an LCD screen that receives wireless data? Why not. Hey, everyone’s pretty certain that Apple will release a super-light tablet at the end of the month. Can some of our people whip up a Windows tablet for the big guy to hold during his CES keynote? You got it, skipper.

CES is home to products that are definitely real and will probably ship, but with “pricing and availability yet to be determined.” It’s host to hundreds of cool products that are enticing and fully functional, but which were assembled only as a proof of concept and will never be shown again.

Even if (glory be!) the thing actually ships, it’ll probably only be available in one of those countries where the art of shadow puppetry has deep and profound cultural roots. Yes, CES is mostly a place for trial balloons . . . not airship tickets.

And that, friends, is why the companies who are actually shipping something that they actually want expect people to buy during a specific timeframe are moving their blockbuster announcements to private events held on dates and in places of their own choosing.

That’s also why I, as usual, am bunkered in my office this week. I’m surrounded by screens (5 as I write this . . . no joke). I spend this week watching livestreams of keynotes, reading event coverage written brother and sister journos with younger legs and stronger travel budgets, and rapping with company representatives who, like me, are quite pleased to be spending the week far, far away from The City That Wayne Newton And 99-Cent Shrimp Cocktails Built. Here, the whiskey isn’t watered down and there are no disease-ridden contagions that I didn’t bring in myself.

Hell of a digression, eh?

Well. The keynote slot was given to Qualcomm . . . certainly one of the most important and influential tech companies on the playing field. They don’t make consumer gadgets. But they make the CPUs that power mobile computing, and mobile computing is indeed where it’s at. The movement of user habits to mobile computing is so forceful that we don’t speak of phones and tablets being as powerful as notebooks and desktops. Instead, we’re tracking how well the notebooks and desktops are integrating mobile features.

But you knew about that revolution already. Everybody does. Alas, the team responsible for Qualcomm’s keynote presentation didn’t know that you and I are fairly hip individuals and. Overall, the presentation reminded me of public school: it had the fresh insight of a third-grader’s report on the solar system, coupled with the production values of a high-school production of “The Pajama Game.”

Mockery aside, it was as good a presentation as one might expect. Qualcomm’s actual news was exciting: new Snapdragon 600 and 800 processors. The faster of their new chips is 75% quicker than the top Snapdragon CPU available right now, and the new processors have onboard graphics and signal processing that can support 55 megapixel cameras and Ultra HD displays.

Those last two features point to the importance of high-performance, low-power-consumption chips. A great mobile CPU obliterates the lines that divide product categories. When your tablet can process game graphics at 1080p resolution at high framerates and with the full range of dynamic shading, texturing, lighting, and atmospheric effects you’d expect from a console . . . are the term “mobile gaming” and “console gaming” even relevant any more? When a tablet can offer 12 hours of battery of life even when running a desktop OS, why would anybody own both a tablet and a notebook?

Qualcomm would have done well if they’d let Paul Jacobs take the stage with no introduction and he then walked everybody through a compact 15 minutes. Some boring, but mandatory, performance tables; videos of engineers in white bunny suits peering at master wafers; and then lots of live demos of how well these chips work in sample hardware. But “buck fever” is hard to avoid when you’re writing your first keynote at one of the world’s biggest conferences. Before long you’re looking at a project whiteboard and realizing that, by God . . . you’ve got Big Bird, Steve Ballmer (yes, CEO of Microsoft), and an evisceration scene from “Blade II” in the lineup.

Which is the first warning sign of a form of performance-induced insanity. The second, and more tragic sign comes when you then think “We’d better throw Archbishop Desmond Tutu in there, just to sort of balance everything out.”

Insanity presents itself in many forms at CES. Lenovo rolled out (literally, because it was just so huge) a $1699 27” Windows 8 touchscreen tablet PC. Sorry, “table PC.” Named the “IdeaCentre Horizon.”

And that’s just the one they’re actually shipping! They also have a 39” version as a concept device. The pair have been generating more laughs than Garfunkel and Oates over the past day, but I think it’s an interesting product. They introduce the concept of the PC as a communal experience instead of an isolating one. You lie it down flat on a table or the floor and interact with it as a group. This basic idea has worked very well before, with interactive entertainments such as Monopoly and Scrabble, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Lenovo has lined up partnerships with game companies to produce titles that target this table. Even without that involvement, isn’t the idea of painting electronically with a couple of your kids intriguing?

If this were the only machine that Lenovo made . . . yeah, we’d be worried for any friends or relatives who work there. But the IdeaCentre is the attention-grabber among a list of conventional and practical mobile and multitouch products that the company announced. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of an audience these table PCs should find. I’m supposed to be thinking “conference rooms” and “collaborative creative planning” but at the moment, I’m really hoping that a PC like this can be ruggedized. I’d love to see a return of bar-table gaming.

If nothing else, the idea of a huge 27-inch tablet ought to provoke at least 5 or 10 minutes of material for deep-pocketed prop comics. And I mean, literally, “deep pockets.” Because it’s a huge tablet! See? The jokes write themselves!

Then there are the TVs.

TVs are to CES what butter sculptures are to state fairs. Every manufacturer wants to produce something that’s utterly ridiculous but numerically exceptional. Toshiba, tired of being punked out by other companies for failing to produce a TV as large as a dining table, released an 84-inch Ultra HD TV. Panasonic took the wraps off of the largest OLED TV ever, at 56 inches. Samsung laughs and directs your attention to the show floor, where their 110-inch screen was hiding someplace.

Oh, you think 110 inches is garish? Don’t want to look like one of the 1%? No sweat. If you don’t like to show off, they also have a petite 95-inch edition. With this on your wall, you’ll look like part of the 1.0001%. So it’s not like you’ll be among the very very first against the wall when the red banner of revolution is inevitably raised.

OLED? Ultra HD? Let me explain: you, the consumer, are a sensible person who will continue to use the same HDTV for years. You appreciate that the prices of top-of-the-line TVs are expanding at a rate that far outstrips the actual benefits of cutting-edge TV technology. This makes Panasonic and LG and Samsung et al very upset and confused. They want you to give them money in exchange for new televisions. They’ve made new televisions. Where are the people with the money?

3D TV failed, and sent these companies scrambling for better ideas.

“Maybe the thickness of consumers’ current TVs are turning these people into violent cauldrons of hate,” they speculated. And so, makers have been using OLED technology to produce huge new 56-inch screens that are only about an inch thick.

No? OK, then there’s Ultra HD, the friendly phrase that means “4K,” which actually means “Four times the definition of 1080p HD.” If you’re the CEO of a consumer electronics company and you don’t have an Ultra HD screen in the lineup, your mother will retroactively withdraw all of her love for you, all the way back to your gestational days.

Ultra HD is still a phantom. The picture quality is so detailed it’s almost off-putting. But where’s the content? Sony is saying that they’ll have a home-server solution (pricing and availability unannounced). An out-of-the-way corner of Samsung’s booth had a live demo of 4K video being streamed directly from Netflix. But a promise of a future product, and a live demo that something is at least technically feasible, is hardly enough to send consumers out on a shopping run.

Of course, UltraHD doesn’t need to be “all there” in 2013. The huge UltraHD sets on the market today are priced as the luxury toys they are. They’re designed to be purchased by youngish men who make their living either kicking or dribbling an inflatable ball, or any of the men or women who are primarily responsible for the recent collapse of the banking industry. They’re owned as bragging chips, not for their features.

At least the presence of a relationship with Netflix is promising. Early word is sketchy at best, but the idea is to provide enhanced-HD service through select broadband providers who are equipped to handle the extraordinary bandwidth. No doubt it’ll come as a premium broadband package.

Stay tuned for more updates from the bunker.



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