CES 2010 Flashpoints: The Platforms For The Next Decade In Electronics

The world does not run on gadgets. Consumers purchase gadgets as investments in the functionality that they provide. Gadgets are handles to their underlying platforms.

Every year, the Consumer Electronics Show is a gauge of the directions in which platforms are moving, a barometer of the evolution of functionality. Sure, we see plenty of neat toys, many of which end up either being for kids or making us feel like kids.

And sure, we hear plenty of loosely coupled metaphors that play to our need to be excited, like how a certain device unleashes connectivity or harnesses the power of disruption -- phrases that read like they were assembled using that word game you play with refrigerator magnets.

Those are all diversions. At the heart of it, CES is a big chessboard, played out on a massive and often chaotic scale. And once again, the game's afoot.

As Betanews covers the goings-on, we'll be keeping watch over a handful of what we consider to be the key flashpoints of interest, with regard to platform evolution -- operating systems, systems-on-a-chip, connectivity standards, networks, systems. We'll be looking for how things fit together, so here are the first story lines we'll be watching for:

Android takes center stage. Last year at this time, Android was the emerging story at CES, the player just on the horizon, but with about as much overall buzz as Symbian. This year, with Apple still treating CES like a pagan festival in the opposite hemisphere, Android stands a real chance of becoming the most interesting and most innovative smartphone platform this year, finally giving Linux a place in the driver's seat. But a lot depends on how Google plays its Android card. By staging an iPhone-like pre-CES press event back in Mountain View for the rollout of its Nexus One device with HTC, Google could very well be sending the wrong message this year to the CES audience: that it, too, believes it can thumb its nose at CES. That may not be what Google intends; it may simply want to follow in Apple's footsteps. But assuming that's the case, even putting on an Apple costume may not be the stance Google should be taking during this critical period. Remember, this is the "Gphone" that was the subject of so much speculation since 2006. With such a head of steam holding it aloft, the only direction remaining could be down.

Does Palm have a follow-up act? Last year, the resurrection of Palm was the story of CES, effectively casting Windows Mobile as the platform of the past. But twelve months ago seems an incredibly long time, and even though Palm has followed up the Pre with the Pixi, the webOS platform doesn't appear to have maintained its lofty position in the public conscience. Verizon's and AT&T's reticence to embrace Palm phones as quickly as Sprint, and as soon as bloggers had speculated, may be among the reasons for webOS' recession. Palm has an opportunity at CES '10 to reverse this trend, to keep the recession from becoming a depression. But it needs to demonstrate the potential for nurturing new and innovative apps as rapidly as Android.

The next stage of netbook evolution. Since 2005, manufacturers had been planting the seeds for a portable computer platform that's in-between a notebook and a smartphone in flexibility, performance, and price. But they didn't seem to have the right formula for the fertilizer, if you will, until last year. Netbooks took root, sprouted, and bore some fruit in 2009, thanks in large part to Intel's Atom positioned just where the market needed it to be. But one ingredient for the juice in the "Miracle-Gro" for netbooks last year was the poor economy -- an ingredient which may be in shorter supply in 2010, as the consumer sector appears to be rebounding. Customers may have been settling for netbooks -- especially with carrier subsidies -- because they couldn't afford even low-cost notebooks. That may not be the case for long, even if Intel maintains artificial barriers between its next-generation Atom netbook and notebook platforms, especially now that the company is under intense scrutiny from at least three governments.

Wherefore Windows Mobile? We asked this question at this same time last year, and believe it or not, we have yet to see an answer. Usually, an unanswered question doesn't stay on consumers' minds for longer than a year. But with Microsoft still being a big sponsor of CES this year, and with the CEO still making the keynote (this year, Steve Ballmer), the topic of Microsoft can't help but be discussed. Last November, senior officials told Betanews there wouldn't be any serious Windows Mobile news until next March, at the company's MIX '10 conference. But Ballmer can't afford to take the spotlight from Bill Gates only to tell his audience, "Stay tuned, we'll be right back." If Ballmer's message concentrates on Windows 7 -- something that's already part of our lives -- or if he presents the company's usual parade of maybe-possibly home electronics devices, then he'll be seen as stalling for time. That's what happened last year; if Microsoft does it two years in a row, it's as good as surrendering the mobile market. Imagine if AMD had failed to innovate its notebook platform for two successive years after Intel's introduction of Core 2.

Can BlackBerry keep up? Once you collect all its popular models together, the smartphone brand with the widest penetration in North America is Research In Motion's BlackBerry. It's also, in many ways, the least evolved platform in terms of functionality. But there are several ways RIM could engineer a breakthrough almost instantaneously. BlackBerry badly needs a competent and competitive Web browser. RIM purchased browser maker Torch Mobile last August, and it's time for that convergence to bear fruit. With so much as a software update to existing models such as Storm 2 and Bold, RIM could find parity against strong and sudden competition from Android.

Will PCs infiltrate HDTVs? In terms of percentage of gross national product, this issue could actually be the greatest of all. Last year, we saw the first signs of HDTV manufacturers testing the waters with building Linux- and Windows-based PCs with small form factors directly into their sets, giving them Internet functionality along with media centers, DVR control, and phone-based remote programming. Though more consumers are embracing small PCs in the living room, there's not enough there upon which the framework of a market segment can be cemented. But if those PCs were out of sight, providing their functionality more transparently, suddenly Windows would be a formidable competitor against the set-top box -- a market Microsoft has tried to crack for over a decade, and failed. What makes this issue so important in this volatile economy is the fact that the fate of corporations rest upon which platform ends up delivering digital, Internet-driven, on-demand entertainment directly to the set. Comcast is making a multi-billion-dollar investment in NBC Universal, a part-owner of Hulu. As we saw at CES the past two years, Comcast is staking its future on owning the delivery channel for digital entertainment -- something that will be much harder to do if Microsoft cuts off Comcast's supply route to the HDTV.

The first news coming out of CES Tuesday morning is from Skype, whose latest innovation is 720p videoconferencing at 30 fps. But it requires an HD webcam and a fast PC -- faster than anything you'll find on a phone, so we're already seeing signs of Skype backing away from its emphasis on mobile platforms. And the WirelessHD Consortium is preparing to demonstrate home video components and PCs that can share HD video data at up to 28 Gbps speeds over the 60 GHz band.

The brand that emerges as the star of the show this year will, like Palm last year and (surprisingly) Comcast the year before, be the one that makes the most convincing case for profitable platform evolution in its respective market space. Does anyone out there really think it'll be Microsoft? Will Google be perceived as a team player or as a rebel? Will Android be able to cash in on the most important and lucrative platform gains in the history of Linux? And despite Nokia's screams and pleas, is Symbian's star finally fading? These are the threads we'll be watching all week long, with our Tim Conneally and Jacqueline Emigh at the scene, and insight and plain sense from our veteran analyst contributors Carmi Levy and Sharon Fisher.

We know you'll be checking out the gadget blogs to see which toy gets the five-star awards. When you want to know what it all means, and why it matters on a deeper level, come back home to Betanews.