2011 CES preview: Taking stock ahead of the show

ceslive complete consumer electronics show news coverageIn a few weeks, more than 120,000 people will descend on Las Vegas for the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show to hawk and gawk at gadgets of every kind.

Over the past few years, the wireless industry has muscled its way into the show, as smartphones have proliferated and wireless connectivity has become embedded in more consumer electronics. The 2011 show is expected to be even more wireless-centric than before, analysts agreed.

In addition to the usual plethora of smartphones, several themes appear likely to dominate the frenetic confab. One is the emergence of a slew of tablets to challenge Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPad, and another is the demonstration of an array of LTE devices, many from Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ). Yet another is likely going to be the wireless industry's attempt to more fully integrate itself into the "connected home," with smart TVs, tablets and smartphones that share content seamlessly among multiple devices.

"This stands to be a show that goes down in history as having hardware for hardware's sake," said CCS Insight analyst John Jackson. "The thing that will distinguish a device is the service proposition around it."

Tablets will show up, but how many?

Paget Alves, president of Sprint Nextel's (NYSE:S) business markets group, said last week that he expects at least 12 different tablet announcements at the show, which could wind up being a conservative estimate.

"It's shaping up to be the coming out party for the tablet category that, I think, we in the industry have all been waiting for," Jackson said.

Roger Entner, an analyst at Nielsen, said he expects to see a range of tablets running on version 3.0 of Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android operating system, dubbed "Honeycomb." Possible candidates to demo new devices include LG, Motorola (NYSE:MOT), Samsung, ZTE and others.

Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) could potentially offer new details about its PlayBook tablet, and Hewlett-Packard could provide some clues on its webOS tablet.

The main question will be how many tablets will be formally unveiled with carrier partnerships or pricing--and how many will be viewed only behind closed doors. Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart said he expects the Playbook, HP's tablet and the Honeycomb Android tablets to show up only in private meetings. "Some of these devices may make appearances during press conferences, too, though probably without details on pricing," he said.

"There are always 11th-hour heroics going on behind the scenes with vendors pressing to get terms and conditions and deadlines met," Jackson said. "That may conspire to dampen the impact of tablet launches at the show."

Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Gartner, said there will be a range of tablets--from iPad knockoffs to more high-end products--and the core theme will be "it's not an iPad, but it's better because...." He added: "The question and the magic is going to be in the software."

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer reportedly will debut a number of new tablets, including from Dell and Samsung, but the presentation is expected to be similar to last year's demonstration. "The best that Microsoft has been able to do is provide this thin veneer on top of the Windows OS," Gartenberg said. "It does feel like they keep trying to push this square peg in the round hole."       

LTE gathers steam

The other dominant motif likely to emerge from the show is LTE, and the devices powered by it. Verizon Communications CEO Ivan Seidenberg is delivering a keynote address Jan. 6, and he will likely tout the carrier's recent 38-market LTE launch.

LG LTE modem VerizonVerizon may well show off new LTE smartphones and tablets that have a little more flash (Jackson called it "the bling factor") than the carrier's two USB modems.

"The LTE smartphone and tablet coming out party will be an important validation of Verizon's strategic bet and its progress to date," Jackson said. "It's incumbent on Verizon to have strong, multi-vendor representation on the handset front."

Expect to see Verizon demonstrate multiple LTE smartphones, most likely running Android, and possibly an LTE tablet.

Interestingly, Verizon also is rumored to be preparing an iPhone announcement for CES. Multiple media reports indicate the carrier will begin selling Apple's device early next year.

Greengart said he wouldn't be surprised if AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) provided more details about its own LTE rollout. AT&T will launch commercial LTE service by mid-2011, and will cover between 70 million and 75 million POPs by the end of next year.

Carriers also will try to demonstrate how LTE can enable faster and higher-quality content consumption. "There are always winners and losers in these big changes," Entner said. "The question is still open: Who will actually make money on it? Will people buy this for the content?"

Multi-screen wireless solutions

Jackson said that the "overarching theme is going to be multi-screen access to content," which he admitted is not exactly an earth-shattering idea. However, he said this could be the year where things move from concept to reality.

Motorola, which is splitting into two companies early next year, has hinted at an offering that would combine its device and set-top box businesses, whereby consumers would be able to view TV content on a range of devices. "I would expect they will come out with some good demonstrations of what the combined, new entity would be after the split," Jackson said.

Gartenberg too said he expects companies such as Apple and Google to highlight products that can move content among devices. 

But Greengart was not as bullish. "There will be several announcements where multiple vendors team up to support new content and distribution schemes that will probably amount to nothing," he said.

2011 CES preview: Taking stock ahead of the show