At CES 2013, innovation isn't coming from smartphone makers

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LAMike DanoS VEGAS--The annual Consumer Electronics Show here is typically used by the world's gadget makers to show off their latest and greatest hardware innovations. This is the place you'll see giant TVs, car stereos that could seriously damage your hearing and smartphones that will set the tone for the next 12 months.

But at this year's CES, there isn't much new in the world of smartphones.

To be clear, there are a number of new smartphones that have landed. Sony Mobile Communications promises "experiences beyond the ordinary" with its new Xperia Z Android smartphone. Huawei is pushing the limits of smartphone gigantism with its new Ascend Mate, which sports a 6.1-inch screen. And China's TCL hopes to invade the U.S. market with its new line of Alcatel One Touch phones (which are apparently so advanced that one company PR representative needed help unlocking the device's home screen). But these devices offer virtually nothing new to the industry beyond negligible improvements in specifications.

Click here for Fierce's complete coverage of this year's Consumer Electronics Show.

Further, none of the industry's major players is showing off new hardware at this year's show. Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is MIA as usual, Nokia (NASDAQ:AAPL) is pushing its existing Windows Phone devices and Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) is holding its news for its big Jan. 30 unveiling of BlackBerry 10. Indeed, Samsung Electronics--the world's largest smartphone maker--devoted just a few minutes to its smartphones and tablets during his press conference here, despite the fact that its Galaxy Note II phablet and Galaxy S III smartphone played large roles in powering the firm's expected $8.3 billion in quarterly profit. CES attendees, it seems, are more interested in refrigerators that can run Evernote and other apps.

In the void left by the world's smartphone makers, there is a surprisingly active market for smartphone accessories. I'm not talking about the seemingly endless parade of smartphone cases (seriously, the world does not need this many case-makers). I'm talking about new, potentially disruptive business models built around electronic sidekicks for smartphones. For example:

  • iSmart Alarm is hoping to break into the home security market with a dead-simple security offering that starts at around $80. The system includes a number of tiny sensors that customers can install around doors and windows that will alert them (via their smartphone) if the door or window is unexpectedly opened. The company also sells motion sensors and video cameras that provide extra layers of security. It's all built around a smartphone app and is intended to dramatically reduce the cost and complexity of established home security systems.
  • Ascent Solar Technologies is offering a cell phone case that doubles as a solar-powered charger. Introduced at the end of last year, the company's EnerPlex case for iPhones contains a 1000 mAh internal battery and a solar panel that can generate 3 hours of talk time with 15 hours of sunlight.
  • And Extreme Reality is showing off four full-body motion games running on multiple platforms, including Android tablets, that are playable without 3D cameras. The company said all four games can be played using existing 2D cameras on platforms traditional excluded from the motion-gaming marketplace. It's like the Xbox Kinect but for mobile devices.
  • And finally, the Bluetooth-enabled fork, which vibrates if you're eating too fast or too much, thereby helping you moderate your diet and potentially help you lose weight. Crazy, but definitely interesting.

And these are just a few of literally hundreds of similar examples.

I know it's just the first week of 2013. And I know that the upcoming Mobile World Congress and CTIA trade shows could hold notable smartphone innovations. But during this year's CES, the fun stuff is not coming from the big booths. +Mike Dano