CES: Three Big Stories You Might Miss

The upcoming Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas will have several big stories. Three worth noting are the rapid proliferation of tablet computers; new smartphone and "superphone" devices and applications; and the changing landscape in the operating system arena.

Big Story No. 1: Extremely fast, abundant introductions of new tablet computers

It's likely that tablet computers will establish themselves at CES 2011 as the biggest overall product story. Clearly, these computers constitute one of the fastest-growing consumer electronics markets; the hype about them is loud and pervasive. Companies that make desktop and laptop PCs, but not tablet computers, will realize they probably ought to do so—soon. Those that don't will be left out of rapidly growing and potentially huge consumer and enterprise markets.

Also, attendees will focus on whether tablet computers could be a desktop and laptop PC replacement. This may happen gradually over the next few years, because tablet computers tend to be smaller, lighter, and more convenient to use. Tablet computers will also increasingly offer all the functionality and features of traditional PCs.

Similarly, a growing number of smartphone manufacturers are feeling the pressure to introduce tablet computers. Offering one but not the other augurs a growing weakness in their businesses. Tablet computers and smartphones provide some similar functions and are gradually converging in applications, services, and size. Not offering both devices leaves a large hole in a consumer electronics manufacturer's product line that is starting to look like bad news for long-term business prospects.

Accenture estimates that 30 tablet computers—give or take a few—are in the market. Over the next few years it's likely these computers will add smartphone headsets.

Another emerging theme will be the rapid deployment of Google's (GOOG) Android operating system on tablet computers—not just on smartphones. We predict there will be a growing demand among consumers to use smartphone operating systems, in place of desktop PC operating systems, on tablet computers.

Big Story No. 2: New smartphone and "superphone" devices and applications

For the past few years smartphones have gained their share of the CES spotlight, although they have not been the dominant story. But smartphones have now become too important to the future of the consumer electronics industry, and the enterprise arena overall, not to be a main story line at CES 2011. The new smartphones rolled out during the event will look slicker than ever. But more of the buzz and business opportunities will focus on which operating system they run on.

Also worth watching is a new crop of "superphones," which industry circles also refer to as "app phones." What is a superphone vs. a smartphone? Within the industry, the debate is heating up. A standard definition does not exist, but the basic idea is that a superphone can be thought of as the next generation beyond smartphones, delivering a full Web experience compared with a partial one on smartphones.

Superphones will be driven by more powerful semiconductor engines (1.5 GHz and faster vs. 1 GHz and below, typically, for smartphones); tens of thousands of applications vs. hundreds for smartphones; 3G, 4G, and Wifi bandwidth vs. mainly 2G and 3G bandwidth for smartphones. With such capabilities, superphones will qualify as legitimate small mobile computers in your pocket, with calls and texting just two applications among many.

One smartphone application likely to generate buzz at CES 2011 is mobile payments. Look for news about smartphones that enable consumers to use their handsets to pay for goods in such places as restaurants and stores. Within the next two to three years, the smartphone will work in place of a credit card on a much more global basis. Also check during CES2011 for stories about smartphones being used for other monetary applications beyond mobile payments.

Big Story No. 3: The changing landscape for operating systems

Lurking just beneath the more conspicuous new technologies will be another important CES 2011 story. It will center on the notion that fragmentation of operating systems for PCs, mobile handsets, and tablet computers is gaining momentum.

Corporate chief information officers (CIOs) and consumer electronics manufacturers will need to address this fragmentation rapidly and make decisions about which ones to embrace, which ones to integrate, and possibly which ones to stop using. The jury remains out about which operating systems will ultimately win. But the competition is intensifying. Traditional PC operating systems are being challenged in new ways by other legitimate and viable operating systems.

Of course the PC operating system is not going away soon. It is being reevaluated and reimagined, however, traveling on a slower growth trajectory compared with other emerging operating systems. Future consumer electronics operating systems are not likely to be the same as those traditionally used over the past few decades. During the next several years, cloud computing will be a driver of platform/engineering changes, and this may leapfrog traditional PC operating system architectures.

In addition to the growing use of cloud, the arrival and increasing use of mobile dual-core chips will raise concerns about traditional operating systems and how they are used within enterprises. Mobile handset chip makers are starting to churn out chips that are, arguably, as powerful as some low-end PC chips. This will give today's smartphones and a number of tablets a big boost and CIOs more opportunities, along with more choices to make, for their employees' technology resources.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.