CES 2012: Microsoft, New Tablets and the Future of Television

Apple won’t be there — again — but that doesn’t mean its presence won’t be felt in Vegas

Some are wondering whether the sprawling Consumer Electronics Show — which opens on Monday night with Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer addressing the tech faithful — has lost its beating pulse.

We say: Too early to tell. With 150,000 attendees flocking the displays of more than 2,500 exhibitors, the four-day CES in Las Vegas remains the most important showcase in the consumer tech space.

Also read: Spike TV, Yahoo Partner for CES Live Streaming

It may not be a year of startling innovation or heart-stopping products. (But if we find one we'll bring it to you ASAP). Still, it is a touchstone for tech as an integral part of our lives.

Some feel that CES is as much about relationships as products.

"Technology doesn't wait for CES anymore," said Mitch Kanner, the CEO of branded marketing firm 2Degrees. "It's where you can have a centralized conversation. But you don't have to be here for the products."

Here are five trends, devices and narratives to look out for at CES 2012.

>> The End of an Era, the Beginning of a New One? Microsoft has said this will be its last year at CES, so it seems like a fitting place to begin. As usual, CEO Steve Ballmer will be giving the keynote Monday evening, and though few expect a major unveiling — like a new gaming console — there is still plenty of innovation coming out of Redmond, Wash. The company is expected to launch its Windows 8 operating system this year, with a beta coming as early February. It is designed to optimize the tablet experience, and as we will soon explain, tablets (and their facsimiles) will be all the rage at CES. Will Windows 8 enable Microsoft to become a major player in the tablet market? Too soon to tell.

Also read: 2012: The Year Microsoft Finally Battles Back

Microsoft might make headway in mobile. Apple and Google’s Android dominate mobile, but with Research-in-Motion’s BlackBerry stalling in third, this could be the year for a new player. RIM has said it likely won’t introduce a new CrackBerry until late in the year, and the reviews for the Windows Phone operating system have been strong. While the public has not flocked to it, could this be the year they do? Ballmer should pitch such a scenario.

Oh, and don’t forget the Xbox. Last year Mircosoft trotted out the Kinect, and the company continues to expand its presence in home entertainment. Expect more new content for Xbox Live along with some other goodies.

>> Tablets, Tablets, Tablets. Told you we’d talk about tablets. 2011 saw a massive surge in public adoption of the devices, and a similarly substantial increase in the number of products out there. Sure, the HP TouchPad and RIM’s Playbook both flopped, but the iPad is more popular than ever and there’s a new player in the sphere – Amazon.

The past few weeks have seen a flurry of stories about how the Kindle Fire, launched in November, ate away at iPad sales. Still, it can’t have had too big an impact since analysts project that Apple sold more than 35 million iPads in 2011 and will top 50 million in 2012. Meanwhile, Amazon was selling more than a million Kindle devices a week in December. 

What does that mean for CES? For one, the steady influx of new devices will continue as everyone looks to get a foothold in the burgeoning market. Some will go after the iPad in the more expensive division, while others may choose to punch a bit lower with the cheaper Kindle Fire. A large number of them will be running Google’s Android operating system — titled the Ice Cream Sandwich. This week will be a prime opportunity to showcase all of the above.

There will also be some tablet simulacrums, named Ultrabooks. Technically the Ultrabook is an exceedingly thin and light laptop, but it has been described as a synthesis of a tablet and a Macbook Air. Whatever you want to call it, expect to hear a lot about them out of Vegas.

Finally, there will be incessant discussion of how one can utilize these beloved devices. A quick glance at the staggering list of panels reveals sessions such as “iPad-Tablet-SmartPhone Advertising — the Premium Advertising Platform,” “Tablets: Where Do We Go From Here?” and “From Dewey to Digital: Are e-books, Tablets and Digital Content Coming of Age?”

>> Apple Looms Large. While the world’s most-buzzworthy tech company will once again not be in attendance, it may still have the largest impact there. Just look through the other four topics on this list and see how many times Apple’s products or mere presence was mentioned. In mobile, everyone wants to design the new iPhone (or at least make a phone that is half as popular). In the tablet arena, the iPad remains king. In the computer business, the company’s vast array of laptops and desktops dazzle. In the…oh, you get the idea.

CES will host the iLounge – an 80,000-square-foot-space with cases, cables and everything else you would need to outfit your Apple products. Only there won’t be Apple products. Side note, lest anyone forgot: This is the first CES After-Steve.

>> The Television Experience. Will there be a Google TV 2.0 — an actual television not the current set-top box? Uncertain. In the realm of the definite, two things we’ll assuredly hear more about are the 3DTV and the Smart TV. Whether or not you think the 3DTV will transform the home entertainment experience – paint us skeptical – the product could very well take another step forward this year.

As for the Smart TV, more and more tubes come equipped with Internet connectivity enabling gaming and other activities. Companies still need to improve the user experiences – and lower the prices – but what better showcase than CES?

This past year was also marked by a boom in second-screen applications, also referred to as companion apps. Translation: an app on a phone or tablet you use while watching live television. These range from simply checking in a show – and thus finding other people watching it – to reading tweets and Facebook posts about it, to tweeting yourself, to oodles of show-related content. Research indicates people spend a disproportionate amount of their TV time simultaneously using other devices, so these apps are supposed to get users more engaged in the TV experience while their eyes are elsewhere.

CES will be full of tools built around enhancing the TV experience – and profiting off it, of course. Just be careful who you use the phrase “cord cutting” around.

>> Video Everywhere. Ignore what you just read. Actually don't, but consider an alternative. While television is still the dominant viewing platform, more and more people are watching  video that is distributed digitally. Whether it is streaming movies on a tablet or watching YouTube videos on your laptop, there are too many other platforms and distributors to keep track of.

While CES may not portend where the distribution of visual content is going, it will bring together voices — discordant and assenting – to further edify. From traditional content creators like 20th Century Fox and Lionsgate to the newer crop of stars like My Damn Channel and YouTube, numerous exhibitions and panels will pave the way for the future of content.