Tablet Strategies, Chip Strategies, 3D TV, Smart TV and MIAs

Some interesting observations regarding the recent Consumer Electronics Show …

Looking back on the week in Las Vegas’s giant show points to some serious struggles ahead in a number of sectors.

The stands have been broken down, the sun has set in Las Vegas, and the Consumer Electronics show is over – having attracted around 140,000 visitors, up around 40% on last year. It really is big: split among three halls, and spilling over into multiple hotels, with 1.5m square feet of exhibits, 2,500 exhibitors (of whom 1,200 came from outside the US), with 20,000 products launched.

So here’s the wrap-up. What are the topics? They fall pretty neatly into a few categories.


What a lot of tablets. Around 80 were launched, almost all of them running Android. Motorola wowed the show by announcing its 10-inch (1280×800) Xoom, which will run Android 3.0 (aka “Honeycomb”). You couldn’t actually see it running Honeycomb, though; all the stand had was a sort of video demonstration running on the device. Battery life? Price? Ship date? “Competitive”, “competitive” and “aiming for Q1”.

Presumably it can’t determine the battery life or shipping date because that depends on Google getting the software ready, and to announce the price would offer a hostage to fortune at the hands of all the rivals. The Xoom does look very nice, though, and Honeycomb looks like an OS that has tablets in mind; it’s not just a blown-up phone interface. I was less convinced by RIM’s PlayBook: I simply couldn’t see what it would do especially for a business that couldn’t be done cheaper and leveraging the Android developer community on Android. That’s going to be a tough sell for RIM, I think. HP’s forthcoming tablet, meanwhile, is a completely unknown quantity, but the challenge will be the same: getting the developers on board.

Asus also said it would ship a Honeycomb tablet, but didn’t even waggle that under our noses; I’d suspect that Motorola is slightly better favoured by Google on this.

The absence: tablets running Windows 7. I did find one (the iTablet from AHX Global, which is a British company) which said that Windows 7 interest was actually greater than for its Android tablet. Then again, the 80-1 interest might indicate that there were other Android tablets; with so many, you’d be hard-pressed to pick one over the others without a detailed review.

And Steve Ballmer did not do the much-expected relaunch of Windows 7 for tablets. The announcement that the next version of Windows (dubbed Windows 8 by the press and analysts, though Microsoft treated the idea of naming it at all as toxic) would run on both Intel’s x86 and ARM’s RISC architecture. That’s a huge move, but it also means that with at least 18 months before you see WindowsNext, other tablet companies will have a chance to go after that market and possible saturate it.

What’s not entirely clear, even yet, is what Microsoft is aiming at. To unify the codebase? Possibly, suggested Ron Burk, former editor of Windows Developer’s Journal: it might not be such a split for the Windows/Intel monopoly as people have been making out. His suggestion: it’s a play for the embedded market, offering developers who have written for the desktop the chance to access that space without having to go through too much pain. Except, as he pointed out to me in an email, “there’s no great value to be had from trying to claim you can take applications designed for 1600×1200 screens, keyboards, and mice, and run their binaries unchanged on a cellphone. You have to redesign your UI (at a minimum) for the mobile device anyway, so the fact that you have to set the compiler flag for “ARM” is the least of your worries. If you want the flood of apps to Windows phones that the iPhone has seen, you really want tap the large number of Windows desktop developers that have never written a Windows CE program in their lives.”

Which still leaves Microsoft outside the tablet market looking in – and Intel too, because it’s got nothing to offer to the tablet market as it is now shaping up. Windows tablets will barely grow in absolute numbers for 2010 (from the 1m-odd they sold to niches in 2009), even as the sector has exploded.

Intel: unhappy. Netbooks: unhappier

And Intel was offended by Microsoft’s non-move at tablets: CNet reported an Intel executive saying “Hey, we tried to get [Microsoft] to do a tablet OS (operating system) for a long time. Us, and others like Dell.” That from Tom Kilroy, senior vice president and general manager of Intel’s Sales and Marketing Group. And I’ve heard the same from a separate, unconnected source: there is real irritation within Intel, and within Dell, at the fact that Microsoft seems to have promised to go big on tablets, but then done nothing that would push them along to the wider market. That has hurt the hardware partners – and those are expensive mistakes on both sides.

For instance, there were plenty of netbooks on show at CES – but it’s hard not to feel that the steam has gone out of that market. Quite aside from Apple’s iPad (which will have had a Christmas boost from all the phone operators suddenly offering it with 3G plans – funny, that), Samsung is reporting that it has sold 1.5m of its Galaxy Tab tablets, which I find remarkable given that its performance (especially on Flash) really isn’t that good; there are better and cheaper options out there if you want a 7-inch Android 2.x tablet, such as the Viewsonic: see my review comparing them.

So what will tablets do to the netbook market? Is every tablet sold going to be sold along with a new netbook? Will people who presently don’t have a netbook wait and buy one of those first, and then get a tablet later? I suspect not – I think tablets and netbooks are in a zero-sum game, given their very similar pricing. Given the choice, you’ll buy one or the other. They’re additive to your desktop or laptop – but they’re mutually exclusive.

(Please don’t protest that you can’t see the point of a tablet. Nobody is forcing you to buy one. But clearly people are doing so.)

However, for Microsoft, it’s not a zero-sum game. Every Android tablet or iPad sold represents lost revenue, whether through a Windows licence on a netbook, or an Office licence, or simply the chance for people writing Windows software to benefit. Microsoft offers no software for the iPad, and nothing for Android tablets. For Windows developers, and also for Windows Phone developers, that’s lost money. Why would you spend time developing for Windows Phone (which runs on ARM, so could run on an ARM-based tablet) when you could develop for Android first, and make some cash there?

Windows Phone 7: the problem’s in the name

Gordon Kelly, a British freelance journalist, pointed out to me the problem with Windows Phone 7: the name. If Android were called “Google Phone OS”, you’d feel a bit odd about having it on a tablet; for the marketing team, it confuses the message. “Android” doesn’t say anything about the device. (Apple of course barely acknowledges that its devices have an OS.)

However, the branding problem is acute with trying to run Windows Phone 7 on a tablet – even if the Windows division were to allow it, which it seems not to want to do. The logic behind the latter thing is that a Windows licence generates about $40, while a Windows Phone licence generates about $5. Sensible then not to license WP7 on tablets? Except if you don’t sell any of them, your revenue is $40 x 0. Compare that to the revenues from tablets: imagine if those 1.5m Galaxy Tabs were running WP7. It’s better than the nothing Microsoft gets now.

But the branding problem is a hassle too: if it were called something portmanteau like “Windows Portable” (because Windows Mobile is tainted), that would make it usable on a tablet without giving the marketing people migraines.

There doesn’t seem to be a simple solution for Microsoft. In the meantime, even if tablets kill off netbooks and then die themselves in a year or two, and a different form factor takes over, it will still have been a victory for Apple and Android, and a rout for Microsoft. We’ll watch and compare PC sales this year with the forecasts made last year with a lot of interest.

3D! It’s 3D!

Yes, 3D TV is still happening. Sony, Samsung, LG and others are pretty sure they can persuade us to dump our HD sets and buy a new one requiring strange heavy glasses (or possibly not – Sony has a 3D TV that doesn’t need glasses waiting in the wings) some time in the next five years. And if you thought your front room was dominated by your TV now, here’s the next bit: 3D TVs are only available in 40-inch sizes and up. Aesthetically, you’ve got to have a really big room or the thing’s in your lap.

Two questions arise: can a 3D TV work as a 2D set? (Yes.) Is this something that consumers are banging on the manufacturers’ doors and demanding? (No.) Then again, people don’t know what they want until you offer it, as HDTV showed – though many people still aren’t getting the benefit of that.

Sony is betting big on this – 3D camcorders and cameras, and 3D computers, quite beside the TVs. The problem is that 3D TV still just feels like multiple flat planes sliding around in front of you.

If we accept that 3D will become popular then it won’t take long to become a commodity, meaning Sony’s investment will be hard to recoup. For Howard Stringer, Sony’s chief executive, 3D might be what makes or breaks him: there have been mumblings about whether other parts of the executivocracy in Sony want him out. So if you want him to stay, buy a 3D TV.

Smart TV (aka Google’s revenge)

Rumours that Google TV would be absent from CES turned out to be wrong: instead it’s undergone something of a rebranding as “smart TV”, which gets away from the G-word, and focusses on the internet element. Certainly it has potential, being app-based (Android and Linux again: a missed revenue opportunity for Microsoft, again); what will be key will be how much access content owners such as TV stations and film streaming companies such as Netflix allow, or (in the latter case) are allowed to allow. One of the companies showing off products was Logitech; I’m bringing back one of its Revue boxes (for smart TV) so we’ll put it through its paces and see how it goes.

Apple: missing, but present

Apple is, in case you hadn’t noticed, a consumer electronics company. However, it wasn’t at this, the biggest consumer electronics show in the world – possibly the universe. Las Vegas is too loud, and anyway it wouldn’t have anything to show. Yet it’s fascinating to note that everywhere you turned, there were accessories for iPhone and iPads; there were so many exhibitors trying to show off iPad-related stuff (such as cases and screen covers; not what you’d call essential by any stretch of the imagination) that some company has got a nice job making iPad shells – just the metal back cover and a cardboard block with a picture of the home screen in the front. In fact sometimes it felt like 19,000 of the new products being launched were add-ons for iPa/o/phone/d/s. Actually, not so much iPods: those are now reckoned to be a dead market.

The size of that hardware ecosystem should be making Microsoft pause a bit. It’s interesting too (as Griffin Technology, one of the longest-running accessory companies told us) that the best-selling Android tablet accessories are for the Samsung Galaxy Tab: proof that it’s not necessarily the best that emerges from such races.

Another little piece of anecdotal evidence came from walking around the show: a surprisingly large number of people (and this is a trade show, so these are buyers for retailers and/or distributors) were sporting iPads or Apple computers. Again, the sort of thing Microsoft might feel a bit itchy about.

Overall? The scene is set for a fascinating battle this year between Android Honeycomb-based tablets and the iPad 2 (which we can reasonably expect will offer front and rear cameras); and to find out whether smart internet-connected TVs are going to enhance our lives, or whether we’ll be fighting for the remote as one person tries to tweet and the other tries to change the channel. And 3D TV? Until they can ensure they’ll work in screens of 32 inches or less, it’s going to remain a niche.

Also MIA

Oh, and one last thing: at your request, I headed over to the Nokia stand to find out about MeeGo devices, and I tried to find Notion Ink to ask about the Adam e-reader. Struck out on both: Nokia was only talking about its Qt software, and Notion Ink wasn’t distributing; it seems to be saving money on a stand by demonstrating it only to a selected few. We weren’t among them. If they’re in money-saving mode, that might not be the greatest news. Perhaps we’ll know for sure in a year.

And for now – CES is officially closed. Thanks for all the comments and reading. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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