Two years ago, Apple eclipsed all the news coming out of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas with the debut of its iPhone. The rest, of course, is technology history.
At least this year Apple has the decency to wait until the end of the month before unveiling what is expected to be its version of a tablet or "slate" computer. So Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and his company literally and figuratively had the CES stage all to themselves Wednesday night for the keynote speech that traditonally opens the international technology trade show.
Balmer and company took the opportunity to fire a pre-emptive shot across the bow at Cupertino with the introduction of several Windows 7-powered tablets, including a very cool-looking HP Slate PC. Some in the technology blogosphere are a little upset that it wasn't the Courier, a dual-screen tablet that Microsoft is tinkering with in its labs, but it still offers a multi-touch screen that's perfect for media consumption, including electronic reading.
As Ballmert told the Vegas crowd, it's more powerful than a phone and almost as powerful as a PC. Pricing and other details weren't available yet.
Microsoft has shown interest in tablet PC, and non-keyboard interfaces for that matter, for some time. These were pet projects of Bill Gates, after all. But since his company introduced a stylus-based tablet early last decade, they've mostly been niche products. Yet Digital Trends.com editor-in-chief Scott Steinberg tells me that tablets may be making a comeback.
Apple, the elephant in the CES room, will have a lot to say about all this; if they can approach a tablet (iSlate?) the same way they have music player, laptops and smartphones, then who knows how the market will respond. Steinberg says the new tablets are blends of e-readers and PC's, but adds that they probably won't be had for netbook prices ($200-500).
Unfortunately, there wasn't much else that was new from Microsoft during the keynote. Project Natal, the gesture-based gaming interface for Xbox, will be ready for Christmas 2010, and HTC will come out with a Windows Phone-powered HD2 smartphone this spring. But everything else was 2009 statistics about Windows 7, Bing and Xbox Live.
3D TV's at CES
Other than tablet/slate PC's, the other big theme developing at CES is the advent of 3D home technology. Sony has made some of the biggest news this week in this regard, with the announcement of 3D-ready Sony flat-screen TV's and Blu-ray players. But the company is also partnering with Discovery and IMAX for the launch of a 3D television network. Even though there are no carraige deals yet with cable or satellite networks, no chief executive to lead the channel and no official launch date, it's clear that Sony wants a big piece of the 3D pie.
ESPN has also announced its intention to start a 3D channel this summer, with a World Cup game being one of the initial broadcasts.
Samsung, LG and Panasonic have joined the 3D hardware bandwagon too. So what's going on here? Has everybody gone "Avatar"-crazy?
Maybe, says Digital Trend.com's Scott Steinberg. He seems to think the media is a little more excited about all this, thanks to James Cameron's blockbuster film, than the average consumer, who may not be ready to pay 3D prices - not to mention having to wear oversize glasses while sitting on their own couches.
An LG spokesman did tell a Canadian newspaper that 3D sets would only cost $200-300 more than comparable HDTV flat-screens, so maybe there's some hope there.
On the TV technology front, Steinberg was more excited to see Samsung's demonstration at CES of what it says is the first applications store for its TV's, Blu-Ray players and phones. So if you want to check out the front page of USA Today on your flat-screen TV, or photos on Picasa or tweets from Twitter, now there's an app for that. Just use your remote control for navigation. Samsung's app store wil be open source, so any third-party developer can write for it.
Yapta and TripIt traveling together
One bit of non-CES news should appeal to frequent business flyers. Seattle-based Yapta, which tracks fluctuations in airfares and hotel rates and alerts you to those changes, is integrating its website with that of San Francisco-based TripIt.com, a travel planner/itinerary service.
Now these two websites can help you organize flight and hotel information, get weather forecasts, directions to places, book restaurants and entertainment, and if the flight you booked has dropped in price, you'll get an alert to take advantage of it.
Yapta says it's tracked 500 million airfare price checks in its existence, and 45 percent of those seat prices dropped before the plane's cabin doors closed.