Tonight, I'll be flying to Las Vegas for the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the largest trade show in North America with more than 120,000 attendees and the on-site presence of most of the top electronics and PC companies from around the globe. But there's one obvious holdout—iPhone and iPod maker Apple—from this otherwise hugely important show. And the company's shadow is again casting a pall over the proceedings.
What makes this year's CES odd, however, is that Apple isn't even holding its own Macworld Expo event at roughly the same time, as it has for many years. (Macworld organizer IDG is still putting on the show, but Apple isn't attending or presenting, which one has to assume spells the end of that little drama.) For years, Apple's less-well-attended show generated more buzz than CES did, a feat of marketing showmanship that's still hard to explain. And this year, Apple is doing it again—the buzz, not the show.
Despite never once admitting to developing such a device, Apple is reportedly preparing a tablet-like computer, or 3G-connected mobile Internet device, or ... something. This ... thing ... has captured the collective imagination of the tech press, the blogger goobership, and of course the general public. This despite the presence of Tablet PCs (since 2002, in a variety of form factors, and from many companies) and a host of mobile Internet devices (also from a wide range of companies) on the market. The difference, of course, is that this time Apple is (allegedly) making a tablet. So, of course, it's interesting. For some reason.
Decades ago, Apple used to attend CES, and its CEO of the day, John Sculley, even keynoted the event. But with the return of Steve Jobs in the late 1990s, Apple circled the wagons and stuck to Apple-oriented events and, more recently, special Apple-hosted events that it can schedule at will. There's been a lot of speculation that Apple can and should attend CES, with today's CEO Steve Jobs keynoting the event. Such a thing would be incredibly popular, no doubt, but Apple has shown little interest.
It doesn't need to. Virtually everything Apple has done post-Mac has turned to gold. Its iPod portable media players are the industry standard, their growth slowed only by the advent of the company's iPhone and the dominant iTunes Store that powers them both with music, movies, TV shows, apps, and other content. There's still plenty of room for the iPhone to grow—and Apple has already shipped three versions of that device in as many years—but the Cupertino company is now, if the rumors are correct, turning its attention to yet another market. Whatever that market is.
Meanwhile, in the Las Vegas desert, a host of Apple competitors are nervously setting up camp, despite the fact that many of them already field competitive smart phones, mobile Internet devices, computers, and related services. The reason is simple: Apple is a media darling and even in markets where the company is routinely trounced—like the PC market, where the Mac represents just 4 percent of worldwide sales—it receives an undue amount of attention. So it is with this tablet thing, whatever it is: Despite the fact that Apple's competitors have been selling tablet devices for years, no one cares. Apple is entering the market! Maybe. And if it does—when it does—many presume it will immediately make a difference.
But back to CES, the massive technology backstory that is currently unfolding in Las Vegas. This week, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will deliver a keynote address in which he will no doubt heavily promote the company's consumer successes, like the recently launched Windows 7, the Xbox 360 video game system, and the, um ... well, some other stuff too. I asked Microsoft what it had planned for the show and was told not to expect too much. This from a company that makes MP3 players (Zune), a smart phone OS (Windows Mobile), automotive electronics (Ford Sync), Internet services (Windows Live, Bing), and much more that can and should be of interest to consumers.
It's hard to fight the Apple buzz, especially when the collective media horde is more interested in a single Apple product that may or may not exist (and isn't being announced this week regardless) than it is in any of the products that will debut at CES this week. What else could go wrong?
Oh, right. Google is going to announce its Nexus One smart phone today. Great.
See you in Las Vegas!