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The Consumer Electronic Show was a little humdrum this year, but then it also was in 2008 and 2007, the last year I attended, when the launch of the Apple iPhone at the rival MacWorld conference during the same week really took the wind out of the CES sails (and sales).

In January 2007, Windows Vista was about to launch. Little did the computing industry realise the pain it was in for). On a trip to Microsoft’s snow-covered Redmond, Seattle campus I caught up with a group of Kiwi Microsoft employees who posed proudly around a sign counting down the days to the Vista launch.

Gadget central at CES this year

Gadget central at CES this year

Window on disaster

While Vista ran like a dream on demo units it came supplied on, the operating system caused no end of problems with people upgrading their computers for two reasons – Microsoft under-estimated the hardware requirements to run Vista properly. Despite what the badge said, many computers sold in the run-up to the Vista launch were anything but Vista-capable.

I had my own nightmare after a few crucial software drivers were incompatible with Vista. That debacle sparked a class action lawsuit. By late 2007 however, the operating system was running very well and Windows 7 was launched late last year with almost universal praise.

Only the launch of the Eee PC, which sparked off the netbook craze and a whole new format for the computer makers to push on consumers, saved the PC industry from total embarrassment in 2007

Its hard to tell what the impact of the Vista disaster was on the computer industry – what it really did was play into the hands of Apple which experienced incredible growth back in 2007 on the back of a revamped line of MacBooks, the launch of the iPhone and the continuing success of the iTunes store.

CES that year was obsessed with wireless HDMI, which allows you to send high definitions from a media player or set top box to your TV set without the requirement for a HDMI cable. It is yet to make it as a mass market product. Flat screen TVs were getting bigger and thinner, with the launch of LED TV screens. The mobile industry was plodding along with Windows-based smartphones and the offerings of Motorola struggling to find its way after the huge success of the Razr.

The Apple effect

How things were to quickly change with the debut of the iPhone. Not only was the hardware a revelation – touch-screen technology and multi-touch on a phone that actually worked, applications like Youtube and Google Maps executed beautifully, smooth integration of music player and phone. About a year later it also kicked off a sustainable model for mobile application development with the arrival of the App Store.

Apple’s innovation really seemed to shake up the entire electronics industry during the course of 2008. RIM came back with touch-screen phones and its own version of the App Store. Palm debuted the Pre. The all-in-one PC, executed by Apple so beautifully in the form of the iMac, was adopted by Dell and HP (the latter in conjunction with New Zealand touchscreen technology developer Nextwindow).

TVs – nowhere to go but down

Meanwhile, the TV industry was struggling to come up with innovations that would compel consumers to upgrade their aging cathode ray clunkers or first generation flat screen models. 2008 was really the year it became obvious plasma screne technology was on the way out and LCD would reign supreme at all sizes. But with most sets now displaying 1080p high definition, delivereing great contrast, brightness and refresh rates, there was little really revolutionary to show off. At tech shows over the last couple of years there has been much talk of OLED screens. I saw some nice prototypes of the technology from Sony in Japan a couple of years ago, but it has been much slower in coming to market than expected.

3D TVs have dominated CES this year, with most of the major manufacturers debuting 3D TV screens and a handful of US broadcasters announcing plans for 3D broadcasts, mainly of sporting events.

But the more exciting development in TV land, is the equipping of TVs to handle internet access – without the need for a separate black box. Several models were on show at CES that have software applications built into them natively and which can receive an internet feed via ethernet or wifi. I’ve been doing this via my PS3 for a couple of years, accessing Youtube on my TV screen and checking Gmail. But it is a relatively clunky experience. If TV makers can integrate popular applications like Twitter and Skype with normal TV viewing and the good old TV remote, the battle for the lounge will really ratecht up a few notches.

Nintendo’s rise from the ashes

I personally gave up gaming in early 2008, quitting my game reviewing gig with the New Zealand Herald as it occurred to me that most of the games I was reviewing were receiving one or two star reviews.  My heart just wasn’t in it any more, except when the occasional gem like Grand Theft Auto III came along.

Launched in November 2006, the PS3 was a state-of-the-art gaming system, powered by the grunty Cell processor and featuring a Blu-ray player and all sorts of multimedia functions. Little would the gaming world realise how badly the PS3 would fair against the smaller, nimbler and much more appealing Nintendo Wii, which also appeared in time for Christmas 2006.

The Wii, with its cutesy little white box and Wii remote did two things for gaming – it broke with the traditional game controller model that had reigned since the early 1980s and it made gaming fun for girls. It continues to blaze the trail ahead of both the PS3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360.

Microsoft’s Project Natal launched at E3 last year and hyped again at CES this year is an attempt to make up some of that lost ground.

Slated for launch

If the iPhone set the tone for innovation over the last couple of years a sleeper hit emerged in the form of the Amazon Kindle. The e-book reader featuring electronic ink and a system of downloading books directly over th emobile network was a risky proposition for Amazon. Ebook readers hadn’t taken off previously. But Amazon had the relationship with publishers and the online sales model. On CHristmas day 2009, Amazon sold more Kindle books than physical books for the first time as new Kindle owners makde their first purchases.

It’s the success of the Kindle that has paved the way for a plethora of gadget makers to introduce their own slate computers and ebook readers at CES this year. The industry is salivating at the prospect of a new format for the market that slots in nicely between laptop and smart  phone. If Apple goes ahead and launches a tablet later this month as rumoured, this burgeoning market sector could become huge. The potential is great – with slate-like devices the media industry could potentially revive the premium model it is craving, bundling subscriptions with mobile access charges to clip the ticket as people access their content via the mobile web.

What to make of it all?

CES this year wasn’t an iconic show. Sure, the Googlephone looks great, but Andriod has been around for some time. Even the 3D TVs have been doing the rounds at trade shows for years. There’s a sense however that the electronics industry is innovating again, perhaps relieved to have survived the recession intact and keen to make up for a few years of patchy product delivery.