The biggest company at CES this year is Apple. No, Apple isn’t giving keynotes, hosting a booth or even taking meetings, as far as I know. But Apple dominates CES like cheesy hotel casinos dominate the Las Vegas Strip.
A consumer electronics show without Apple is like an Internet search show without Google, a social networking show without Facebook or a, er, MacWorld Expo without Apple.
But that’s not why Apple’s presence is so large at CES. The reason is that half the initiatives, product directions and announcements are responses to Apple, or anticipation of what Apple might do in the future.
The touch-tablet market is the House that Apple Built. By launching the iPad two years ago, Apple convinced the world that a multi-touch tablet with apps was a great new business to get into. Unfortunately, the world was mistaken.
Until Amazon shipped the Kindle Fire, which succeeded mainly because it was super cheap, all other touch tablets have utterly failed in the market, when measured against the expectations of manufacturers.
The grandest expression of the touch tablet delusion was last year’s CES. That show saw more than 100 individual tablet products introduced or showcased.
What a disaster. The vast majority of these products would never have existed if not for the crazy success of the iPad. Apple led them astray. These low-volume, low-margin me-too tablets represent enormous wasted time, money and energy on the part of nearly all manufacturers involved.
The tablet debacle from last year will be repeated this year in the form of ultrathin notebooks, and for the same reason.
Apple hit one out of the park with the most recent generation of MacBook Airs. Now everyone in the industry thinks following Apple’s lead is the path to market success. It’s not.
Even Apple failed with the first generation of MacBook Airs, which were too expensive and not awesome enough to gain widespread acceptance.
Ultrathin clamshell laptops are just like touch tablets in that the overall user experience has to be perfect in order to get people to make the small sacrifices in price, storage and flexibility required of such a small form factor.
CES organizers estimate that up to 40 new MacBook Air wanna-bes will be showcased at CES this year.
Most of these will fail because their manufacturers mistakenly believe that the MacBook Air is successful because it’s an ultrathin with flash storage. In reality, it’s successful because it’s a flawless, ultra-fast and thrilling to use device that comes at a very reasonable price.
It’s not enough to make an ultrathin with flash. Unless it makes people involuntarily blurt out “Wow!” when they first use it, it won’t succeed in the market.
Once again, Apple’s success in ultrathins is leading the rest of the industry down a false road, raising expectations that will be dashed by next year’s CES.
One of the big trends at CES will be TVs in general, and Google TV products in particular.
The TV industry is in a panic. In order to move merchandise, they need to innovate. But how?
3D was supposed to save the industry, giving consumers a new reason to shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars on a new boob tube. The trouble is that 3D sucks. It makes people nauseated. Viewers feel like morons wearing goofy glasses in their living rooms.
So now the TV industry is being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the fate they’ve long resisted: becoming PCs.
The inevitable future of television involves Internet-streamed shows and movies, “intelligence” and apps.
So the battle in the TV industry is: roll your own “smart TV” solution and go nowhere? Or get in bed with Google and win sales but lose control?
That’s what the TV section of CES will be all about. The big three — Samsung, LG and Sony — will be playing both sides of the fence, for the most part, embracing Google TV with some products, but not doing so with others.
Google is the partner of last resort, acceptable only because TV makers believe Google is the only company that might help them fend off the scary Apple television onslaught that everybody knows is coming.
They’re partnering with Google because that company is willing to play ball with existing TV makers, willing to lend their Android platform, Chrome browser and apps. Apple, on the other hand, just wants to replace them, drive them out of business.
The future Apple TV, or iTV, will be a permanent replacement for the Asian TV you would otherwise buy. And once you go Mac, you never go back.
Another trend in TVs is ultra thin sets. While the new generation of incredibly thin TVs will generate a lot of attention (but few sales because of their high prices), the press will be wondering: Is this what Apple will do?
So just about every shiny new TV announcement at CES, whether Google-oriented or proprietary, will have everything to do with positioning the companies involved against the specter of Apple’s entry into the TV market.
Even the big drama of the show this year, the announcement by Microsoft that they wouldn’t participate in keynotes or booths in future CES events, is related to Apple.
When Microsoft first made their announcement, there was a knee-jerk comparison to Apple’s 2009 withdrawal from Macworld Expo. Commentators said that the biggest companies are leaving the biggest shows and striking out on their own.
But CES insiders have revealed that Microsoft left in a huff because show organizers wanted someone else to do the big, opening keynote. Which makes sense. Microsoft doesn’t signal the bleeding edge of consumer technology. So, according to reports, Microsoft left in a huff, taking their toys (and booths) and going home.
This falling out is particularly humiliating for Microsoft mainly because of the obvious and unflattering comparison with Apple.
To oversimplify, Apple left MacWorld because Apple is too powerful to be hemmed in by someone else’s show. Apple wants to control everything, and has the ability to do that, and doesn’t need a show organizer to bring them that attention.
Microsoft, on the other hand, left CES because Microsoft isn’t powerful, exciting or cool enough anymore to keynote the world’s largest consumer electronics show.
So although Apple won’t be attending CES, Apple will be everywhere at the show. It will be on the minds and lips of everyone in attendance, and will loom over the show like a dark cloud.
Wherever you look, you’ll see companies reacting to, copying, avoiding or anticipating Apple products as the main driver of their product development and marketing.