Opinion: CES 2012 trends revisited - Why the year's hottest tech doesn't always succeed

Opinion: CES 2012 trends revisited - Why the year's hottest tech doesn't always succeed

Ultrabooks, smart TVs, and Android tablets grabbed the spotlight at CES. History suggests they may struggle to win hearts and minds.

As I write this, 2012 International CES--the Las Vegas-based tech mega-showcase formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show--is winding down. So ends four days of demos, meetings, presentations, parties, and bluster.

For journalists and civilians alike, CES offers a great way to monitor the state of technology. An event with piles of product introductions, interesting ideas, and out-of-left-field innovations suggests a healthy tech ecosystem, with plenty for consumers to get jazzed about in the coming year. A lackluster CES foretells a dreary tech landscape.

Fortunately, CES 2012--which put roughly 20,000 new products on display--was chockablock with great new stuff. The big themes were smart HDTVs, Ultrabooks (supermodel-thin laptops built around Intel's latest chips), and--inevitably--Android tablets.

Which means that 2012 will be the year of brainy televisions, MacBook Air lookalikes, and tablets that don't start with a lowercase i, right?

Not so fast, pardner.

CES may be a terrific barometer for tech's health in aggregate, but its guidance on the specifics--on which products or product categories will be hits in the coming 12 months--can be shaky.

Consider the events of the past four years. CES 2009 was all about the netbook. These cheap mini-notebooks--generally running Windows XP--burst onto the scene in 2007 or so. Consumers loved them and opened their wallets in appreciation. In short order,'s Top 10 Netbooks chart became one of the most popular pages on our site.

The crash came hard, however. Because these machines were underpowered, uninspiring, and often indistinguishable from one another, sales soon tailed off. The 2010 introduction of the iPad, together with the ongoing development of highly functional new smartphones, helped make netbooks a far less attractive purchase--even though many are priced at well under $500.

Another OMG product at CES 2009 was an awesome three-button, 3G- and Bluetooth-enabled watch phone from LG. After seeing it, I wanted it. A lot. And I thought others would too. Chalk that one up to middle-age exuberance and a willful decision to disregard history. My having been a Dick Tracy fan as a kid may also have factored into it.

In 2010, you may recall, CES attendees were gaga over e-readers. They were deemed so promising that the show's promoters accorded them their own "Tech Zone" on the Las Vegas Convention Center floor. I remember attending product demos on at least ten of them and then struggling to decide which one I wanted for myself. Spring Design's top-notch Alex Reader? The Plastic Logic Que? The iRiver Story?

The correct answer turned out to be, "none of the above." The e-reader revolution didn't materialize (thanks, again, to tablets and smarter smartphones). Folks still buy e-readers, but not in the volume that most industry observers had anticipated.

CES 2011 shaped up as a coming-out party for 3D everywhere: HDTVs, camcorders, you name it. The industry oversold 3D; consumers as a whole didn't bite. At this point, most observers continue to believe that 3D TVs will eventually become commonplace, as 3D glasses improve and 3D content becomes more readily available. I'll give 3D a grade of Incomplete for now, and revisit it in a few years.

What about this year's CES standouts? TVs are back, and they're more capable and connected than ever, even if 3D isn't their main selling point. (see Patrick Miller's "Why 3D TV Isn't 'Cool' at CES This Year"). Meanwhile, Ultrabooks are out to prove that they're not this year's version of the netbook. And Android tablet makers are hoping to generate some noise in a market dominated by the iPad.

So let me go on record right here as saying that I believe all three will find great success in 2012. And I also have a fantastic watch phone that I'd like to sell you cheap.

For more blogs, stories, photos, and video from the nation's largest consumer electronics show, check out PCWorld's complete coverage of CES 2012.

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